The Columbus Crew head into the 2022-23 offseason with a lot of decisions to make. On top of the normal questions facing a team that didn’t make the MLS Cup playoffs, largely around player retention and acquisition, the Crew has the important task of hiring a new head coach.
On Monday, the day after the 2022 season came to an unexpectedly quick conclusion, the Black & Gold parted ways with head coach Caleb Porter. The club’s press release stated that “a search for the next head coach of the Crew has officially begun.”
Where Columbus turns from here will set the tone for the club going forward and determine its future. The decision of who will be the Crew’s next head coach is an important one that will not be taken lightly. According to president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who met with the media via Zoom on Tuesday morning, the search for Porter’s successor will be an extensive one.
“In terms of the criteria of our coaching search, it’s going to be a wide search,” Bezbatchenko said. “We want to follow a clear process, establish criteria for the position and be disciplined in that criteria and the evaluation. We want to make sure that we look at all layers domestically, not just in MLS, present and past coaches, but possibly another layer of the U.S. Soccer structure and Canadian soccer, for that matter. We’ll look internationally.”
Bezbatchenko made it clear that the Black & Gold will leave no stone unturned in the process. He wants to speak with those currently in the building, including Laurent Courtois who led Crew 2 to an MLS NEXT Pro championship over the weekend, as well as external candidates. Bezbatchenko made reference to coaches still taking part in the MLS Cup playoffs, which makes sense as those are the coaches who have had recent success.
“Certainly teams that have success in our league is one of the critical factors that will be used when determining who are these candidates,” Bezbatchenko explained. “And so some of the teams obviously are having great success. And so we’d be interested in talking if they were available.”
Columbus also will follow MLS protocols, including the league’s recently-updated Diversity Hiring Policy, which requires teams to speak to two or more non-white candidates, one of whom must be Black or African American, in their finalist pool.
Working in the Crew’s favor is that this is a job in which many coaches will be interested. While the Black & Gold missed out on postseason play by two points on the final day of the regular season, there is a belief among the front office in the talent of much of the roster. Over the coming weeks, players will be interviewed and evaluated as Columbus makes personnel decisions, but the thinking of the front office is, with the right person in charge, this team remains an MLS Cup contender after taking home the trophy in 2020 under Porter.
Crew ownership has also proven a willingness to spend money on important players, such as attackers Lucas Zelarayan and Cucho Hernandez. And while Bezbatchenko made it clear during his nearly 26 minutes meeting with the media that the Black & Gold will regularly be outside the top 10 in MLS in spending, there is a chance to add talent and succeed as a coach in Columbus.
“We’ve already received a number of CVs and interest in the past 24 hours,” Bezbatchenko said.
In addition to on-field success, which is certainly important, the next coach of the Crew must fit within the organization’s overall beliefs.
“First and foremost, it starts with the person,” Bezbatchenko explained. “Making sure that they have the shared values of our club. We’re an ambitious club. We want to consistently contend for championships. We want to take care of our supporters. We want to give back to the community. We want to make sure that that person has values that are aligned with our leadership team and our ownership.
“The second is this idea that they are a part of a club and our club model in that there’s a first team and Crew 2 now and our academy and the Crew use in the community and understanding their role in the broader sense of the club is very important. I think it’s becoming extremely competitive in Major League Soccer. In order for the Columbus Crew to remain competitive, you need to find competitive advantages, and in Columbus, that’s going to require us to be aligned from top to bottom. And not just in values but in the style of play and principles and the way we conduct ourselves. Analytics, performance. Are we focused? Are we looking for ways to be different? Those are all things that will be critical for the job search.”
Of course, tactics will be important too. Over the last nine seasons, under both Porter and former head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter, the Black & Gold have been a possession team that looks to control games with the ball. But Columbus showed at times this year that the group as currently constructed can play in different ways, meaning there could be a shift in approach by the next manager.
“The last piece is obviously the coach in terms of their tactics and the way they approach the game, their organization, how they see the game,” Bezbatchenko continued. “It needs to align with the way we see it at the club. How they lead. What type of players they like in the locker room. So these are all the buckets that we’ll be exploring to determine the priorities for each candidate.”
According to Bezbatchenko, the Crew will begin the 2023 preseason on Jan. 6. The club obviously would want its new head coach in place prior to that in order to not only take charge but help make decisions on the roster heading into the new year.
While Porter was officially hired to replace Berhalter on Jan. 4, 2019, that came under different circumstances after new ownership took over the team to begin the calendar year. Expect the Black & Gold to move quicker with this hire, although they will not rush the process.
“Ideally by December, although whether or not that’s December 1 or mid-December, we won’t know,” Bezbatchenko said. “Some of it will be determined by when we can speak to certain candidates. Whether or not we are looking to talk to coaches who are still playing. That all factors in. So I would say by December we’re hoping to have it finalized. But as we all know, these things are unpredictable.”