Columbus Crew SC has not begun its new era in nearly the fashion the club hoped. After making the MLS Cup playoffs in four of the last five seasons under previous ownership and sporting director and head coach Gregg Berhalter, the Crew sit on the outside looking in at the postseason with just 17 points through 17 matches.
Fans are frustrated, and justifiably so. While the Black & Gold did not win a championship during Berhalter’s time in Columbus, the Crew did reach an MLS Cup Final and twice played in the Eastern Conference Final. For the majority of his tenure, Berhalter was able to play exciting, attacking soccer that, if nothing else, created goals.
This culture was expected to continue under new president Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter, who were brought in under the new ownership group of Dee and Jimmy Haslam and Pete Edwards. Yet a 5-10-2 record at the midpoint of the season and one win in the last 11 games, with only 16 goals scored, has the supporters far from pleased.
Those in charge understand the fans’ reaction.
“I love our fans and I want them to be restless because I have high expectations for this club and this locker room as well. And so does Caleb,” Bezbatchenko told Massive Report. “So anytime we’re not getting results, it’s frustrating.”
There is a small, but noticeable, segment of the fanbase already calling for change after six months. Some supporters are questioning whether Porter is the right man for the job, despite his credentials. And the number of anti-Porter people grows with each passing loss.
Bezbatchenko and the club, however, stand behind the head coach.
“Yes,” the president said when asked if support remains for Porter within the organization. “I don’t even need to respond anymore.”
The club underwent a massive transition this offseason. Not only did the team lose Berhalter to the U.S. National Team but the new ownership group did not take over until January. This made it hard, both on and off the field, to have the team as ready as it should be for the 2019 season. The only players acquired during the offseason were winger Robinho, goalkeeper Joe Bendick — both under the prior regime — and rookies Aboubacar Keita and JJ Williams. None of these players have made a significant impact on the season.
A rash of injuries to key players has also played a part.
But with the summer transfer window opening in July, the Crew can start building the team in its new image. “It’s going to be a fun window,” Bezbatchenko said.
Part of this summer window, which will be a piece of an ongoing puzzle, will be helping to determine the way this team plays going forward. Will the Black & Gold continue to play through a creative attacking midfielder such as Federico Higuain. Will Columbus focus on the wings for chance creation or look more build up through central midfielders?
Some of those decisions will be made based on what players are available this summer. It’s hard to do what you want if you don’t have the players to do it.
“The big thing that we’re looking for is skillful players so that we can play a game that’s attractive and exciting for fans,” Bezbatchenko said.
“We also need players that have a physical presence and that can compete. Because this league is physical and it can be fast and there are different times during the year, especially when you’re on the road, where maybe you need to be a little bit less on the ball and more practical, pragmatic in your approach. So we need players to do that.
“And then lastly, we need players that are mentally strong, that are committed, that have a killer instinct. When you’re up a goal, that put games away. When you’re down a goal, are going to scrap like hell to put the ball across the end line. So that is an absolute must for us. We want to find winners, gamers, people who are going to fight for this crest and never stop.”
Those involved with the Crew aren’t attempting to make excuses. Bezbatchenko, Porter, the players, everyone within the organization is disappointed with how the season has gone thus far. No one saw these struggles coming.
The only way to solve what’s plagued the team this year is to look for solutions. Some of that will happen in the coming month with transfers. But it has to be done in the right way.
“We have to look at the reasons why and don’t make emotional decisions in any way,” Bezbatchenko said, “and make sure people understand that this is about building a championship contender and it’s not going to happen in a day or even a couple of months, given what this club went through the last two years.”