Sunday, July 31, 2016

Meaningful Moves

Columbus is playing up in Toronto tonight at 7:30 pm. It's an odd time to play for creatures of Crew habit, but the MLS All-Star game on Thursday pushes most of the league games a day.

Win or lose, tonight is the start of an interesting week. Looming over the match is the closing of the transfer window on Wednesday. After last week's collapse, Gregg Berhalter threatened the players on his team that they could be on the move if things didn't improve.

It's entirely possible that we could see a player or two move this week. Maybe more if they put in a poor showing tonight. I'll make a list of just who that might be in just a second. Let's walk it back first.


The midseason window in MLS is a tricky one. It's really the one that doesn't line up with the rest of the comparable soccer universe and transactions sometimes occur after it's closed. On top of that, it ends too early and the better teams are just now moving into the next highest gear after a convoluted, brain-melting, summer of international tournaments / friendlies / MLS action.

What this means is that, while Berhalter's threat to players is probably real, it makes it hard to really do much about it. The majority of what happens this time of year is just what we saw with the recent signing of Adam Jahn from San Jose is pretty much what happens for a team like Columbus.

This late in the window is when you see the experienced MLS guys go on the move. Bad teams (like Houston last night, moving Giles Barnes) looking to get some extra MLS funny money and the receiving team getting a ready made performer that knows the MLS ropes (travel, intensity, culture, etc). The trick (or problem) is that good MLS teams don't generally need players. It's the bad teams.

So you see a lot of the Fabian Espindola type moves; Known MLS guy on bad team, maybe he as a tude, goes to a slightly less bad team with holes and injury problems.

The final key here to unlocking the tyrannical side of Berhalter is just play having enough players. His roster is limited right now. He doesn't even really have the option to bench under performing players, let alone cut guys for nothing in return. Options are limited. Frugality is needed.

With all that, Columbus does have desirable players that check off boxes that other teams might have. Here is a list of guys that could move.

1. Waylon Francis (51% chance of moving)
2. Hector Jimenez (49%)
3. Justin Meram (25%)
4. Ethan Finlay (20%)

Well, hmm. When I started this post I thought there might be more oomph to it. It's hard seeing Finlay as a plug and play player because he's not particularly a winger nor a mid-fielder. He's a guy that works well in a very specific role in the Crew SC system. He's on the list, though. He did break through to the USMNT and has an all-star appearance.

Ultimately, basically, I can see Francis on the move. Maybe Jimenez. Plug and play. The other two on the list have some MLS value. The rest of the roster is too blah, too new to the league and/or too expensive for other teams to bother.


Now comes the fun part. Let's be bold. The guys I think should be on the move, be it Columbus trying to rebuild or the players themselves looking to further their careers (both MLS and beyond). Again, MLS mid-season window is mostly about spare parts moving around. But this is a team in need of meaningful moves to freshen up the roster. Can't have sacred cows here. The point of shaking up a team (in this case, threaten jobs) is to actually shake, right?

1. Wil Trapp. The most valuable MLS asset the team has and certainly up there internationally as well. He could fetch a small fortune for the team (well, the max that MLS allows). Maybe $500k to $1 million outside MLS. In MLS more than half could use him. Much TAM would be had and you might get more than one player back in return. Trapp is the face of Columbus, yes, but it's a dead end if he has any ambition. He can always come back later on.

2. Tony Tchani. He's bounced around the league already, so he knows the deal. He's a complex character but is one of the good guys. He gives the team toughness when he's out there. I think Berhalter has him locked in a role that he's grown out of. He's proven he can play with our without the team's better players. Lastly, and most importantly, I want him to get a fresh start.

3. Steve Clark. There is a crazy side to Clark that I like. He's one of those guys that plays like he's knocked back one or four beers? or... something before the game starts. Good 'keeper, no doubt, but he's becoming a cross between Tim Howard and Dan Kennedy right before our eyes. I think there would be interest outside MLS for him because of his experience. He's the kind of US player I WANT to see playing outside US borders. He would get a shot of the USMNT if he moved back abroad, I think. He knows it. Crew could get something and have a little depth now at GK.

4. Michael Parkhurst. For me, there is a sense that he's been used up by Columbus. The tank is empty. He came back into the league with the wave of US guys a few years ago with the expectation of making the USMNT for the World Cup (ie. via a connected Berhalter) and being a cornerstone of Crew SC (ie. Captain). The results? Not making the World Cup was a disappointment for him (for many, really), he climbed the MLS Cup mountain (again). Now Columbus has another young CB on the roster and he is somewhat unsure of his future. Parkhurst is a pro. It's a phrase thrown around a lot, but it fits him well. His role on this team right now is to try and limit the damage the rest of the year and, if he stays, muster up some energy in the offseason. At this point, it's hard to see that benefitting either the player or the team.

