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A comparison of Gregg Berhalter and Caleb Porter as Crew coaches

Both of the past two Black & Gold coaches had respective success. But how do they stack up against one another?

On Dec. 2, 2018, the United States Men’s National Team announced Gregg Berhalter as the team’s next head coach, leaving the Columbus Crew after five seasons to take on the challenge of rebuilding an aging United States squad. He left the Crew after leading the team to four playoff appearances and a berth in the 2015 MLS Cup Final. In his wake, the Black & Gold, under new ownership, hired Caleb Porter, who had bested the Crew in the 2015 final, after he left the Portland Timbers in 2018.

With Columbus off this weekend and Berhalter’s USMNT looking to book a spot in the World Cup Finals, Massive Report thought it was a good time to look at how these head coaches compare from their time with the Black & Gold.

The Berhalter era for the Crew began in 2013 after he took over for Robert Warzycha. Immediately, he began installing his system centered around controlling the ball and pace of play mixed with a defensive style to try and make opponents predictable. Berhalter’s offensive emphasis was creating positional overloads, mostly for his fullbacks to get up and add another element to the Columbus attack.

Berhalter accomplished this by cheating the forwards to one side of the field and sending the fullbacks high up the pitch to make a numerical advantage against each side of the opposing defense. He also put an emphasis on controlling the ball until the opportune time to attack. This was most successful when using pivot players such as central midfielder Wil Trapp and Artur primarily as well as the center backs to switch the ball.

The downfall of this offensive style was the ability for the defense to be exploited in transition after a turnover. Giving up the ball during a Black & Gold attack could lead to 1 v. 1 defending situations for Columbus defenders and create numerical disadvantages for these players on their own side of the pitch.

Berhalter’s defensive scheme was to make opponents predictable by limiting the number of passing options to the player on the ball. He also instituted a medium style of pressing when the ball was able to be won. This tactical system was usually used with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 defensive formation

This system led Berhalter to a 67-55-49 regular season record with the Crew. The team scored 256 goals while conceding 247. His consistency was what made the Black & Gold so threatening, making the playoffs four out of the five seasons he was at the helm. Over those five years, Berhalter’s team accumulated 1.446 points per match (PPM) and was MLS Cup runner-up in 2015.

While many may think the Crew performed and won more games while having more of the ball, a look into the statistics show that in games where Berhalter won or tied, the average possession was 53.77 percent. On the other side of the coin, the average possession was 53.24 percent in a loss for Columbus during his tenure. While other factors such as injuries and international duty can have an effect on the results of some of the games, ultimately controlling the ball and keeping possession was not a deciding factor during Berhalter’s tenure with the Crew.

When Porter was introduced as the head coach of the Black & Gold, many fans thought no major changes would come to the on-pitch structure of the team, and in some ways they were correct. Porter prefers playing a similar offensive style to Berhalter but tweaked a few aspects on both sides of the ball.

Offensively, Porter’s first order of business was to push Trapp closer to goal. Porter felt the want to control play, but he wanted his best passer higher up the pitch. This duty fell to Trapp but has now transferred to Darlington Nagbe.

Another tweak to the system was to put the emphasis on vertical passing rather than the possessive-based horizontal balls. Porter was keen to attack off the bat, rather than draw opponents in and the breakout. He still valued controlling the game, but instead of controlling in the back, he pushed that responsibility up the field to the attacking midfielders and strikers. This is a technical way to say get playmaker Lucas Zelarayan the ball after he was signed prior to the 2020 season. Porter wanted to push the tempo more than Berhalter, so he entrusted that job to Zelarayan.

Defensively the only big change Porter made was to press as soon as Columbus lose possession to win the ball higher up the pitch. This usually happens near the sidelines so the Black & Gold attackers could trap the other team in and get a turnover closer to goal.

Porter’s three-plus-year tenure so far has yielded a regular season record of 37-35-23, with 131 goals scored compared to 118 conceded. His teams average 1.565 points per match while scoring 1.64 goals per game. The average possession stats show Porter’s adjustments to Berhalter’s system working for him, having 51.075 percent of the ball in wins and ties. The flip side is that when the Crew loses, the average possession over Porter’s tenure is 52.73 percent.

This shows that the Black & Gold are better off when they are pushing tempo with Zelarayan, rather than possessing the ball too much. Porter’s accomplishments with Columbus are impressive, winning the club’s second-ever MLS Cup title in 2020 with a 3-0 win against the Seattle Sounders and winning the club’s first international trophy in a win in the Campeones Cup. The downside is Columbus has only made the postseason in one of Porter’s first three seasons

Overall, these two coaches have made life very enjoyable for Crew fans over the past eight seasons, but fans will always have opinions on who is the better coach.