Curious why Nicolai Naess wasn’t in the starting 18 last night? You weren’t alone.
Many speculated on the whereabouts of the central defender during Columbus Crew SC’s mid-week win over the Seattle Sounders. Some thought he was omitted from the lineup due to injury and others suspected head coach Gregg Berhalter chose to rest him for the upcoming road trip to face the Colorado Rapids this weekend.
Surprisingly, neither of those were the correct answer.
“I’ve spoken to you guys before about the 18 and how difficult it is to choose 18 guys for a game day roster,” Berhalter told the gathered media. “And if guys are left off of the 18, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their standing has changed significantly within the team.”
Berhalter has discussed this before. With the deepest team he’s had since being named Crew SC’s head coach and sporting director in 2014, the staff has to make decisions each week as to who will see the field.
This will not only have to do with form, but also with the tactical approach to each match.
“Nico is a perfect example of that,” Berhalter continued. “We’re not hiding the fact that we weren’t happy with the performance on Friday, we weren’t happy with his performance also, but him not being in the 18 was more of a reflection of what we are trying to do on this game rather than where he stands with the team.”
After the 5-0 shellacking that Crew SC endured Friday night at the hands of Toronto FC, Berhalter wasn’t thrilled with the play of his center back. He also didn’t feel that Naess provided enough cover for what the team wanted to accomplish against Seattle on Wednesday night.
And this is not the first time this has been the case.
“I remember, I think it was (Alex) Crognale in the beginning of the year, he wasn’t on the bench for Houston but then he started the next game and Lalas (Abubakar), we were switching up there,” Berhalter explained. “That was just based on we thought Houston had quicker guy, they didn’t have big guys. We thought Lalas was a better matchup. And that’s going to happen.”
Naess wasn’t the only one left out of the starting lineup on Wednesday. Berhalter made five total changes from his lineup that he took to Toronto. Yes, this had to do with the poor performance, but it’s something the head coach has been willing to do more and more this season due to his confidence in the depth.
“One thing this group has done well is the next is man stepping up,” Berhalter said. “We’ve done that a number of times this season where we’ve played different lineups and different personnel and I think the guys have done a good job of stepping up when their number is called.”
This added depth is something the team has not had much of in the three previous years. After the struggles last season, with injuries to key players, as well as other years, this became a focus in the offseason and the staff has used the early portion of the season to test that depth.
“We’re doing that purposely because we believe we have a deeper team and we have more guys that can step up and play roles,” Berhalter said. “The attacking midfield positions, wide attacking midfield positions, Kekuta (Manneh), Justin (Meram), Ethan (Finlay), Nico Hansen, Crisitan Martinez, Dilly Duka. It’s an expansive group.”
For Berhalter to admit that he is experimenting and making some changes is a big step. People are quick to forget that he isn’t as seasoned of a coach as he appears. Columbus is only his second stop since his career began. There have been mistakes and tough days at the office, but he has shown that he can navigate the team through those rough patches and onto better things.
Look at the difference from the playoffs in 2014 and 2015. The club went from getting knocked out in the first round, to being within a few inches of capturing the club’s second championship.
In Berhalter’s eyes, the experimenting early in 2017 has give the staff confidence in the depth and allowed them to figure out who is best in what situations. With that said, Berhalter admitted he isn’t content with how the club is fairing and wants more of his men.
“I think that 24 goals against is too many,” he said. “When I look at that in the table, I think it stands out as not being great, disappointing a little bit. Especially because we do have an improve backline.”
“But then overall, globally, we are somewhat happy. I think there’s three games that we’d like to have different results. That being the NYCFC game at home, Toronto at home, New England game on the road. Those are three games that we regret on the team. The other games, I think we can live with the results based on the performance.”