These players would make a good core to just about any MLS team, no question. But the situation is this; Crew SC is near bottom. It's not working. It hasn't been working and doesn't look to get working in the near future.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Just Act Like You're Up 2-0

Columbus failed to hold onto another lead at home as they settle for a draw against Orlando City 2-2 last night. It's easy to blame it on the patchwork four in the backline, but teams have been slicing through the middle of the field with ease to get there.

If there is one thing lacking from this group, it is the ability to defend in pressure situations. That's as cliche as they come, but it's numero uno on Crew SC list of issues (and it's a long list).

Let's put that aside for a moment, and go bigger picture with something frustrating for fans of competition. For winning and losing. What it use to be all about.

After being at the top last year, Columbus has now been near (or at) the bottom of the standings for the better part of this year. What do these standings mean? Well, it means different things to different people.

Modern sporting competition in the US is born from baseball. Long, meandering, seasons that are about the show more than the substance. Go out, have a good time. Flip on the old TV or mobile device and relax! You've earned it right?

MLS, as the most modern of the "big" leagues in the USA, has taken this to the furthest degree. It's about the show and little else. You would think it'd be difficult to maintain the perception of Show when you dealing with winners and losers, but it's proven to be not as hard as you think.

The secret? Just act like you are still winning. 

Even this morning here in Columbus you see the official site spitting out winner things. "10th goal in 14 games" for Ola Kamara. The return of a great player. Positive play. Sellout Crowd. And my favorite "sealed a point for the Black and Gold at home."

Basically, propaganda to cover up the fact that you are watching a crap soccer team. But again. To how many demographics does that matter too? It matters here at Helltown, but not to the majority that MLS is geared for... Families looking for a night out. Or, college-age fans looking for a good time in the supporters' section.

Columbus is just playing the part. Fine-tuning the art of smoothing over a rough season. Giving you the impression that they are still in it. That they are still winning the next one and that you are watching something special and important.

By the way, have you checked out the latest ticket bundles and craft beer selections for the next slate of home games? Head on out to the park and get some!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Crack in the Voice Conduit

Rumors started kicking up yesterday about Columbus picking up a young and talented center back from Norway. Today it's official. Nicolai Næss clearly isn't a patch to fill the gaping hole(s) at the position, it's a full on repair job. With Gaston Sauro still on the roster, it leaves team captain Michael Parkhurst holding the bag.

Transfermarkt has the player valued at around $650k, the same figure you see bopping around Crew circles right now (which, likely, isn't a coincidence). What this means is that Naess will be expected to start in MLS. But what does that mean for the players already part of the team at the position?

There are only a few scenarios that could fill out the top secret plan in Crew SC's brain.

1. They are planning for Parkhurst to stick around while both Sauro and Naess start. Possible that we see these guys in the playoffs, but his likely happens next year.

2. Sauro is done playing in MLS ("reports") and Naess was brought here to replace him. A "like for like" and Columbus will sign Parkhurst to a new deal.

It doesn't seem like Gregg Berhalter's style to make a signing and not make it clear to his current captain that "he's the man" going forward, but that appears to be what we have here. Here's what he said when asked about his future (via Tom Reed and the Columbus Dispatch)...

"There are certainly players who worry about it and it can play into some minds. I'm old enough now to know that it's beyond your control." - Michael Parkhurst

That just doesn't ring confidence in his position. Nor does it indicate they've told him that he is still in their plans moving forward. Parkhurst is being Parkhurst here, but it sounds like he's unsure of the future.

What this means is that there is a crack in Berhalter's only voice in the field since he came to Columbus three years ago. Parkhurst was selected for the commonalities between him and his coach, both in temperament and position. He has been Berhalter on the pitch - as it were.

While that hasn't changed in title, it has changed the dynamic by which Parkhurst approaches situations during games, practice and anywhere else. To run a successful organization you need your leadership 100% on board with things. Any sort of change there and you're running at a risk of (further) failure.

If Parkhurst is part of the future plans then I am sure that the coaches have already contacted him to reassure him of his role with the team. If they haven't? Boy, if they haven't.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Competitive Issue Keeping Crew Alive

Despite a remarkably poor run of results this year, Columbus still has some hope of something this year. MLS pretty much is designed to ensure that this is the case. Split tables and 60% of teams enter the season end MLS Cup are there and actually make it hard to be completely out of things. But there are other things not quite on the surface that create the bingo hopper nature of the MLS table.

Scheduling is the main drivers after East/West table and large contingent of teams making the postseason. During the summer there is always one Cup or another that pulls away the better players in the league (or at least distracts them greatly). On top of that you have unbalanced scheduling that jumbles it up.

On of the things new fans of the league first notice about the table is that West teams float to the top of the table. You hear things like "the East is garbage" and the like. Nobody ever seems to ask why this is. WHY is the West always at the top of the table? Are they just better? ... No.

West teams have a massive competitive advantage in that they play Eastern and Central teams late in the evening.

