Empire XI: The Columbus Crew and the Best Law of Soccer

IMAGE, NEWYORKREDBULLS.COM

BY CHRISTIAN ARAOS
Staff Writer

There are two philosophical laws in soccer: 1) you cannot lose if you do not concede, and 2) you must score to win.

In professional soccer, where points are awarded for wins and draws, the first law should be applied more, not because fans and management want an entertaining product, but because it is the only mindset that will help you climb the table.

Fortunately, the Columbus Crew have applied the first law and are rightfully sitting atop the Eastern Conference because of it.

The Crew are one of only two teams in MLS to have conceded two goals through three games. They can credit their solid start to their new coach, Gregg Berhalter, and an organizational decision to spend, allowing Berhalter to build a squad of his liking.

That latter facet is also the reason Berhalter ended up in Columbus to begin with. Berhalter was one of the first Americans ever to manage a professional team in Europe when he spent a season-and-a-half coaching Swedish club Hammarby. However, Hammarby fired him last July with Chairman Kent Hertzell providing the illuminating details.

“Gregg has brought order to our defensive game and has good discipline in the squad, but unfortunately, we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense,” Hertzell told the club website. “Therefore, we chose to terminate cooperation with Gregg. We believe that we need to get a new force and new voice on the team.”

While Hammarby finished the 2013 season with only 34 goals in 30 games, the club wound up finishing fifth that season, one spot worse than 2012 when Berhalter led them to a fourth place spot with 40 goals scored throughout the year. The only team to concede fewer goals than Hammarby in 2012: Osters, who won the league by five points. Berhalter also won more games than he lost as Hammarby’s manager.

The Swedish club’s loss is the Ohio club’s gain.

The reasoning for Berhalter’s firing, while mockable, is indicative and reflective of a culture change throughout soccer around the world. While defensive soccer is a pragmatic approach to getting to valuable points, offensive soccer is what the fans and pundits want especially, when they are still trying to convince others that the sport is not boring (as is still the case with American soccer). In that regard, the Crew are a little bit of a throwback. This is a team that does not feel the need to build a team around all the promises of producing an entertaining product because it has produced an effective product instead, built around Berhalter’s tactics and his early personnel moves.

The Crew were able to opportunistically acquire goalkeeper Steve Clark from the Seattle Sounders after they were able to complete the Stefan Frei trade with Toronto FC. Nine saves on 11 shots on goal through three games is an early indicator that the trade was a good one for Columbus — especially after Andy Grenebaum’s injury-plagued 2013 season.

Berhalter cleverly looked to Costa Rica to build his defense, signing left back Weylon Francis from Herediano and Giancarlo Gonzalez from Vålerenga in Norway. Both players are internationals who are making good cases to be on the flight to Brazil. Berhalter is working with Josh Williams on his conversion from center back to right back and it has gone well so far. If it should wind up not going well, he has the option of switching Williams with Michael Parkhurst who is captaining the team as a center back.

The tactics Berhalter has in place are pretty simple. It is a standard 4-4-1-1 with wingers who will overlap with the fullbacks when they go forward. There is an emphasis on playing out the back and midfielder Wil Trapp helps greatly in this effect as he drops deep to link the defense to the midfield. His midfield partner Tony Tchani also helps win the midfield battle and fulfill their purpose; getting the ball to Federico Higuain so he can launch the attack.

It is the Crew’s organization in defense that is what helped them have an exceptional month of March. The Crew quelled Seattle at CenturyLink Field and it led to a late win. Seattle were the second team to be kept chanceless by the Crew as D.C. United also failed to create a single opportunity and only recorded a shot on target in their opening day loss to Columbus.

That opening day game felt like a potential forerunner for the Crew, but it was, at the moment, difficult to measure that potential because they had beaten the woeful D.C. United, who have not won a game since August. In that game, the Crew did a fantastic job of taking United’s attacking fullbacks, Sean Franklin and Cristian, out of the game by disconnecting them to the midfield diamond. In order to do that, the wide midfielder needs to mark his opposite well and force the fullback to keep the ball, leaving him isolated in a one-on-one.

If an attacking fullback is left one-on-one with a defender, pick the defender to win out. Especially in MLS. The defenders won out in this case. D.C. only completed four crosses all game. Columbus’ two-man game on the flanks also produced its opening goal as right midfielder Hector Jimenez dragged Cristian out of his left back position and played a one-touch pass to Williams who made the overlapping run behind Nick DeLeon and into the vacated space. Williams’ first-time cross found its way to Jairo Arrieta who finished.

A quick, direct attacking move done in three passes.

There is a greatness in the simplicity of teams that play a direct style in attack. It is not always easy on the eye and it can get predictable, but teams that are effective playing a direct style can get very confident very quickly. It is empowering as a player to know that even though your opponent knows what you are trying to do, he still cannot stop you.

