Monday, June 19, 2017

Rd 17: Bad Week

Columbus ended up losing both games this week. The first was on Wednesday when upstart USL side FC Cincinnati were able to knock Crew SC out of the US Open Cup - and the second was back in MLS regular season play when expansion side Atlanta United handed them a 3-1 loss.

Gregg Berhalter needed a result in one of the two. I wrote about it early last week. Both games were an opportunity to get some of the heat and frustration building within the team off. It didn't happen.

THE GAME IN ATLANTA

We'll start with the Atlanta result. Geraldo Martino locked up Columbus by applying mild pressure all over the pitch. Columbus likes to knock the ball all around and then strike. Usually down the wings or looking for distribution from Frederico Higuain through the middle. By not allowing space to players with the ball it left it up to the Crew to rely on quick decision making and technical passing ability (vs. just passing around with no pressure and switching fields until something opened up).

This proved to be a relatively new way to beat Columbus. Previously, we had seen teams willing to bunker and wait out a result or apply intense pressure in their own half (or a combination of the two). By putting players up the field in the general areas of Crew players limited all that. It's part of the reason things got pinball-y in the 2nd half.

On the first goal, Josh Williams was caught off guard by the mild pressure. His thinking wasn't fast enough. Columbus was able to equalize, which is expected because of the number of chances the team is able to create, but everything turned random as the game wore on. Not Berhalter's way. An example of this was late in the game when Niko Hansen dribbled the ball into space and was not quick enough in making a decision. He lost it, Atlanta turned it into a goal at the other end.

The third goal came in a similar fashion. Crew SC mucked it up in the back and gave it away around the penalty area. Martino employed a simple system that didn't tire out his players (pressing) or required any great defensive positioning (bunkering).

This simple template is something other teams will pick up on. It'll be up to Columbus to figure out a way around it. The problem is; Outside of Artur and Higuain, there may not be enough technical talent to work out of mild pressure.

THE GAME IN CINCY

Columbus looked rusty coming out of the gates in this one. Things just were not connecting. After the looping header goal by FCC things didn't change. Crew SC just looked lost. And without a talented striker like Ola Kamara up top, things just didn't happen. In the end, it looked very much like a normal USL game.

Frustration for Gregg Berhalter's team spilled over after the game. Cameras picked up players arguing with opposing coaches and fans expressing displeasure with Columbus.

This game was unique in that it was one outside the comfort zone of normal MLS. The result mattered. It wasn't two teams owned by the same organization facing off. And it was a (relatively) local affair. On top of that Columbus has an inferiority complex when it comes to both Cincy and Cleveland ("pro cities).

WHAT THESE RESULTS MEAN

It was a big week for the team. They are slipping in the standings (20th overall in the last 10 games) and the lost to a far less talented outfit.

Columbus has the talent and coaching to easily be a team battling for an MLS playoff spot but with the disappointment of last year still swimming around in player's heads, it might turn into a mind game. All Crew SC has to be is better than a few conference teams. DC and Philly are a given. Toronto, Chicago and NY City FC are better. This leaves Orlando, NYRB, Montreal and New England as the teams to beat.

Will that happen? All performance indicators are pointed down. It's not looking like it.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

USOC: Why This Matters

Columbus Crew SC is traveling down I-71 to take on FC Cincinnati today for the fourth round of the US Open Cup. It's a match no short of reaction gifs and social media banter for sure, but there is more to it than that. Much more.

Following the template of Orlando City, FC Cincinnati (FCC) has burst onto the soccer scene with large crowds which have garnished the attention of Don Garber via talk of expansion. Because there is no way to earn your way in the top level of competition in the United States (and Canada!), FCC has to check off boxes like city size, demographics, stadium plans, ability to pay franchise fees and, of course, bring in good crowds.

Having just about all of those things, brand new FCC is now presented with an opportunity to play a competitive match against old and crusty Crew SC.

In contrast to FCC, Columbus is coming at this as a team that has been through all the battles of trying to survive. They were awarded an MLS franchise, they had the big crowds in the late '90s, they built the stadium. In the time between then and now, they've lived the lean times and faced down the challenges of an ever-changing league.

Imagine a different universe, if you will, where Cincinnati was selected as an original MLS city back in 1994 and Columbus just started in the USL. Things would be very similar, just reversed. FCC MLS would have burst onto the scene and made their way for 20 years and Columbus would be the young, hot and desirable city bidding for an MLS franchise.

What Columbus and Cincinnati are playing for tonight couldn't differ more. A win or loss on the pitch for FCC doesn't matter as much as the attention it will get for filling the stands and furthering their plan to become an MLS team. They will have the crowd so, in that regard, it is a win for them.

