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Making sense of the Crew trading away Sebastian Berhalter

Why the Black & Gold elected to trade away the Homegrown player.

Columbus Crew v D.C. United

Sebastian Berhalter’s time with the Columbus Crew has come to an end. The Homegrown product was traded to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Friday in exchange for a minimum of $50,000 in general allocation money, which could grow to as much as $100,000 in GAM depending on how Berhalter performs.

While Berhalter spent just three seasons on the Crew’s books, his time as a part of the organization was interesting. As the son of former head coach Gregg Berhalter, the current manager of the United States Nen’s National Team, Berhalter’s name attracted attention as a youth player. His play at that level did as well.

When Berhalter signed a professional contract with Columbus in January of 2020, following playing for the Academy since the Under-13 age group and after one season playing collegiately at North Carolina, it was seen as a big deal. He followed in the footsteps of classmate Aidan Morris, who signed his Homegrown deal four days prior, but was more high profile and expected to be a future player in the center of the Black & Gold’s midfield.

So why did Berhalter’s time in Columbus come to an end after just two years of play? The answer, ultimately, had less to do with Berhalter and more to do with those around him at his now-former club.

In his lone season played with the Crew, Berhalter featured in nine games, starting four. After Morris emerged as the preferred rookie late in 2020, including starting in the MLS Cup Final in place of Darlington Nagbe, Berhalter was loaned to Austin FC for the 2021 season. This reunited Berhalter with former Columbus assistant coach Josh Wolff, now the head coach in Austin, and a system he grew up a part of.

The loan to Austin was done to get Berhalter more minutes than he could have with the Black & Gold. But after Morris suffered an ACL tear before the 2021 Major League Soccer regular season even kicked off, and Berhalter was not recalled from the loan, with the Crew instead acquiring Liam Fraser from Toronto FC for the rest of the year, questions began to be asked as to how invested the Black & Gold were in Berhalter.

Massive Report inquired at the time and the answer was the Columbus staff did value the second-year player. However, the thinking was, even after Morris’ injury, Berhalter would get more action in Austin than with the Crew.

Last season, Berhalter featured 18 times, including five starts, in the center of the park for Austin FC while dealing with some injuries. Fraser, largely due to injuries to other players in the center of the park, saw action in 23 games, 11 starts, in Columbus.

The Black & Gold were intrigued by the idea of bringing Berhalter back this offseason but he was going to have to compete in a tough midfield. Nagbe is established as a starter and Artur will be alongside him when he gets healthy. Marlon Hairston proved himself a valuable addition last year, starting 16 times in 21 games. Morris is also back, as is second-year Homegrown player Isaiah Parente. Veteran Perry Kitchen will also be back once he recovers from his own injury suffered in the middle of 2021.

Columbus also signed Homegrown midfielder Sean Zawadski in mid-January following his college career at Georgetown and added James Igbekeme from Real Zaragoza on a season-long loan.

This led to a rather crowded central midfield group with nine players competing for two spots. Four of those players are Homegrown midfielders and sources close to the team told Massive Report that Morris and Zawadski are the future in the middle of the park at Field. Head coach Caleb Porter, Massive Report is told, is committed to playing Morris and Zawadski so they can develop into the future starters in the positions, while Parente will spend time with new reserve side Crew 2 in 2022.

This meant it made sense to move Berhalter, not because he has little value to the Crew, but rather it would be best for his career. The Black & Gold want young players to develop and Berhalter not getting many minutes with the first team when he could do so elsewhere doesn’t benefit any parties involved. Massive Report was told Columbus initially looked for a loan for Berhalter with Vancouver, but the Whitecaps wanted a permanent move.

With Vancouver, there is a more clear path to playing time for the third-year pro. The Whitecaps recently sent midfielder Janio Bikel on loan to Vicenza in Italy after he played 33 games for the Canadian clubs last season. Berhalter will still have to compete with fellow central midfielders Caio Alexandre, Michael Baldisimo, Leo Owusu, Russell Teibert and Pedro Vite for playing time, but Vancouver was interested in bringing the American to the club for a reason, meaning Berhalter is expected to get an opportunity.

While Crew fans were excited about the prospects of Berhalter when he signed with the club ahead of the 2020 season, this was a move that made sense for both the player and the club, something that doesn’t always happen.