With the first month of the 2016 Major League Soccer season complete and a FIFA international window meaning a quiet period in the league and an off week for Columbus Crew SC, we at Massive Report decided to sit down for a "State of Crew SC" discussion. It's not all puppy dogs and roses in Crew-land, but this is where the discussion took us.
Participating MR writers are: Josh Mlot, Patrick Murphy, Kris Landis, Matt Weisgarber and Andrew Todd-Smith.
JOSH MLOT: How's everyone feeling right now? It's impossible not to be disappointed by how things have gone, but I'm trying to remain measured in my response to it. It is, after all, just three games. I think popular perception — and its fears about this team right now — developed because of how last season ended — playing in MLS Cup. If you actually look at the bigger picture, 2015 was a season full of some highs, but also some rough nights. I'd guess this opening stretch is just a down moment in another season of some inconsistency, but it's also worth remembering that a single season is a random sample size from a larger stretch of games, and maybe the expectations this season are too high for a team that showed, while capable of great things, it is also capable of frustrating things.
MATT WEISGARBER: Sir Alex Ferguson said the time to break up a team is right after winning. The sentiment being (I suppose) that complacency may kick in. Early on that seems to be the case here. Bringing back the same starting 11 has two drawbacks — the first I mentioned above and the second is that other rival teams got better, and Crew SC stood pat. It could be argued that by not improving they got worse, relative to their competition. Does Crew SC have an "on/off" switch? It's not uncommon for great teams in the NBA to take long stretches off while waiting on the playoffs to start. Gregg Berhalter may have adopted this mentality based on quotes about "wins and losses not mattering at this stage." I hope the Crew SC can turn it on, because they are firmly in the "off" position at the moment.
KRIS LANDIS: I'm not sure it's a complacency thing or even an "on/off" thing. I think this team may be doubting itself. Choking on the biggest stage, at home, in such a disheartening fashion can have a real impact on the psyche of a team, especially a goalkeeper who made such prominent errors. Then to have a repeat of the same score line, albeit a decidedly different performance, to start the season, it could really be messing with the mindset of this team. Whatever the reason, something obviously looks off. Is it time to panic? Of course not, but I don't think it's ridiculous to be concerned.
MW: I do think it's time to panic on Clark. Goalkeepers are so volatile and confidence is so important. I think he has lost his and I don't see how he regains it behind a porous defense. And a poor goalkeeper can derail a season.
KL: I was quite vocal with my criticism of Clark (on the podcast, Twitter, etc.) stretching back to last year, before it was cool. I think his strengths are still the same, but his weaknesses have been put under such a microscope that people are focusing in on them. I worry, in fact, that he may be on the verge of becoming a scapegoat (in the eyes of fans, at least) for this team. Yes, he has had several costly errors, but he's also put in bad positions by a defense that plays in a system that has some real inherent problems. Clark has to take his fair portion of the blame, but the level of goalie-blaming I'm seeing in the Crewniverse is a bit surprising to me.
MW: I don't care about what Crewniverse says or history of criticism, due or undue. My evaluation of him is that he is a keeper who has lost his confidence. In his current state he can't change a game. I don't know what it'll take for him to regain it but until he does we will continue to let in goals. If he has a clean sheet against Dallas with a save or two that could right the ship, but it's hard to see that happening. The fact is this team isn't scoring goals, and if they don't score with a keeper/back line that lets goals in, it doesn't bode well in the standings.
ANDREW TODD-SMITH: With regard to the concept of goalie-blaming, he's the easiest target for the fan base to burden with their stress over unpalatable results but I would argue it is an undue burden … Panic isn't necessary, as Berhalter knows, but there is a direct correlation between high expectations and discord among fans when they aren't met. I'm not surprised to encounter people freaking out when the goals Clark has allowed have been indicative of systemic issues on defense rather than him not being up to the task.
PATRICK MURPHY: I think we're forgetting the good side of Steve Clark. Let's remember that he's already made a couple big saves this year — the second half against Philly comes to mind when he came out and stopped a shot point blank. Steve Clark of 2014 was a man who stood on his head for this defense. Last year you saw a more realistic player. Let's not pretend that MLS Cup was the first mistake, it was just the most costly. Clark is a good keeper in this league and a great leader on the back line. As long as he stops waiting so long to get rid of the ball at his feet, I think he will be fine back there for Crew SC.