For Crew SC it is a bit more tricky. A win and they get to advance in a tournament that they clearly don't have much interest in. But a loss. A loss puts Gregg Berhalter in a position where he must have a good showing when he faces Atlanta United in MLS play this weekend.

Why? Columbus has been slipping in the standings all year. Their recent form of 6 - 10 games puts them firmly below the playoff line and looking too much like last year. If. IF. Berhalter loses this game tonight and has a poor showing against Atlanta, a game he is saving most of his regulars for, then his seat becomes very warm. Looking further down the road, missing the playoffs would lead to changes in coaching.

There is another dynamic to this game that most are missing. It is two teams facing each other that are not sisters. MLS is controlled centrally. Meaning: when teams face each other, they are playing fellow employees. FCC is separate from that (for now), so what we have is a rarity for soccer in the United States. Two teams independent of each other, facing off in a game that matters. It feels different because it is different.

It's an actual competitive match.

I'll be watching because of that.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mid-season MLS Report

With the MLS season just about halfway over (and the league mostly on an international break), I figured it'd be a good time to look at where things are.

1. Best Team: Toronto FC
They have only lost two games, are outscoring opponents by almost a goal per game (0.73) and, more importantly, holding the bad guys to only 1.00 goals a game. Defense wins in MLS because very few teams have the discipline to play it. On top of these figures, they make it look pretty easy.

2. Supporter Sheild Race
The most important race for me, but it's rarely something teams try and really get after. What an unfortunate thing. Anyway. Outside of Toronto, we have Chicago, FC Dallas and (maybe) Sporting KC if they can get their scoring going. I don't see anyone else really challenging for the SS outside that group right now.

3. Bottom Feeders
Just like any other MLS season, look to see who plays this group the most to find out who will shoot up the table. Real Salt Lake, Colorado and DC are terrible. They can't score. Minnesota is in there as well, but I can see some improvement there.

4. Helltown team of the first half
Tim Melia SKC

Brandon Vincent CHI
Seth Sinovic SKC
Justin Morrow TFC
Matt Besler SKC

Romain Alessandrini LAG
Maximiliano Morales NYCFC
Miguel Almiron ATL
Jack Harrison NYCFC

Nemanja Nikolic CHI
David Villa NYCFC

Bench: Sean Johnson NYCFC, Joao Meira CHI, Justin Meram CLB, Lee Nguyen NER, Maximilano Urruti FCD, Gerso SKC

5. WhoScored.com favorites
Romain Alessandrini LAG, Maximiliano Urruti FCD, Ignacio Piatti MTL, Benny Feilhaber SKC, Miguel Almiron ATL, Justin Meram CLB.

6. Goal + Assist Leaders
-->
NPG+A pGMNameTeamWage
0.98David VillaNYCFC$5,610,000
0.97Justin MeramCLB$328,750
0.93Romain AlessandriniLAG$1,999,401
0.89David AccamCHI$820,938
0.86Diego ValeriPDX$2,607,500
0.86Víctor VázquezTFC$700,000
0.85Yamil AsadATL$150,000
0.84Maximiliano UrrutiFCD$300,000
0.83Miguel AlmirónATL$2,297,000
0.82Nemanja NikolicCHI$1,906,333
0.75Héctor VillalbaATL$770,750
0.74Chris WondolowskiSJE$800,000
0.73Lee NguyenNER$500,000
0.73C.J. SapongPHI$300,000
0.69Jozy AltidoreTFC$4,875,000
0.69Christian RamirezMIN$392,504
0.68Julian GresselATL$93,750
0.67Jack HarrisonNYCFC$165,500
0.64Kei KamaraNER$800,000
0.63Federico HiguainCLB$1,050,000
0.62Cyle LarinORL$192,000
0.6Maximiliano MoralezNYCFC$2,000,000
0.59Diego FagundezNER$180,000
0.59AlexHOU$170,000
0.59Albert RusnakRSL$882,813
0.58Erick TorresHOU$665,000

7. Form Table


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Rd 15, 16: In the Wilderness

Rolling Goal Diff
Columbus beat a severely depleted Seattle Sounders team on Wednesday and called it a good rebound game from the worst loss in team history the match before. Yesterday, they managed to erase that minor victory with a lapse in concentration that led to a 2-1 against worst-team-in-the-league Colorado.

The last three games are a microcosm of the version 2017 Columbus Crew SC. Wildly erratic in results, play and performance. In other words, inconsistent. And it seems to be getting worse as the more critical part of the MLS schedule approaches.

