With recent additions, Columbus Crew SC may have the deepest midfield in team history.
Wil Trapp - He's the linchpin for Berhalter's possession based system. He's a great reader of the game and one of the better defensive midfielders in MLS, but what really sets him apart is what he's able to do with the ball at his feet.
The Crew SC defense struggled early in 2015, much of that can be attributed to the loss of Trapp due to a concussion that kept him out from March to July. During that stretch, the team lost a player who effortlessly could cover the holes in the team's defense. He's not a physical presence, but he often makes up for it by being a step or two ahead of the opposition and getting in the way. When he's on his game, he breaks up big plays before they happen.
A solid defensive player is key for Crew SC at this spot, but even more impressive is the way Trapp turns defense into offense. Only Andrea Pirlo can claim to be a better at playing diagonals and through balls out off of turnovers. Trapp's ability to see the field and play the right ball is a key component to how Crew SC is able to launch quick counterattacks.
Rodrigo Saravia - The rookie cemented his roster spot early in preseason despite requiring an international spot. At 23, he's already made the full Guatemalan National Team despite not playing a minute in a professional league. Saravia's reputation is as a pure defensive midfielder who is comfortable on the ball. He'll be called upon when Crew SC need defensive cover, but he's likely third choice at the position after Mohammed Saied.
Tony Tchani - He's always had the physical attributes. The flashes of soccer intelligence have gotten more and more frequent. The key may be that Berhalter has been able to rebuild the confidence of a player who had lost much of his after a revolving door of teams and coaches.
Few in MLS are as physical as Tchani. He will win far more of his 50/50 challenges on the ground and in the air. He is the shield for the smaller Trapp. He will take the assignments to match up against bigger players who might be to imposing for Trapp to contain. When faced with the challenge that Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones presents, Tchani is often asked to step up and win those battles.
His physicality masks his technical ability. He picks the right pass and has the skill to execute. The team doesn't need to rely on Trapp or Federico Higuain to be on the ball in transition. The only hole on Tchani's game is that his game reading speed is just a little slow and he has the nagging tendency to "switch off". That will cause the occasional breakout to fall flat.
Mohammed Saied - Few on the team are as smooth as Saeid on the ball. He's able to work in traffic, with the ability to get off a pass or dribble out of danger. That's a valuable skill in the possession based Crew SC offense. Saied is also able to fill in at three spots in the lineup. He excels as a central midfielder or in an attacking position, but he can also fill in at defensive midfield.
Given his size combined with his lack of background at the position, he's not an outstanding defender. He puts in excellent effort, but the end result is lacking. He is a step down when asked to fill in at defensive midfielder. He's been Berhalter's first option off the bench when looking to add fresh legs or a bit of skill in midfield. Expect to see the same in 2016.
Ethan Finlay - No player has flourished under Berhalter as much as Ethan Finlay. From a little used player in 2012 and 2013 to the last man to make the roster in 2014, Finlay's career appeared to be going nowhere. He finally saw action as a sub in March 2014 then broke into the starting lineup in May. He's been nearly unstoppable since.
It's a matter of finding the right system for Finlay. He's given freedom to break forward at pace behind the defense, getting him into space. He's at his most dangerous when he pushes vertically up the field, either timing his runs to beat an offside trap or in space on the right. He's a good finisher when given a little time. His crossing can be uneven.
Finlay can be limited by a physical defense or a back who can match him for speed, but is hard to contain for 90 minutes. Finaly's defensive numbers are also disappointing. He appears invested in defensive work, but is either out of position, not tasked with defensive duties, or just not good at it. His advanced defensive statistics are often well below other wingers in MLS.
Justin Meram - When evaluating Meram, he is often looked at for what he is not, rather than what he is. Meram isn't fast or an exceptional passer. His dribbling ability is average. It can be frustrating to watch, but those flaws are minimized in the Crew SC system. Like many of the team, his strengths are accentuated by the way the team plays.
