Still mired in an eight-game stretch of winless results dating back to the beginning of June, Columbus Crew SC has had a long and disappointing summer. The team is preparing for Leg 3 of 2016's edition of the Trillium Cup rivalry this Sunday evening against Toronto FC, a team Columbus has tied twice in the previous matchups. Starting center back Michael Parkhurst and head coach Gregg Berhalter took time after a Friday training session at the team practice facility in Obetz to discuss where Crew SC stands right now and why.
Since the two addressed a variety of topics, a curation of some of the more remarkable things they said into a countdown-style rankings aims to tide the anxious supporters of Black & Gold Nation over until Sunday's kickoff.
10.) Parkhurst, on newest Crew SC acquisitions Nikolai Naess and Zack Steffen: "I think it's been good to have them in the team. You know, Zack's a good goalkeeper and he seems to be confident with his feet, which is very important within our team and the way that we play. A good young guy with positive energy, a positive outlook so it's been great to have him. Niko has only, I think, trained with us once. And he's sorting things out back in Norway and the visa stuff. But, you know, that one session he was here, I thought he did really well. You could see his quality on the ball, his willingness to defend. I think he took one [ball] right off the face his first training session. So you can see he's got no fear, that he likes to put his body out there … it's always the job of the veteran guys to welcome guys into the team, make them feel at home and that's the way we're going to get the most out of new guys joining us.
9.) Berhalter, on whether he reaches a point at which winless results necessitates a change in coaching style: "You know, again, I've been asked that a lot, and I think we want to improve our defending. We think some of the goals we've given up have been too easy. But we're creating chances. We're creating enough chances. And you know that you just have to keep going and, you know, you hope some of them go in and then you can keep enough of them out and then you get wins."
8.) Parkhurst, on what the team has been doing well during the eight-match stretch without three points: "I think the fact that we're still able to gain possession, throughout most of the game, [and] keep possession and turn that into scoring opportunities … Whether we have or haven't scored, the positive thing is we've been creating chances and opportunities for ourselves so, you know, the belief is still there that we can break teams down and score goals."
7.) Berhalter, on the disparity between largely solid execution and the inability to close out a win: "You know, the funny thing about it is, the play, we haven't been overly disturbed with the play, I think, by and large. The results have been disturbing, but the play, you know, it is what it is. I think at times it was pretty good."
6.) Parkhurst, on how the approach and concerns of the team have changed and clarified throughout the training week: "Yeah, I think we're focused. We, we've had a good week of practice. Obviously, we're coming off some disappointing home results and we know the severity of every game going forward. And, you know, we know that it starts with an away game at Toronto. It's a team that we scored one goal in two games against, so they're good defensively. We've also only given up one in two, but the game plan obviously focuses defensively around [Italian striker for TFC and MLS All-Star Sebastian] Giovinco and his mobility. We know Jozy [Altidore] featured last game for the first time in a while** so he could feature again. But, either way, we worked on ourselves this week, as far as regaining confidence and moving the ball around, how we want to do thing offensively, defensively. You know, today we did a little bit of more work focusing in how we specifically want to play Toronto. But the attitude of the group's been good. I think everybody is looking forward to it. You know it's always a big game when you play the teams that have the big-price DPs so it's a good challenge for us."
**Altidore was subbed on in the 72nd minute of play in a 4-1 victory over D.C. United last Saturday after having been sidelined with a hamstring injury since May.
5.) Berhalter, on the learning he has personally experienced during the tough breaks 2016 has seen Crew SC endure: "I think it's the year that, you know, I've learned the most, for sure. And I think that, you know, I look at this as a positive learning experience, you know, what this team has gone through throughout the year and I take a lot of—all—the responsibility for it. I think that, you know, it's been an interesting learning experience and it's been difficult but also something that, in the end, is going to help. I think the biggest thing is when you learn about expectations. You learn about managing expectations and you learn about dealing with complacency. I think these are, you know, important topics to handle as a coach. And you see, you know, there's that period of growth, intense growth, a lot of improvement. And then after about two years, generally you see a dip and that's across many teams. And that's what we're looking at now, and that's what we're trying to, just plan how we can avoid that."
4.) Parkhurst, on the rapport he has observed blossom between winger Cedrick Mabwati and right outside back Harrison Afful, and how it is representative of Crew SC's attacking style: "Both those guys individually cause problems for teams. And then, you know, they're good friends off the field and I think when they get on the field they like to play together, they like to have fun, they like to involve each other. And, you know, you can see that partnership growing a little bit, you know, especially last game [July 23, versus Orlando City SC] I thought they did well combining, understanding each other, really enjoying themselves out there for the time that Cedrick was in the game. And, you know, it's definitely the side of the field that we like to go to a little bit more because [left wing] Justin [Meram] likes to tuck in a bit. So usually, you know, our width comes from the right side and Harrison's been so good going forward all year long that he's going to get up and down no matter who's on that side. But definitely, that partnership is fun to watch from behind because, you know, like I said, they have fun and they look for each other and they understand each other's movements. So definitely, we want to get those guys involved as much as we can as early as possible."
3.) Berhalter, on what schemes to expect from Toronto: "I don't know, to be honest. I think, you know, with Giovinco—he's quality, he's high-level quality and for them, it's [a question of] do they go with their diamond that they played last game [versus D.C. United] or do they go five in the back, which they've been doing against us, you know, the last couple games. So I think, you know, we'll be able to find out pretty quickly as the game starts, and we'll be ready for both of them."
2.) Parkhurst, on how invaluable getting Higuaín's contributions back has been and will continue to be: "He's getting back into it. I don't think he's at 100 percent yet but, you know, a 90 percent Pipa is a lot better than a lot of players. So it's good to have his influence back in this team, you know, whether he plays the whole game or half a game or whatever his role is, it's—when he's on the field, things happen. And it just gives the group confidence. You know, he's so good on the ball and technical on the ball that you can play him in tight spaces and know that it's secure. It gives confidence to the runners off the ball to take that chance and make that run in behind and that he'll find you. So it was definitely a good spark for us last game even though, you know, it didn't result in a goal, I think we felt his influence and you saw it and we expect the same going forward."
1.) Berhalter, on why Crew SC has struggled to break through for a victory when it has a lead, referencing the 2-2 draw with OCSC specifically: "I think we created more chances in the second half, if you think about it. I mean there was a, you know, a number of very, very good goal-scoring opportunities that we didn't capitalize on in the second half. Again, to me, you know, it's the psychological component of you're up 2-0—2-0's a dangerous lead—they get to 2-1, and mentally, guys start processing: 'OK, what can happen here?' And that's what hurt us in that phase. You know, we give up two goals in a very short period of time where, yeah, Orlando had some chances in the game. But that's what happens in games, you know, opponents get some chances. They didn't score [in the first 45 minutes], it's still 2-0, we're in complete control of the game. And THAT'S what we're working through right now, I think, psychologically being confident, that even if the other team scores, that we can withstand that. And, you know, to be honest, we haven't proved that we can, so there is doubt and that's what we have to get through."