Looking back a little bit, the three-game win streak that was so critical to helltown early in the season is the only thing keeping this team from finding the bottom of the MLS table. Those results highlight why it is so, so important to get points when you can.

Looking at previous five, ten and 20 games for Crew SC shows us that things are better than the end of last season, but not much. 1.20, 1.20 and 1.30 PPG respectively. That's not giving fans anything to get excited about. At all.

To further punctuate how matters are slipping for Columbus is the chart at the top of this post. Anthony Precourt's team has not managed to dig their way out of negative results when looking at the previous 20 games. This is a particularly maddening metric as many have noted how Gregg Berhalter's teams have a nasty habit of going on extended runs of poor results.

BERHALTER'S FUTURE

This seems to be coming up as the losses pile up this season (especially the bad ones). My opinion? The results are inconsistent and Crew attendance is dead last in MLS. Just looking at the metrics in front of me, they are all pointing down. I also see a team that is constructed poorly and have a mess as far as leadership organization (from absentee operator Anthony Precourt to Wil Trapp as team captain). This team isn't going anywhere.

Does that warrant a change? I think so. If the Crew are thinking progressively, I'd move Gregg Berhalter to one role or the other. I'd go with Sporting Director. And then find another coach.

Berhalter isn't going anywhere, in regards to the USSF / MLS scene. Keep him aboard, but not as head coach. It's just not there. Or it's too much.

We'll see what happens. His results over the last 18 months or so say a change should be made, but to what? MLS is a small, small world. The next coach won't do much better.

Which is why I say that the team should get progressive. Get smart. think differently. It's the only way thing will work in the Columbus market. Especially with the way things are currently in town.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Message Not Sent

As Columbus moves on from last Friday's terrible five-goal goal loss to Toronto FC we have learned two things. First: The team just wants to move on. There's nothing but ads about the upcoming "pups on the pitch event" from the team and there are little to no player quotes about the game. Second: Gregg Berhalter confirmed what many thought - Meram was benched.

The second thing there is concerning, but not surprising. Here is the quote:

“He’s been quite honestly he’s been one of our best attacking players if not the best. Him, Federico (Higuain), Ola (Kamara) have been our three most consistent attacking players,” Berhalter said. “It’s not easy but I looked at the game and it’s a message to the team that I think anyone can be taken out. The way the game was going, we made the decision that he was the one.”

Justin Meram isn't just one of the best attacking players on Crew SC, he's one of the best in MLS. On top of that, his form this year has been outstanding. So much so, you would be hard-pressed to find another player that has been in better form in recent Crew history.

Why bench Meram? The answer is very simple and one that Berhalter has struggled with since joining Columbus. "Path of least resistance." A benching of Higuain or Kamara would result in a lot of clean up duty. Multiple meetings and it would likely draw the eye of the league site and therefore more attention.

Benching Meram is also easier because is generally a good and loyal trooper. He'll take the hit and be back later this week in support of the action.

Berhalter even set this scenario up in his statement.

“I hope he’s not thrilled. I mean, he wasn’t thrilled, quite honestly, and we talked about it and the key to this whole thing is what we always say around here, which is, ’remain professional,’” Berhalter said. “Don’t be happy about it but remain professional about it and I think for the most part he did and that’s all I can ask of him."

Translation: Don't talk about it. Move on. Which Meram will do. Which is why he was chosen as the example.

I have never been a fan of this approah to man-management. It's a refusal to address issues directly with people and taking the easier road. Who was he trying to send a message too? Wil Trapp? Higuian? Just bench them if it's not working and deal with the fallout.

This type of management doesn't fix the problem, it only hides it. It's unfortunate for Meram. It'll be interesting to see how the next few weeks go for him. Hoping his good season continues.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Rd 14. 5-0 Loss is... notable

The inconsistency continues for Columbus as they suffer the worst loss in team history to a red-hot Toronto FC side.

Anytime there is a loss like this, you need to ask questions. Did the team give up? Is Toronto just that much better? Was this on the coach? Was it on the players? All of that sort of stuff. Unfortunately, when you lose like this, the answer to most of the questions is "YES."

It starts with the coach (and sporting director), however. There are two clear things happening at once right now that contributed to this horrifying result.

1. Tinkering. With formation and line-up selection. After three years of basically the same approach and lineup, Berhalter has been toying with a few more ideas and trying to plug in new players.

