How they got here: Columbus Crew SC

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RYAN BRISTER

Columbus Crew SC will host MLS Cup on Sunday. Behind closed doors, you might get league executives to admit that they didn’t expect a December trip to Ohio, or that Columbus isn’t one of MLS’s sexiest markets. Perhaps the black and gold are not a ratings draw nationwide. But those who will tune in to watch the Crew on Sunday will see one of the league’s most exciting teams.

Powered by the dynamic duo of Kei Kamara and Ethan Finlay, both of whom were in the league’s Best XI, Crew SC were tied for the MLS lead in goals this year. They have a midfield capable of slowing the game down and picking passes, but a defining feature under Gregg Berhalter has been the role of speedy wide players in the attack. Possession-based play provides ample opportunity for fullbacks to get forward and become providers.

CLB

If there was an Achilles’ heel to the Crew during the regular season, it was the back line, which allowed 58 goals. Perhaps that’s a result of playing with attacking fullbacks. But facing red-hot Didier Drogba in the playoffs, they kept him in check for two legs. After defensive lapses cost them the first leg, Columbus fought back and won in extra time at home. Against the Red Bulls, who lead the league in scoring and won the Supporters’ Shield, the Crew took an early lead and won the tie with stifling defensive work. Their spot in MLS Cup has been well-earned.

More broadly, hosting MLS Cup is the culmination of a lengthy process to revitalize a club that had fallen on lean times. In 2011, even as they qualified for the playoffs, the Crew averaged just 12,185 fans per game. Just last year, Columbus’s only home playoff game was attended by 9,040 people. This year, their average crowd was 16,513 (still near the bottom of the league, but much improved), and their two playoff games totaled more than 40,000 fans in attendance. Columbus had no trouble selling out MLS Cup in advance.

What’s changed? What hasn’t? In 2013, the historically frugal Hunt Sports Group sold the Crew to new ownership. Anthony Precourt promptly went to work in bringing the franchise out of its MLS 1.0 doldrums. A rebrand last year to Columbus Crew SC has been well received and got rid of the clunky construction workers of their old crest. This year, Columbus Crew Stadium found a sponsor in Mapfre, which means little to you and me but valuable revenue to Crew SC. The league’s first soccer-specific stadium received some minor upgrades before the 2014 season.

But most importantly, the play on the field has improved. Robert Warzycha was fired after the 2013 season, during which the Crew missed the playoffs for the second-straight year. There was a sense that the league had passed Columbus by, both on and off the field. But in his place Berhalter has crafted a winner with limited resources.

The squad already had Federico Higuain, Tony Tchani, and the rising young talents of Finlay and Wil Trapp. To that core, Berhalter added defenders Michael Parkhurst and Waylon Francis, and returned the Crew to the playoffs in his first season in charge. The team lacked a go-to striker, so Berhalter brought Kamara back to Columbus in the offseason. The defense was particularly shaky at the start of 2015, and Berhalter acquired and integrated Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro in midseason to shore up the back line.

Everything has come together quite brilliantly for the Crew this fall. Kamara provided a target for the creative efforts of Higuain and Finlay, while Tchani and Trapp have become a formidable pair at the base of midfield. The maligned defense showed steel in the playoffs, when it mattered most. All of Berhalter’s moves have paid off during this run.

An MLS Cup victory would be a deserved reward for the efforts put in by Berhalter and his players in turning the Crew around. But I can’t help but wonder if its impact would be just as great off the field. A championship could be the key to continuing Columbus’ rebirth.