In many ways the Columbus Crew still represent the MLS of the early aughts. The stadium, the first of its kind and the league’s jewel in its time, hardily slouches into midwestern soil. The team’s roster is a relic from a league roster structure that’s slowly passing into shadow – a league-high 26 players are products of the American college system, with an incredible 21 finishing all four years of college. The latter number alone is more than all but one team in the league in total sum.
To say nothing of the television issues plaguing the team now, even the team’s off-shore purchasing trends are reminiscent of the wild west days of Blanco and Schelotto and Castillo and Denilson. Try to raise a talented overseas player from the loam with the salt of the earth around him.
Into this mixer, one some would say was beginning to chop itself out of commission, stepped Gregg Berhalter. One of the few Americans to coach in Europe, reports seeped into the States that Berhalter was fired in part at Hammarby because he failed to bring enough to the attack, and the club’s record faltered in due course. That could not have seemed particularly promising to a beleaguered fan base looking for a spark… for anything out of the norm. To become not just a consistent playoff team, but a playoff team with a soul.
And yet here we are, the Crew 3-0-0, Berhalter suddenly the toast of MLS and Caleb Porter wondering why his daily shipment of roses has suddenly been cut in half. The Crew’s unbelievable 2-1 win over the Sounders on Saturday only increased the narrative’s din.
Today, I’d like to spend the entire Grinder on the Crew and Gregg Berhalter (and I so wanted to talk about Ryan Nelsen’s odd PR foibles today) because what Berhalter has done to the Crew over the course of the first three games of the season has been nothing short of revolutionary.
Most young MLS coaches – especially those in their first year because MLS hires unnaturally young – come upon league gates frowning down upon them, and only men like Peter Vermes and Jason Kreis and Bruce Arena stare back from the other side. Most young coaches opt to scale the craggy earthworks to either side, content to play it safe in lieu of attacking ideas. There are few in the league’s history who’ve had the temerity to take the gates head on. Berhalter appears to be one such man.
This quote of Berhalter’s following the Crew’s 2-1 win over Philly in their second game is as succinct a summation of what Berhalter is doing as any.
“The way we play, we try to set the tone, try to dictate the game, try to get our backs forward. We try to be aggressive,” he told reporters after the game. “And you’ll have that, especially when you turn the ball over in the middle of the field. We want to turn the ball over in different areas of the field.”
The most obvious alteration Berhalter’s made is refashioning Federico Higuain into a dive-bombing pseudo midfielder. Robert Warzycha used Higuain as you’d imagine most would if given the reins of the Crew in, say, Football Manager; he stuck him up top off the lead striker’s shoulder and told him to spin into the ground. Berhalter saw something different. With his lone striker loose up top to drag defenders to and fro, Higuain is suddenly operating deeper and deeper.
You can read more on that in this piece from MLSSoccer.com’s Matthew Doyle, who does a lovely job elucidating how the Crew made that work in the opener, a comfortable 3-0 demolition of D.C. United.
While we knew Higuain was dropping into the midfield – and not just as a pure second striker – what nobody was particularly sure of at the time was whether it was an institutionalized plot, or whether this was simply Pipa operating off a matchup on the fly. Now we know. And Gregg Berhalter grins behind the veil.
This is Higuain’s passing matrix from Columbus’s subsequent 2-1 win over the Union. Notable here is how deep the troublesome Union midfield forced Higuain (you see several back passes to the keeper, hardly the work of a striker), and how you suddenly adjust how you read his game. Not by pure chances created but by his facility in allowing the game to breathe fresh air.
And here is same map from Columbus’s recent smash and grab in Seattle. Higher.
I see this progression and I see fear in the collective eyes of the Crew’s remaining opposition. Not only is Higuain successful in this role, but he appears to be learning to do it better already. Even with the otherwise outstanding Osvaldo Alonso his opposite on Saturday evening, Higuain managed to complete an unbelievable 90 percent (!) of his passes on the road and in rain.
To assume this kind of thing from a 29-year-old who’s already one of the best at what he does in the league is already ballsy from the jump. To do it in your first game as the team’s head coach? Utterly fascinating. Higuain is essentially now occupying a position not unlike the attacking version of a libero. Berhalter has accomplished this (with wild success) in three games.
This isn’t all. MLS is notoriously stingy with its quality at fullback, which forces most coaches to get decidedly more conservative than they might’ve otherwise been on the flanks. This is obviously a problem for modern teams that want to get up and down the field through their own intricacies, and it’s kept many of the league’s teams from truly becoming rampant.
What Berhalter is beginning to do with his fullbacks is perhaps even more radical than his alteration with Higuain. Let’s go back to Saturday’s win over the Sounders.
Berhalter stuck Waylon Francis at left back and Josh Williams at right back in Seattle, and the two were incredibly active. Look at these passing numbers. What Berhalter is squeezing out of a relatively small piece of fruit here is worthy of note.
For one fullback to do this is impressive enough, but both men completed north of 40 passes (the attack-minded DeAndre Yedlin completed just 23 on the other side) at a combined completion rate of 77 percent. In this league, that’s high level fullbacking. The numbers themselves, however, aren’t the most impressive bit, the thing that really gets to the heart of Berhalter’s revolution. Consider that both completed considerably more than half of their passes in Seattle’s half of the field.
Williams and Francis are no stranger to getting forward, but now they’ve become more active in the build-up. Williams especially. He never cracked 40 passes in a game at any point last season, and he’s already done it three games into the season. In fact, his average passes per game last year was around 24, and he rarely came close to approaching anything nearing what you see here. He also never completed this many in the attacking third. That created a flank-heavy heat map that looked like this.
What this does is create that lovely split center back situation that allows Michael Parkhurst to shade underneath Francis while Giancarlo Gonzalez drifts to the right to support Williams. Meanwhile, central defensive midfielders Tony Tchani and Wil Trapp are free to diagnose the game from their space in the center and act accordingly. In the case of the Philly game, that means hunkering a bit deeper and spraying out to the advanced fullbacks. In games like these, the open sails billow freely in the full wind.
And then you saw Sigi Schmid and former Crew member Chad Marshall misfiring and suddenly things seemed that much more stark.
Splitting central defenders wider and sending fullbacks is becoming vogue for the same reasons the spread has become so important to college football. It forces the opposition to declare its intentions immediately. By segmenting the field how you want it – that is, higher and further away from your own end – you force the defender into a reactive phase. And if you can pass, by then you have him.
You respect Berhalter for this. You have to. This is hardly a team of all-stars, and yet he’s fashioned them into a decidedly European side playing free, loose and fast. Traditionally in MLS, that’s meant bombing deep. As a rule, that will never leave every team’s arsenal, and it shouldn’t. But Berhalter is stubbornly beginning to pull the influence back toward this place of tactical ingenuity. It’s of course important to note that the sample size here is still small. We have a long ways to go, and the Crew have stiffer opposition to face. Whether the press can keep in the face of SKC’s heavy-handedness or RSL’s incredible ability to turn teams over, we’ll have to see.
Still, Berhalter is doing something with one of the league’s most timeworn sides most of us would’ve never imagined. He’s making the old new again.