2. Mix of players. This one is on the entire staff - but ultimately comes down to Anthony Precourt. After a couple years of reshaping players he didn't sign, we are now seeing a true "New Crew" team. 2014-15? Not his signings. A strongly bonded core group of guys whose potential was unlocked. 2016-17? Some of the parts are still there from 2014-15 (Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain) but for the most part, this is Berhalter's group. And it's turning into a lumbering Frankenstein of sorts.

Summary: Multiple changes in approach and a lumpy, disconnected group of players.

Justin Meram had some sort of player speak quote after the game about "a loss is a loss, just one of 34." And, for once, I agree. It's a bad loss, but it's MLS regular season. The result, itself, doesn't mean shit. What does matter is their current mentality. Are the coaches concerned? Are players starting to worry about the season?

Whenever there is a bad result like this, there is a reason. More often than not we, the public, don't know what the issue is. But over the years I've learned that often it comes down to the leadership. Coaching. Something they did this week just didn't work and it fell apart.

This team is going the wrong way as far as results. This loss is bad. The issues are not easily fixed. This will be an inconsistent team for the rest of the year.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Rd 11, 12, 13: Midseason Inbetween

Crew Bottom
Columbus crosses unlucky round 13 with a loss to a bad New England Revs team on the road. This team is better than that, but as we enter the middle part of the season we are starting to see this very familiar lackadaisical side of each Crew side to come out during the Gregg Berhalter reign.

Different levels of effort, varying levels of interest. It's all here.

After a strong (fueled by a heavy home schedule) start, Columbus has all the sudden hit some hard times that are punctuated by a 3 point, three game home stand and uneven results in the last two away matches. Pulling back a bit, it's 6 points out of the last six. Not good. But par for the course that Berhalter plays on this time of year. Thus the lack of summaries from Helltown.

It sucks. As a matter of fact, it sucks the life out of things. After an amazing attendance year last year, Columbus is now last in MLS while sporting the worse year of year drop.

Is it possible that fans in Columbus are tired of the same old run of results they expect from this team? After all, this is a town that responds to winning. Case in point is the year after a Crew MLS Cup run, but now we have a year after a historically bad Crew year and fans are deciding to not show up.

It's difficult to determine what Columbus needs to do to get people back interested. With the way this particular market is, there may be nothing that can be done until the calendar turns to 2018.

What would help is having an exciting team but in order to have such a thing in Columbus you need to get on a huge run of results and be able to score 3+ goals a game. Nobody sees that happening with this team.

All this raises the question. Should Anthony Precourt look for a change? Generate some excitement, even if misguided, in town? Berhalter has a long career ahead of him and can call his shots on the US Soccer scene until the end of days, but is he the right person for this market. After all, isn't that what MLS is all about?

Columbus faces more MLS teams here over the next few weeks. The only thing to look forward to is the possibility of USL Cincinnati coming to town for the US Open cup later this summer.

Until then? 2017 Crew is an average team with Justin Meram and Ola Kamara, looking down the barrel of an uninspiring rest of the season.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rd 10: Win against incomplete team

Columbus took care of a team taking the year off in New England. That's a good thing. Crew SC should be beating New England. Everyone should be beating New England. That's not to say the game didn't have to be played. It did. Crew took care of business.

Gregg Berhalter was ejected and suspended for one game for kicking a ball at an opposing team player.

Above is the current MLS true table.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Rd 9: Season Settles In

Reg season intensity level
We have reached the part of the season where players are in game shape and hitting, for better or worse, some kind of form. Goals are better. Interplay is better. Overall, just better. So when two teams that attempt to prepare and play a specific style (instead of just running around out there) it opens up.

This was the case when NYCFC traveled to Columbus last Saturday to take on Crew SC. 

It isn't to say that the game was a thing of beauty or one to remember. The defending by both teams was poor. It was more fun than many of the other games, but in the end, it was just a game that marked 1/4 of the season complete.

Columbus lost. They are working through injuries and lack of chemistry that comes with that (Mensah and Artur the two key guys there), are not settled in the right midfield and have a player kicking up dust about playing time. All these things are ingredients needed to give up leads in games.

These same ingredients are used in making a team mediocre, which seems to be the case with Crew SC at the moment. There is just too much noise right now for the team to be anything but average. 

With a quarter of the season complete we are now entering the patchy summer portion of the calendar where teams without depth (ie. most MLS teams) have wild quality swings game to game. Gregg Berhalter and crew will do their best to keep it together and above the playoff line. Which, now that that is typed, seems all that this season will be about.

Of note: Abu, Trapp, Mensah and Naess did not click in this game. The quality of play between these four is critically important to the success of Crew SC. It's not to say these players are not good, but there are concerns about turnover game to game. Stability is needed in order for it to work well.