For the last seven years, when the Columbus Crew took the field, fans knew what the team was going to look like. Both head coach Gregg Berhalter and his replacement Caleb Porter preferred a 4-2-3-1 look that had variations depending on the opponent but was, especially to the untrained eye, more or less the same from game to game.
Based on what the Crew is doing so far this preseason, that will not be the case in 2022. Porter would like his team to have more flexibility in the way they line up this season, meaning the formation could change much more frequently than it has in the recent past.
“We want to be flexible with formation,” Porter said last month while the Black & Gold were in the first phase of preseason in Ft. Lauderdale. “We know we can play 4-2-3-1. We are tinkering with a couple different systems... So our philosophy’s not deviating in what we’re working on but the formation and how we align, putting the numbers out on the field, can and will deviate depending on what we want to do in the game versus another team’s system or who we have available or who we want to get on the field.”
As Porter said, Columbus won’t change what has been its bread and butter over the last few seasons. The style of play – looking to possess the ball more often than not, create attacking chances through the width and the team’s playmakers – which helped the Crew win MLS Cup just over a year ago will remain. The Black & Gold will just do it out of different looks.
“Not showing my cards, but there will be some different shapes that we use where perhaps we’ll float more of a pocket guy on one side, whether it’s (Alexandru) Matan or Lucas (Zelarayan) even, be more maybe honest through the middle,” Porter explained. “Whether that’s a 4-3-3, whether that’s a 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2, those are some formations that we’re going to kind of look at. And I think you will see some changes game to game, even in-game.”
According to Porter, part of the reason for trying different formations this preseason has to do with keeping a group that’s, more or less, been together for a while, stimulated. He said he felt that working in early training sessions.
Another reason, though, is to avoid the disappointment of 2021, where the defending MLS Cup champions came in as favorites to repeat and failed to make the playoffs. A rash of injuries in the middle of the year, and some that lasted longer, was a major factor in Columbus losing six straight games between late July and late August. If not for that stretch, the Crew likely isn’t sitting one point outside the playoffs at the end of the year.
While the Black & Gold did experiment with playing three central defenders toward the end of the season, the team almost exclusively operated out of the 4-2-3-1 formation in 2021, even when the personnel didn’t fit, because that’s what they trained.
This season, Porter doesn’t want to be married to just one formation and wants to be able to make adjustments when needed.
“When we had our top group healthy last year, you saw we could play 4-2-3-1 and were able to execute,” the head coach said. “You saw when we weren’t healthy that we couldn’t execute out of a 4-2-3-1 like we wanted to. And I think that’s because in a 4-2-3-1, the ability to play that formation is depending on having certain guys, a certain profile. Whereas, if we play a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2, we really feel like with the group that we have and the depth that we have, that we really shouldn’t again be at the mercy of guys out.”
Offseason changes have made that easier as well. In addition to Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams, the Crew added Jalil Anibaba and Milos Degenek, both veterans who will at least contend for playing time at center back. In central midfield, the Black & Gold now have Aidan Morris back after he missed all of last season and hope Artur returns to play alongside Darlington Nagbe this year. Marlon Hairston proved more than capable of stepping in last season and Columbus acquired James Igbekeme on loan from Real Zaragoza.
On the wings, Yaw Yeboah was added to a group that already includes Matan, Derrick Etienne Jr., Luis Diaz and Pedro Santos – who is likely to feature more at left back. At forward, Porter called both Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry both starters following last season.
And while the overall philosophy won’t change too much, Porter does want to tweak some things heading into 2022. As well as the possibility of changing formations, the Crew can also change the way the team plays to best fit who is on the field and what the opponent does. Additionally, the Black & Gold could do things differently home and away.
“We’re always going to value the ball but I think we’re going to value the pressing, the countering and for me the verticality and the tempo, a quicker tempo in how we play more this year,” Porter said.
“I think our philosophy and how we play will remain the same for the most part. We’re pretty pragmatic in terms of what we push each game. We want to be adaptable, some games keep the ball more, some games less and press and some games transition. But I think we can keep the philosophy and change the formation to fit the personnel in.”
When the Crew takes the field on Feb. 26 to open the 2022 MLS regular season against the Vancouver Whitecaps, it’s possible that Porter lines up in the team’s traditional 4-2-3-1. But by the time the team goes to take on the New York Red Bulls three weeks later, the Black & Gold could use a 3-5-2 and could deploy a 4-3-3 look when Sporting Kansas City comes to Lower.com Field in late April.
Porter wants flexibility in everything Columbus does this season in order to maximize the talent and be ready for any challenges.