Those strengths are Meram's awareness, fearlessness, defensive skill, and that shot. He will play exactly like Berhalter wants. He will tuck inside, linking up with Higuain and Kamara while leaving space for Waylon Francis to overlap. He's also the best defender of the front attacking four. His advanced defensive numbers are significantly ahead of Kei Kamara, Finlay, or Higuain. He's often tasked with carrying the defense.
His fearlessness can't be overlooked. He will dribble into traffic or try a low percentage pass. They fail, but he will still pull off something impressive. It's also what drives him to fire off his "meathook" shot. It's a valuable asset when the rest of the team is a little more set in style, as long as it's kept in balance.
Federico Higuain - Higuain is a player in evolution. Crew SC's original million dollar man is no longer the sole fulcrum of the offense, but he's adapted to a more all around player. Higuain will often play deeper, forming a three man partnership with Trapp and Tchani rather than be pushing forward. He will even pick the ball up from deep to help with possession. He even played central midfield, doing defensive work with Trapp when Crew SC pushed numbers forward.
Higuain is also one of the best with the ball at his feet. He's excellent in traffic, with a defense closing in. He reads the right pass and gets it away. He is still the best dead ball specialist on the team. His corners are serviceable to excellent while his free kicks will test goalkeepers. He has struggled with penalty kicks, but has been the team's primary penalty taker since his arrival.
Higuain is one of the few players on the team who plays in a system that isn't tailored to his strengths. He's adapted. He's best in tight spaces, though he can lead a break. He can play through balls and seeing eye passes, but often will be looking to get the ball wide to the wingers. That may be Higuain's greatest strength, his versitility.
Hector Jimenez - Jimenez is at home on the right wing, but he's popped up in six different spots in the lineup in his first two years in Columbus. He was the starting right winger in 2014, but also played left wing. He then was asked to play right back. He then was the attacking midfielder in Crew SC's playoff loss to New England late in the season. He's also played spot duty in central midfield and even seen minutes at left back. This year, Jimenez has made a strong case to start at left wing. He's seen first team action throughout preseason.
Jimenez doesn't have the blazing speed of Finlay or the physical presence of Tchani, but he's a smart player who can adapt to the situation. Like many of Berhalter's players, he's able to make the right pass and isn't afraid of playing in defensive traffic. He's also an improved defender since he has time on the back line. That's valuable in situations where Crew SC needs more defensive mettle.
Cedrick Mabwati - He's another player who can play direct. His speed broke open several games in his brief tenure last season. His crosses in the Montreal playoff game were instrumental in helping Crew SC come from behind. He can be more of a throwback to the out and out winger of years past.
Mabwati's skillset makes him a mirror of Finlay on the opposite side of the field and may be limiting his usefulness. Crew SC need balance on the wings or they risk becoming too stretched wide. Mabwati will need continue to evolve into someone who can make a difference in tight space and link up with the midfield as he pushes for more playing time. Otherwise he may be relegated to the super sub role.
Emil Larsen - It's unclear where Larsen will play. He's played on the left, but can play on the right. His position may be playing attacking midfielder. Like many of Berhalter's signings, he's able to play anywhere across the front three midfield positions. He's best in motion, when defenders are off balance and reacting. He's good on the ball and likes to dribble. He has the confidence to take on defenders, but shows vision in attack. Much like Meram, he has the confidence to shoot from distance.
The question may be one of attitude and fitness. Both are intertwined for Larsen. He had a transfer to Brondby fall through in the summer of 2014 due to lingering questions about his knee. He had to walk back comments about his once and current club Odense after denigrating them in the media. He played a further season and a half with Odenese without issue.
Berhalter has built a deep midfield as he moves into his third season, but it appears that many of the parts are the same as when he first arrived. He has balance with the technical ability of Trapp paired with the physicality of Tchani. Finlay and Mabwati will stretch the defense while Meram and Larsen can look to dribble. Higuain is adaptable and will step in where needed. Saied and Jimenez are utility players will skills to start. Berhalter talked in preseason about having different looks. He now has the ability to tailor his midfield to suit the situation.