There are a couple of weird things happening with the Columbus Crew’s striker position. The first is that Columbus has two starting-level forwards capable of scoring goals. The second, and probably the weirdest of the two, is how it’s being handled by head coach Caleb Porter. Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry are splitting time as the Crew’s striker and they’re both completely fine with it.
Now, the reason that feels so weird is because of the drama that often occurs in the sports world. In most sports, the stories are often about players not getting enough attention or opportunity.
The Crew hasn’t been immune to that either. Look back at recent Black & Gold history and there’s a prime example in 2016. A pair of stars on the team argues, on the field over who takes a penalty. That was a situation that went deeper than that moment. An internal feud boiled over onto the field of play, ultimately causing Columbus points in the process.
Strikers receive attention because they do the thing that supporters love the most: they score goals. It’s easy to imagine that the best strikers want situations to score, and some might even get annoyed when they aren’t receiving enough chances to do just that. For Berry and Zardes, they aren’t getting in the way of one another’s success.
“I think we both want the best for each other,” said Berry after scoring the first Crew goal on Saturday in a 4-0 win against the Vancouver Whitecaps. “From the outside, it would seem like a competition, but I don’t think either of us really sees it that way. I think we both compete with ourselves and I think that’s what makes us so similar in terms of personality.”
Berry had a great opening day start for the Crew. Early in the first start in his third professional season, Berry received a pass from midfielder Lucas Zelarayán. The forward brought the ball down with his chest, turned to his left and sent in a shot that deflected off a Whitecaps defender for the goal.
It was a start that most didn’t expect to happen a year ago. Berry was a 2020 MLS SuperDraft pick who went on two loan spells out west and returned to Columbus in the middle of 2021 due to injuries to other players. After scoring eight goals last season, Berry went from what looked like another SuperDraft pick turned lower division player to now getting the selection over Zardes, a forward on the United States National Team, to begin the year.
Head coach Caleb Porter called Berry a player that was too nice last season, and has since said up front that who starts between Zardes and Berry is going to be a week-to-week decision. There are ideas on why Zardes might have not started. After all, he’s been with the United States for World Cup Qualifying matches for a chunk of the preseason while Berry was with the Black & Gold. That might be part of the equation, but it’s simpler than that.
“I felt like I owed him the start because of the end of last year,” said Porter. “This kid’s only going to get better. Gyasi will still start some games because he’s a very good player, but I’d be silly to not play this kid, Miguel Berry, a lot of minutes this year.”
Saturday was only one game, in the sense that it doesn’t spell the end for Zardes. Hardly. Crew fans will still see Zardes start matches throughout this season, but for the first one Berry earned it after proving himself in 2021. Part of the reason for that rise, and the temporary overtaking Zardes, is Zardes himself.
“We help each other, whether it’s in training or talking to each other, or something we know about other defenders,” said Berry about the duo’s work. “He was talking to me about some of the defenders we’d be playing against today and giving me advice. I think we have a great relationship and whoever plays we’re always cheering for each other.”
That doesn’t sound like a controversy. It sounds like two professionals, and frankly two good people, who are in a situation where self-improvement doesn’t mean beating a teammate out for a spot. It sounds like two players that push each other and in turn push their team.
Berry’s growth under Zardes’ partnership is clear. The goals are there, but that’s not the biggest improvement. It’s the defensive work. Berry heralds Zardes as the best defensive forward in the league and now Porter gives similar praise to Berry.
The head coach pointed out a list of positives for Berry, and it wasn’t all offense. How he’s improved in hold-up play and how he battles for balls in the air were the first things Porter applauded in Berry’s game, things that have also been said about Zardes. Additionally, Berry has strong connections with teammates on the offensive end of the field and combines his size with speed to go on the break.
Having two starting-caliber strikers is a coach’s dream. For Porter, the decisions up top will be fluid.
“Sometimes it’s going to be tactical,” said Porter. “Sometimes it’s going to be their current form. But if we start one, the other one is coming in and fortunately, we have two guys that all they care about is the team and they care about the club.”
Could this situation change and someone want more? Definitely. Could the Crew see that they have two starters and try to make a move to strengthen the team in other areas? Sure. The best bet is that both stay with the Black & Gold and continue to work together.
“I’m incredibly thankful to have him as a teammate, I’ll tell you that,” said Berry about Zardes. “Incredible human being.
This controversy seems kind of boring in comparison.