JM: I think opinion of Steve Clark has been colored by the two extremes — an excellent 2014 debut season that coincided with a new, exciting direction for the club, and a mistake on the biggest stage. The truth lies somewhere in between. [I wrote about this last September here]
I would venture to say that Clark is one of the five or six best shot-stoppers in the league, but he can be indecisive and doesn't always command the box well. My gut tells me that the team can win a trophy with him if it addresses other weaknesses, but that doesn't mean it's impossible to upgrade the position either.
Moving on from Clark...
Let's talk about good versus great in the context of the Eastern Conference. Matt referenced "great teams" and mentioned the rest of the league getting better. My first question is: Was last year's team truly "great?" There were a lot of disappointments, a lot of points dropped on the road, a lot of head-shaking mistakes on defense. I think more casual fans forgot about that a little because there was so much excitement about the team in comparison to the Warzycha era, and any time you play for MLS Cup you're doing something right. I'd argue that the team played a month of great soccer, which is what the playoffs are about and why some people love them and some people hate them. Otherwise, there were enough great moments to conjure a very good season.
Which brings me to my next question: Is it already time to adjust expectations? Were those expectations ever reasonable? Let's talk about that briefly before we bring up the dreaded 'P' word ... panic.
PM: Was last year's team great? No. The 2008 team was great because it was a complete team. That group dominated MLS, winning the regular and postseason Eastern Conference crowns, the Supporter's Shield, and MLS, all in convincing fashion. Last year's team was a good MLS team, like we see every season, and made a good run in the playoffs.
I guess my thoughts are, what were the exceptions this season? I predicted this team to finish around second or third in the East and make a run in the playoffs. While the team talked Supporters' Shield (and would you want them thinking of anything else?) was that ever a realistic preseason goal from the outside?
MW: I think anytime you make the MLS Cup, a Supporters' Shield is a realistic goal during the preseason.
I don't want to be as an early panicker, but I believe it's time to panic until it isn't. The Crew need to show they are the same team that got hot last year. It's starting to look like they caught lightning in a bottle and we are in for a disappointing season. What I love about MLS, though, is the floor for this team is probably sixth, which gives them a realistic shot at a Cup again.
ATS: We talked about things being realistic — this Crew SC team was never going to run the table and rattle off 34 wins just because they had the same corps of players that made it to the Cup. Conversely, as compared with the NFL or the NBA, international call-ups, interleague friendlies and U.S. Open Cup play all complicate the logistics of keeping things rolling and consistent for an MLS squad. I know Berhalter is too committed to the concept of implementing clean, beautiful football to tinker and masquerade, but wouldn't it be cool if he did slot in the 3-5-2 every now and then, just to keep opponents guessing and uncomfortable in the film room? I recognize they're not even running the 4-2-3-1 very well at the moment, but the intangible advantage of purposeful — almost mischievous — scheme alteration is something I think about, even if it will never happen.
JM: OK, so there's some question about precisely what expectations were coming into the season. Maybe I'm overblowing what people thought was going to happen this season. (For posterity's sake, here's what the Massive Report staff said was going to happen.)
So, basically the feeling was/is one of the top two or three teams in the Eastern Conference.
The question is: Is that still what people believe? Has that expectation already changed?
We've also preached a lot of restraint when it comes to panicking about these early struggles. When you look at the schedule ahead (we'll get to that in a minute) it's a bit intimidating. There are a lot of good teams, some on the road, and even the "easier" games are against improved teams, it appears.
So when is the right time to panic? When do we say, "Oh $*!#, these subpar performances may just be the new norm" (for whatever reason you might attribute)?
What is your panic threshold?
PM: In MLS, is there ever really a time to panic? Let's say this team does actually struggle through the first half of the season. We have seen Berhalter's ability to bring in players mid-season that can make an impact. If they reach the summer transfer window and this team isn't winning games or at the least playing better, you know he will do something to change it up. Whether that is change the tactics drastically or look for help from the outside, 3G isn't going to sit back and watch this team crumble after what he's built.
In MLS, you just have to make the playoffs to make a run, and any team can do it. We know this team can make late pushes because they've done it each of the last two seasons. Does history predict future results? Not necessarily, but it does show Crew SC has the mentality to make a late push when needed. While my expectations for this team haven't changed, I think the time to panic is pushed back quite a bit due to the ease of getting into the postseason in this league.
