Expectations are funny things. When it comes to sports, people — fans, pundits, players, coaches — often disagree on a team’s given expectations. Columbus Crew SC are no different.
The Black & Gold came into the season on the back of one of the worst years in recent memory. The team finished with just 36 points on eight wins and 12 ties. Yet coming into this year, hopes remained high.
Fans have been rewarded with a mixed bag of results.
Saturday evening in Atlanta marked the midpoint of the 2017 the season. The first half of the season has been mired by inconsistency, as the team started off well but have trended downward in recent weeks. There have been patches of impressive play and good results, but those have been cancelled out by late collapses, a one-sided loss in a rivalry game, and a loss to a lower division side.
This has led to many fans speaking out, saying that the team is not meeting expectations. Others point out the team has more wins than this time last season, and with so many new players coming in, Columbus could be said to be exceeding preseason hopes. It begs the question: just what should the expectations be for this 2017 Crew SC team?
It's hard to say, really. During head coach Gregg Berhalter’s first two years at the helm the Black & Gold made the playoffs in 2014 and hosted the MLS Cup Final in 2015. Both of those sides played above expectations, which likely inflated the team’s outlook for the following year.
However, 2016 was a grave disappointment, reversion to the mean not beginning to cover it, as the team missed out on the playoffs entirely and finished near the bottom of the league. How do we weigh these two extremes? Should the expectation be somewhere in the middle?
It's understandable that fans want to see their team performing as well as possible. But the fact remains the Crew SC are coming off a down year, with several new pieces, so it’s not realistic to be predicting a Supporter’s Shield.
As is to be expected, Berhalter isn’t focused on end of year goals at this point, instead remaining focused on points.
“We set a mark for where we want to be, from a pure points standpoint,” he said. He declined to provide an exact number, saying: “We’re behind on our away games and ahead on our home games.”
“We’re not exactly where we want to be, but we’re not that far off,” winger Ethan Finlay concurred. “The fans obviously want to see us at the top of the table, and that’s where we want to be, but that’s not necessarily how we measure ourselves. The table is obviously important for making the playoffs, but for us it’s about the process, how we play against these teams.”
This focus on “the process,” on performances over results, is a common thread we hear in and around this year’s Crew SC side. It can be frustrating, especially on the back of a string of disappointing performances.
This year fans have seen the Black & Gold lose several matches that could easily have been ties, or even wins. Finlay empathizes with the fans frustration.
“I understand that it can be difficult for fans, who don’t get it, who don’t see it day to day,” he said. “But in a league like MLS, you can win three or four out of five and rocket up the table. We feel like we’re getting there in the process, but we’re not quite where we want to be. We’re getting there but there’s still lots of work to be done.”
Berhalter, too, understands the fans’ desire to see the team sitting closer to the top of the standings.
“I like that the fans have high expectations,” he admitted. “It means they see quality, they like what we’re doing and they think we can beat every team. You see other groups of fans saying they’re happy with a tough loss on the road, but if our fans want us to win in Atlanta, that’s great because that’s what we want too. We’re just as frustrated as they are when the results don’t go our way.”
The brunt of the frustration tends to manifest on social media, be it Twitter or Facebook, and the players are not immune from the backlash.
“You always want your team to do well,” added Finlay, one of the more active Crew SC players on social media. “We want to win just as bad as (the fans) do. You pay your money, take your time to travel to games, and we know, and we hear you guys and know you’re frustrated. And just understand, we’re frustrated too and we’re determined to turn this thing around.”
While he understands the frustrations of fans, Finlay also takes a realistic outlook at the season.
Expectations are important; they set the bar for where someone believes a team should be. The fact that fans and players are equally frustrated with the first 17 games is a good thing, as it means the potential has not been reached.
“Seventeen games is a lot,” he said. “A lot can happen.”