There is a similar sense of empowerment for a defender on a good defending team. As alluded to last week when looking at the LA Galaxy’s defensive flaws, defenders need support and in Columbus, the defenders are supported. This allows the Crew’s defenders to be a little more aggressive denying opponents because they have a sense of security. In short, if their man beats them, they will have someone behind them who is just as tough to beat as they are.

That is the best thing about good defensive teams; they are tough to beat. When their opponent’s cannot beat them, they do not score. When their opponent’s do not score, they do not win allowing the team to gain at least a point in its fixtures. Points add up and it puts teams in playoff contention. Maybe that’s why this defensive ethos is still heavily promoted by coaches in MLS. After all, in the two years that the current MLS Playoff format has been played, 18 of the 20 playoff teams were in the top five of their conference in goals allowed. Only 15 of the 20 playoff teams were in the top five of their conference in goals scored.

In that effect, the Columbus Crew are embracing the fact that defense is always more effective than offense. They might be a little behind on that given their playoff drought, but with Gregg Berhalter at the helm, they are catching up pretty quick.

Empire XI

1. Congratulations to Bob Bradley who became the first American coach to win a European top-flight match as Stabæk opened its season with a 3–0 win yesterday. Former LA Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens scored the opening goal in the win. Credit to Stabaek’s fans for a really awesome tifo to celebrate the occasion too.

2. Home teams dropped 15 points this past weekend in MLS. Just for comparison’s sake, Premier League home teams only dropped seven points with one game left in the round, La Liga teams dropped 13 points with two games remaining, Serie A teams dropped eight points with two games remaining, Bundesliga teams dropped 10 points and Liga MX teams dropped eight points.

3. Kleberson will be announced as a new signing by Indy Eleven. The NASL is a good fit for the former Brazilian international and if there is an organization that is the most indicative of the league’s future direction it is Indy given their staff. That is not a mark against any other teams in the NASL, but while Indy Eleven will not have the deepest pockets in the league, they have a smart leader in Peter Wilt and a decent market in Indianapolis that can sustain a second division team pretty well.

4. The long-rumored arrival of Kaka to MLS seems to be transitioning from hopeful rumor into eventuality. AC Milan confirmed reports that the Brazilian international can leave the club on a free transfer if Milan do not qualify for Europe. Since Champions League is a mathematical impossibility, the only way Milan will play in Europe is if they are able to make up an eight-point deficit in eight games and sneak into the Europa League. Kaka tried to pour a little cold water on the rumors saying that he will wait and see after the season and the World Cup before making a decision on his future.

5. Peguy Luyindula may have salvaged a draw for the New York Red Bulls but he was not effective working as a central midfielder. Luyindula only completed 28 total passes or 7.9% of the Red Bulls’ total passes. Dax McCarty completed 67% more passes. This is good and bad for McCarty; good because he is influencing the Red Bull attack, bad because he also has to defend. It is imperative that McCarty does not get overworked early on.

6. US Men’s National Team Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has reworked his staff ahead of the upcoming World Cup. Klinsmann added his former manager with Germany, Berti Vogts, to serve as a special adviser responsible for preparing training and scouting reports on the USMNT’s opponents. US U20 Head Coach Tab Ramos will join the staff while Klinsmann’s trusted assistant Martin Vasquez will be reassigned to other roles in US Soccer.

7. A couple of bits of background information on the moves. Vogts led Klinsmann and Germany to their last international trophy, Euro 1996, but will retain his role as Head Coach of the Azerbaijan National Team, the team the US will play first in its Sendoff Series, explaining why the US scheduled a team in such low regard. Brian Sciaretta at Yanks Abroad first mentioned the thought of Vasquez’s new role, running the US U21 National Team.

8. For Vasquez, this move is a little bizarre in the effect that it is both a demotion and a promotion. Vasquez was Klinsmann’s right hand man but it is likely that he will not head to Brazil for the biggest occasion the two would have faced as a working partnership. On the other hand, the tea leaves are indicating that the U21 Team that will turn into the Olympic Team is going to be Vasquez’s. If he can have a successful cycle with that squad, he can very easily parlay that into a head coaching job.

9. Brad Evans’ calf injury presents Michael Parkhurst a wonderful opportunity to leapfrog his way to the roster. Parkhurst’s versatility already makes him a contender for a spot on the World Cup roster and the fact that he is getting playing time with the Columbus Crew is a huge plus for a player whose career had previously stalled. DeAndre Yedlin also may have a chance to make a surge as well.

10. A few more subtractions to the USMNT roster after Klinsmann revealed that Puebla are refusing to release Michael Orozco and DaMarcus Beasley for Wednesday’s game. Klinsmann told Univision’s Ivan Kasanzew he was annoyed with Puebla’s decision especially since the club do not have any scheduling conflicts. No replacements are expected to be named leaving the US without a defined left back for Wednesday’s game.

11. Predicted USMNT lineup (if no changes are made): Nick Rimando; DeAndre Yedlin, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Michael Parkhurst; Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley; Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan; Eddie Johnson.