JM: I think that's fair and reasonable. The drop off for last year's team to miss the playoffs would be shocking even by MLS standards. I still believe that there was buzz entering this season that this team was maybe the best in the East, just like last season entering the spring there was buzz that Columbus was a dark horse. By fulfilling that notion, I think it catapulted perception of the team to another level, and I think there's a lot more going on underneath the surface than that.
ATS: To circle back to the point of Berhalter not freaking out over a draw and two losses to open the season, maybe he is feeling things out and doesn't want to force anything and exhaust the team too early. That means it's brutal to watch and even more puzzling to break down, but the guy has already forgotten more about soccer than I could ever stand to learn in future decades of analysis. So is there a theme on his mind of playing things close to the vest while he patiently figures out a master plan while appearing to struggle to the casual observer, or is the team genuinely struggling and needing to scrap everything for a clean slate? I like thinking it's a combination of the two.
I've talked about how the ineffective wing play makes the offense seem out of sorts; they aren't jelling yet and I can't tell whether trying out a gutsier through-ball approach stronger up the center during a game is the only feasible way to strengthen that skill set for the team. In other words, do they know they can fall back to the open play crosses that they did so well last year when the season's crunch time arrives, and thus Gregg has them working through a less familiar offensive plan to broaden their abilities ultimately? It's worth considering, even if it's an optimistic way to view the current struggles to find the back of the net.
JM: Certainly there's a good chance a slow start continues. A look at the schedule ahead, in light of mediocre play to start the year, is certainly daunting. The next handful of games are: at Dallas, at Montreal, hosting NYCFC, hosting Houston, at Seattle and hosting Montreal.
Those first two are a bear, with FC Dallas perhaps the best team in the West and Montreal looking like one of the best in the East. A return to MAPFRE brings teams we would have seen as wins last season but which appear better in 2016. There's no doubt that New York is better, but it still has weaknesses and we don't know if they'll hold up well away from Yankee Stadium. Houston, too, has issues, despite a much more exciting attack. And I know Seattle has had a poor start as well, but that's an organization you expect to figure it out, and going to play on that turf in front of that many fans is a challenge. And then there's Montreal again.
So we're going to learn a lot about this team over the next five weeks or so, and it's quite possible things don't look great when we come out at the end. The good news is that the back end of the season looks much more manageable (at this point), so that late-season run you referenced, Pat, might very well take place again.
What are everyone's thoughts on the upcoming schedule? Concerns? Expectations?
ATS: I was thinking to myself earlier today upon perusing what fixtures Crew SC has on deck that the month of April is going to be a telling one, for better or for worse. As Josh said, Dallas is one of the premier squads in the Western Conference and I don't think a loss in their stadium is anything to be ashamed of, if that's indeed how it plays out in Frisco. But conceding standings points before the players even take the pitch is the wrong approach too, so I think Black & Gold fans should be going into this one with a "hope for the best, expect the worst" mentality that leaves room for being pleasantly surprised.
I also had similar thoughts about NYCFC, vis-à-vis its start to the season: it opened 2016 by beating a middling Chicago on the road and will have enjoyed a four-game home tilt with a bye thrown in there before coming to Columbus in a couple of weeks. The April 16 matchup will likely be a good litmus test for both squads. I can't properly figure Houston out … Montreal is excellent and already a playoff contender in my mind. Seattle, in contrast, is the only team doing worse than Crew SC in the Supporters' Shield standings.
The upshot of all this is that April provides a balanced sample set of what the competition in the league collectively looks like right now, such that the gauging of whether or not Columbus fans should be freaking out is predicated on how Crew SC navigates this five-game slate. It appears today as though a loss to Seattle on April 30 would be deeply concerning because it can't win a match to save its life. If Seattle gets three points at Columbus' expense, particularly if that comes on the heels of a winless stretch, that's a terrible look and we would be at the drawing board puzzling over the sophomore slump.
Victory at CenturyLink over Sounders FC and, realistically, four points combined versus NYCFC and Houston at home through some win/draw combo for a 2-2-1 performance in April and a 2-4-2 record overall sound like reasonable expectations. If those results or better happen, Crew SC will be just fine. Berhalter's ability to focus the team late and incorporate midseason acquisitions into the mix effectively is a testament to the idea that they can and will again build on small amounts of momentum when it counts, and glimmers of greatness this early on should be enough to calm the minds of most. However, if the team does any worse than what I've described during the month of April, it will arguably then be tough to enumerate reasons why fans shouldn't panic.