Saturday wasn’t pretty, but it’s not all about pretty for Columbus Crew SC any more.
The 2-2 draw with Real Salt Lake on the road wasn’t what fans have become accustomed to in a Gregg Berhalter-coached team. Yes, it was a much-needed result on the road, but the performance looked little like how the Black & Gold normally play.
Crew SC, one of Major League Soccer’s most possession-based clubs, was out-possessed by 34 percent. The Black & Gold conceded 20 shots, seven on target, while firing only 13, two on goal. The normally pass-happy Columbus side had just 329 completed attempts compared to Salt Lake’s 663.
“I think that game was extraordinary in terms of the circumstances,” Berhalter said on Monday.
The circumstances he speaks of are several. First, Crew SC was playing the team’s third game in eight days, two of which required travel. The Black & Gold were without the services of center-backs Jonathan Mensah and Lalas Abubakar, both serving red card suspensions.
To add to the tired legs, the game was played at altitude, sucking the energy that remained from the players.
These aren’t excuses, but reasons why the contest likely looked so different than how Columbus typically wants to play.
“You look at what’s possible. I think that’s what you do,” Berhalter explained. “You come up with a game plan that you can be successful with and that’s what we did... We knew we had two guys suspended, we knew we had some guys with heavy legs, so we had to balance it all out.
“When I think about the work Ethan Finlay did, my gosh. Amazing. Connor [Maloney], Waylon [Francis], just the output. Then Artur and Wil [Trapp], the amount of ground they have to cover. Ola [Kamara], Justin [Meram], you name it.”
But it wasn’t just Saturday that saw a change in Crew SC’s approach.
Since the move to the three-man backline, the Black & Gold have lost that style of play that has become synonymous with Berhalter’s tenure at the club.
Over that stretch of four consecutive matches in the new 3-4-2-1 formation, Columbus has thrice lost the possession battle — at Minnesota United, at the Philadelphia Union and at RSL. Against the Union at home, Crew SC held the edge at the final whistle by a slight 0.2 percent.
But the results are coming. In those four games, Columbus is 2-1-1 with two shutouts. Tradeoff?
So does the three in the back change things stylistically for the Black & Gold? Has the team accepted that it can concede possession for better results, especially defensively, when playing at full strength?
According to Berhalter, both getting these results and playing that possession-based style are possible.
“I think in general, with three in the back, we should be able to keep the ball,” he said.
“I think it’s comfort on the ball. So if we have guys that are on the field that are comfortable on the ball, we can disorganize teams just as much. I think when we don’t open up and we aren’t moving, then it becomes difficult.”
While the team hasn’t verbally committed to the three-man backline full time, it appears that formation is currently preferred. The players have admitted that it’s a transition, especially offensively, and they are still learning the intricacies of a new setup after playing so long in the old look.
As the comfort continues to develop and the team gets its full choice of players back, expect things to become more fluid, more free flowing and those possession numbers to once again increase.
Until then, Crew SC may have to gut out a few more performance in order to stay above the playoff line — or better yet, begin to climb up the Eastern Conference -- but the team has shown capable of doing that.
“It was just a question of seeing what was possible and then asking for a big effort from some guys,” Berhalter reiterated. “And we got it.”