Times have been tough in Crewville this season, there's no denying it. After returning almost all the members of last year's MLS Cup runner up, most fans felt this was the year for Crew SC to make the jump and return to the winners' podium. Expectations were to at least continue on a similar path of exciting, attacking, successful soccer, if nothing else. Disappointing results and performances to begin the season, however, left many wondering what was going on.
"It will get better" was the most common refrain, "Berhalter teams start slow."
But the improvement was slow to come, if it came at all. As the season has worn on the team has continued to struggle, and the high profile departure of star striker Kei Kamara was a flashpoint for the sometimes volatile Crew community, particularly on Twitter. A small but vocal segment of fans began (or in some cases continued) to raise questions about the leadership style of head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter, and by extension the policies of investor/operator Anthony Precourt.
It was (and remains) a small but growing sample of the fanbase. As the year has gone on however, the team's continued struggles have fueled discontent. As injuries decimated the roster, fans of all temperaments called for strengthening the side. While there were new players brought in, many were unhappy that they were role players, not a big name, Designated Player-level signing. This fire was stoked by Precourt's social media presence, suggesting the team was in the market for a DP, but were unable to find the right one. This has caused some fans to doubt variously his judgement, his honesty, and even his suitability as an owner. While it's fair to say the mainstream opinion of him remains high, he is certainly no longer beloved by all Crew fans.
Berhalter, too, has come under fire for a number of reasons, as would be expected of any coach in charge of a struggling team. Fans are frustrated with his tendency to implement subtle tweaks within his preferred system, rather than big changes to the formation and style of play, as well as his handling of the Kamara/Federico Higuain situation. These fans also point to the departure of players such as Emmanuel Pogatetz, Hernan Grana, Amro Tarek, and Emil Larsen, all for reasons of "homesickness" as an indication that his man management is not up to snuff. His rigidity, both on field and (seemingly) off, has sown doubts amongst some fans.
The degree of these doubts varies widely, as you would expect in such a large fanbase. While most fans seem to be convinced of his leadership qualities, there has been an increase in vocal discontent, with the hashtag #sackBerhalter gaining a small degree of momentum. It's safe to say that those who believe Berhalter's time in Columbus should already be at an end are amongst the extreme fringe of Crew supporters, but they can't be ignored, and some degree of doubt has begun to creep in to even the most optimistic of Crew fans over Berhalter's long term vision.
It is not just front office personnel facing criticism, however. The players, too, have faced their fair share of heat this season, with even fan favorites such as Steve Clark, Wil Trapp, and Ethan Finlay coming under fire for their performances. While this is not uncommon, as the season has gone on the level of vitriol has increased dramatically, to the point where now Clark and Trapp have at times been the target of tweets once reserved for the likes of Tyson Wahl.
This negativity, however, has not yet seeped too far in to MAPFRE Stadium itself. There is an obvious tension in the stands, but widespread choruses of boo's have yet to break out, and there have been no "pink slip protests" that are something of a tradition amongst Crew supporters in times of great discontent.
That's not to say the negativity has gone unnoticed. Precourt has taken to defending his (and Berhalter's) policies on social media, to somewhat mixed results, even tweeting "Have a beer with me sometime, I will share what goes down." While some have expressed appreciation with his candor and willingness to engage with fans, the more extreme amongst Crew fans have not been as impressed, saying they'd rather see action.
Players have commented on the negativity as well, with Justin Meram speaking out saying that while he understands the fans frustration, he was "a little disappointed in how negative (the fans) can be", and calling it "frustrating." He urged the fans to "hang in." This was in early July, and things have only gotten worse. It was interesting. Meram is often the target of criticism for his perceived lack of passion on the field, so his comments, unsurprisingly, drew a fair bit of derision.
Crewville is a large, diverse, and passionate place. It should be noted that for every upset fan demanding Berhalter's firing there is (at least) one equally committed fan firmly behind him. In such a disappointing season, when the team is obviously underperforming, passions and prejudices are going to run high. No matter where you stand on these debates, Crew fans are united in at least one thing, expecting more from their team.
Where do you stand? How much faith do you have in the Berhalter/Precourt regime? Join the conversation in the comments below, and go to Twitter (@MassiveReport) to vote in our poll.