There’s no hiding it any more, Columbus Crew SC is not the team anyone expected.
With just three wins through 21 games in 2016, the Black & Gold are not living up to the standard set a season ago when the club came within one game of its second MLS Cup.
After another disappointing setback last Sunday, a 3-0 loss to Toronto FC, Columbus has an off weekend with no game on Saturday. Head coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff elected to train this week as normal, taking only Monday off for recovery.
Before the players get Saturday and Sunday to themselves, there is work to be done.
"I think that the mentality every time that we’re out here is focused," club captain Michael Parkhurst said. "It’s wanting to win. It’s wanting to compete in everything that we do in every training session and just hopefully that will filter over to the weekend. I still think the bye week provides an opportunity."
As for what will be the focus this week with no opponent to prepare for on the weekend, Berhalter said the staff has targeted areas where the team as whole need to get better.
"I think a big example, against Toronto I think we didn’t do enough to threaten their back line," he said on Tuesday. "They were playing very compact, 10 guys in their own half and we should have been much more dangerous. You see today’s session, it’s about penetrating runs behind the back line."
This week will also give the club a chance to get the new players integrated into the group.
Defender Nicolai Naess and goalkeeper Zack Steffen joined Crew SC two weeks ago and while Steffen had the chance to train with the his new teammates, Naess is only just taking part following the arrival of his work paperwork.
"It’s always ideal to get to know each other a little bit," Parkhurst said of the potential center back pairing with Naess. "Whoever’s playing center-back between the three of us, we need to sort that out and this bye week provides a perfect opportunity for that. We’ve got two full weeks of training to prepare for New York and that will definitely be one of the focal points."
Forward Adam Jahn, who was acquired last Saturday, was quickly thrown into the game day roster and made his Black & Gold debut against Toronto after just one session. He can use this week to build chemistry with the other attackers.
Rumors began circling late last night surrounding Columbus and Costa Rican striker Jonathan McDonald. While it appears there was some validity to the speculation, no deal is likely.
Reported earlier a source told Dispatch that a #CrewSC deal for McDonald was "not likely." Still 7 hours left before deadline.— Tom Reed (@treed1919) August 3, 2016
McDonald’s current club, Costa Rican side Liga Deportiva Alajuelense, apparently rejected an offer from Crew SC. Club director Marco Vasquez called the Black & Gold’s offer "late arriving" and stated it needed to "be a very juicy proposal."
So how are the new players fitting in already?
Steffen has looked good in the brief training sessions open to the media. During a shooting drill where balls were played from either side of the goal to an on-rushing attacker, Steffen made a diving save to his right and recovered to deny a second shot that was back towards the middle of the goal.
This received some oohs and aahs from his teammates and Berhalter said he’s done well and "looks like a good goalkeeper."
As for his role with the team, the coach is not ready to anoint him the position quite yet.
"With goalkeepers it’s about routine," Berhalter said. "It’s about getting experience and we’ll see how we manage through these next couple months."
Naess is a different story. Although this is his first week training with the club, it sounds like Berhalter expects him to be ready to go when Crew SC next take the field against New York City FC on April 13.
"We could expect to see him," the head coach said. "I think defensively we need to get better, we need improve and if he can improve us, he’ll play."
On Jahn’s performance on Sunday, Berhalter said he thought he did well in limited time. Said even after one day of practice, he felt comfortable using the tall forward.
On the injury front, Berhalter provided some updates.
Gaston Sauro, who continues his recovery from a torn PCL, remains on the same schedule. The center-back has been building up his workload in training, doing some intense ball work exercises this week. A few weeks back, Berhalter put his likely return at early September.
A new addition to the injury list is goalkeeper Brad Stuver. Steve Clark’s backup was surprisingly left off the substitute’s bench on Sunday — making way for Steffen — and it turns out that was due to meniscus operation he underwent. Berhalter said it was minor and only expects Stuver to miss two weeks.
Where is Cristian Martinez?
The exciting Panamanian winger burst onto the scene for the Black & Gold just before the international break by scoring a goal in his second game against the Philadelphia Union.
Since that point, Crew SC fans have not seen Martinez, although he was gone for a period with his youth national team, and people are wondering why.
According to Berhalter, it’s not that he’s not doing well. It’s more that he’s not doing as well as some other players.
"Hopefully we’ll get a chance to use him," the head coach said. "It’s just we have some depth at that position. If he’s performing in training to a high enough level, he’ll be involved."