When Columbus Crew SC began its new era under new ownership and a new coaching staff in 2019, the team did so without three of its key players. When preseason camp opened ahead of the new season, the Black & Gold did not have captain Wil Trapp, goalkeeper Zack Steffen or forward Gyasi Zardes in their ranks due to the United States Men’s National Team’s January camp.
While the departure of top American Major League Soccer players is not uncommon this time of year — both Trapp and Steffen were called in for last year’s January camp — 2019 has a very different feel. After over a year with no full-time head coach, U.S. Soccer made the decision in December to hire former Crew boss Gregg Berhalter.
Over the last 18 months since the U.S.’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Dave Sarachan was operating as interim head coach and called in a number of young players. While the January camp was only made up of MLS stars, there was still a sense of finality in the team with a permanent coaching staff in place.
“I thought Dave and his coaching staff did a good job of teaching us and being there for us in a difficult time in U.S. Soccer history,” Steffen said. “Now that we have a coach and a coaching staff and a brand new year and cycle, it’s good that we had a good January camp and Gregg and them have done a good job so far.”
For the three Crew players called up, this camp was even more unique. Trapp spent the last five seasons working with Berhalter and assistant coaches Josh Wolff and Niko Estevez, who were brought along to the national team. Steffen arrived to the Black & Gold in the summer of 2016 and Zardes had a career season in his first year with the Crew in 2018.
While they all have different levels of experience playing under Berhalter, these players were all were at least a step ahead of their U.S. teammates who were less familiar with the Red, White and Blue’s new head coach.
“It was fun to just have an understanding already of what we were getting into with Gregg,” Trapp said. “But he’s even taken it to another level and you saw in the games it was great performances and great for us all to play.”
That understanding of Berhalter helped these players be leaders in the camp. As fans who watched either of the U.S.’s two wins saw, the three Crew players were comfortable with what Berhalter wanted his team to do and were often seen talking to their head coach or giving instructions to teammates about where to be on the field.
It wasn’t just in the games where Trapp, Steffen and Zardes were helpful either.
“I kind of say it’s like having an edge or a head start,” Zardes said of the training sessions throughout the last month. “Just because if you know an advantage to one of the drills, you would like to know it so you can have a one-step lead. Other than that, the guys are constantly open to asking questions and I’m always helpful.”
As any Black & Gold player under Berhalter will tell you, his practices are run differently than most. The head coach is very detail oriented and leaves no stone unturned. For some players in the camp, this level of attention came as a surprise.
“We got a couple of the, ‘You guys have had this for five years in Columbus?’ kind of thing,” Trapp said of his U.S. teammates. “It’s just one of those, (Gregg)’s so cerebral in how he thinks about the game. His staff is fantastic. And now he’s being able to stretch himself with new players, with new ideas.”
The impression out of Berhalter’s first camp with the national team was one of overall positivity. Not only did the team earn two multi-goal wins — 3-0 against Panama and 2-0 against Costa Rica — but also finally felt like there is a direction to the future of U.S. Soccer that has been missing since Bruce Arena resigned in October of 2017.
For the three Crew national team players, the focus now returns to their club where there is plenty of transition going on as well. Although new head coach Caleb Porter has similar ideas of how to play as Berhalter, there is a bit of a learning curve working with any new staff.
“It was a big boost (having them back) even just for that (LAFC) match, even though they didn’t play,” Porter said this week. “Just having the guys around, they were in the locker room. They’re great leaders and they’re great guys and they’re very good players and they gave everybody a lift and they will continue to do so in training.”
While most of the Black & Gold players are going into their third week of working with Porter and the differences from Berhalter are beginning to become more normal, Trapp, Steffen and Zardes have been with the team for just a handful of days and only taken part in a few training sessions.
“It’s a lot different this year,” Steffen said. “Change is good and it’s been fun to get back with the guys and be a part of this again and be back in Columbus. I’m excited to get to know the coaching staff more and getting to know the style.”
It’s been a good start to the preseason for Columbus. The Crew is undefeated through three games, including a 4-2 win over Los Angeles Football Club the last time out. On Wednesday, the Black & Gold depart for the final leg of preseason, heading to Charleston, South Carolina for the Carolina Challenge Cup tournament that will see them face MLS sides Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati before the home opener against the New York Red Bulls on March 2.
While it would have been ideal to start such an important preseason with the full roster intact, the Crew are always happy to have their players represent their country. Given the new eras starting with both U.S. Soccer and in Columbus, and the experience Trapp, Steffen and Zardes will have with both staffs, these three players are going to be important at the club and international level going forward.