Playoff appearances four out of the last five years. An MLS Cup finals appearance. Missing out on a second one by a goal. For all the uncertainty surrounding the Columbus Crew in the last year, it’s been hard to argue with the results on the field.
So perhaps it was with some irony that as the question of relocation was finally settled, the most stable part of the club through it all suddenly wobbled.
It was Gregg Berhalter who oversaw that five-year run with the Crew, as the head coach and technical director, and changed the fortunes of a team that had missed the playoffs in the two seasons prior to his arrival.
That model of consistency made Berhalter an appealing candidate for other jobs and in December he took one of those opportunities – becoming the head coach of the United States national team.
Berhalter left the Crew in better shape than he found them, creating a foundation – one that could be built up even further with the new ownership. Or as new head coach Caleb Porter calls it: “a best-case scenario.”
“The club has been a stable club,” Porter told Goal. “Gregg Berhalter and others have done a nice job in creating that stability. Obviously that’s a positive for me to come into club that’s stable - that’s the best case scenario, versus to coming into a club that’s unstable.
“So I come in humble and well aware that there’s a tradition and good foundation in place, there’s a playing style that’s put in place. But I’m hungry to help the club achieve more.”
More would be a second MLS Cup, which Porter himself denied the Crew in 2015, when his Portland Timbers defeated Columbus to claim the title. Given the consistency of the last half-decade, and the fact their elimination last year came at the hands of the team that accumulated the most regular season points in MLS history, the leap does not appear to be a long one, even for a team that lacks the deep pockets of some of its rivals.
And yet, this team is far from perfect. The Crew scored just 43 goals last season. Forget the likes of high-flying MLS Cup winner Atlanta United, which scored 70 times, Columbus’ total was only good enough to match Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers Orlando City. Only the Colorado Rapids scored fewer.
A solid defense covered some of those woes, and timely goals saw the Crew get into the playoffs despite a -2 goal difference, which was second-worst among playoff teams.
While Berhalter was known for getting the most out of his strikers – and Gyasi Zardes scored 19 times last season – the Crew lacked the same scoring punch from other positions. That’s an area Porter believes needs to be addressed.
“When you look at my teams in Portland, we always got production out of the No. 9, 10, 7 and 11,” Porter explained. “Then you get a few out of the midfielders and you get a few out of the outside backs and a few out of the center backs from set pieces.
”But you look at last year, Gyasi scored the lion's share. I don’t expect that to change – he’s a very good striker. In my system, the No. 9 is typically scoring the lion's share of the goals but Pipa [Higuain] – he’s capable of scoring.
“He’s a very good player and is going to get a lot of assists. I think he’s one of the best final passers I’ve ever coached. So can we utilize that with our movement, with our third man running with the wingers, with our ability to combine central and attack in that channel more?
“You need to put not just one player in positions to score but multiple players in positions where they can score. We attack in different ways, we maybe at times counterattack in different ways and maybe at times press and trap and create turnovers higher up the pitch. So there will be some little tweaks there.”
“Tweaks” is the operative word, as Crew captain Wil Trapp sees a lot of similarities between Porter, who coached Trapp at the University of Akron, and Berhalter’s styles. However, the midfielder spoke of how his new coach is seeking to create a different mentality among the players.
“I think it’s being more the aggressor in a lot of ways,” Trapp told Goal. “You won’t be able to dictate the game every single game, but it’s stepping onto the field knowing we want to dominate in every aspect of the game.
“With Caleb in Columbus I think it is a wonderful opportunity to work with a guy that I know very well and see how he can take what we built here in Columbus to another level. It’s really exciting to see, in my opinion, the incremental steps we’ve already made in preseason.
Meanwhile, goalkeeper Zack Steffen notes the difference in approach, telling Goal: “He’s not as detail-oriented as Gregg. He lets us play and gives us more freedom.”
But freedom to play doesn’t mean freedom to slack off.
“You have to buy into what Caleb and his coaching staff want,” Steffen said. “It’s obviously different – every coach is different so you can’t come in here half-assed.
“You have to come in here with an open mind and a willingness to do what he wants.”
To the team’s credit, Porter believes that’s exactly what has happened thus far. He’s enjoying being around a set of players who are committed to the style he wants to build in hopes of turning a best-case scenario into the best-case outcome.
“There are no luxury guys,” Porter said. “There are no guys who take plays off.
“We have 11 guys who have bought into the team concept and that makes it really enjoyable because we can execute a style of play that will be exciting, entertaining and hard working. And that’s the type of team I prefer to manage.”