A normal non-night MLS game is just like any normal soccer match. Home team wins by an average of about 0.40 goals per game with the home team taking an average of 1.75 points per game. Figures fairly in line with the rest of the world in the sport (save for some leagues in Africa). Things change completely when you tease out traveling East teams playing late at night on the West coast.

1.75 PPG, +0.39 GD - Home Teams, Non-Night Games
2.10 PPG, +0.83 GD - West Teams vs. East/Central, Night Games

That's huge. To put it a different way, West teams have only lost twice from 29 this year to visiting teams from another time zone playing after 9 PM EST.


It's helping out Crew SC at the moment. They competition from the MLS Cup playoffs are playing a lot more of these late night West games then they are. DC, Montreal and the NY Red Bulls have each played three. Philly and the Fire have two and Orlando, New England, Toronto have each played one.

Just last night saw three EST teams play after 10 PM. Two ended in a draw and another (TFC) lost to a 9 man San Jose. All of these results have helped the Crew who haven't had to play a late one yet.


Only six more late night games for East teams (11 for Central) to go this year. Columbus, Revs, NYC, NYRB and Orlando each have one and Chicago has two. So, eastern teams will see some improvement in points and goals by the end of the year.

I don't see it helping or hurting Columbus from this point forward, however. Crew will have to stay in it minus the little bit of help they've gotten from scheduling so far.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Crew SC: WS Rating Update

Change in median WhoScored player ratings year to year for Crew SC players. While it is just one rating system, I think it is representative of the change in results and form from last year.

Anything over a 7.00 on the WS scale means the player is performing pretty well. Players in the 7.25 range are having / had an above average year. Callouts under table...

Player20142015201615-16 Diff% Change
Mohammed Saeid6.416.700.295%
Federico Higuaín7.377.147.250.122%
Justin Meram7.127.257.22-0.030%
Harrison Afful7.247.20-0.05-1%
Tyson Wahl6.887.016.95-0.06-1%
Steve Clark7.267.136.97-0.15-2%
Chad Barson6.846.636.48-0.15-2%
Héctor Jiménez6.796.646.38-0.26-4%
Wil Trapp7.047.156.84-0.31-4%
Tony Tchani7.267.316.92-0.39-5%
Waylon Francis7.047.346.85-0.49-7%
Michael Parkhurst7.047.136.65-0.48-7%
Ethan Finlay7.237.046.49-0.56-8%
Gastón Sauro7.657.04-0.61-8%
Kei Kamara8.097.38-0.72-9%
Ola Kamara6.89
Cristian Martínez6.78
Corey Ashe6.64
Amro Tarek6.19
Dilly Duka6.17
Ben Swanson6.13
Emil Larsen6.05
Rodrigo Saravia6.04
Conor Casey5.61

1. Saeid jump is due to more playing time as a starter. 6.70 is a mediocre score. I like Saeid. If he had an offseason in a CM role, it could work. Haven't seen much from him as an attacking mid, however.

2. Higuain and Meram are extremely valuable to this team. Feather in Meram's cap that he hasn't dipped with all the injuries around him.

3. Trapp's performances are not up to his standard.

4. Finlay has not adjusted to play without Higuain on the pitch. Just not contributing like they need him to. I'd put him back out there when Higuain is healthy. Use him as a sub if a spark is needed till then.

5. Sauro and Kei are the reason's Crew made the final last year. Higuain as well, but those two were in a separate class. Without them, this team is not good.

6. The team needs Higuain back to get consistent results and pull themselves out of last. In order to make the playoffs they need Sauro back with 10 games left.

I like using the median score of a player because it tells me what I'll likely get from the player on any given night. I've been close to these WS ratings for 3 years now, I like them. Not perfect (and don't get hung up on the exact number!), but they do a fine job of painting a picture when used in this way.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Crew Roster in Shambles

They say to not lose track of the basics. For some teams that might be as simple as player positioning, passing, shooting. For others, you have to walk it back further. Being able to travel a full roster of 18 players is as basic as it gets and the Crew were not able to do that for the second time this year.

Columbus has injuries to four players, which hurts, but MLS teams are allowed to carry up to 28 players on their senior roster. The league also allows teams to have an affiliate or a "II" (reserve) team in USL (3rd tier) to help in these situations. 

Right now Crew SC are sitting on 24 players. Let's do the quick math as to why things have gotten here. How about we start with recent player disputes / mishandles with the organization...

1. Emanuel Pogatetz - Option officially declined on December 7, 2015. Just a day after the MLS Cup final (league rules, likely). But problems arose much earlier in the year. Somehow he managed to get into the coaches doghouse and never made it back out. The drama / weirdness lasted most of the year last year, which is why he's on this list. Never want to let that stuff fester.

2. Romain Gall - Waived in February 2016. Not so much a dispute (though, there was some smoke) as it was just a failure to do anything with a promising young player that they went after (same thing with Ben Swanson, you could say). Columbus, as an organization, hung him out to dry. He's playing with Nykopings BIS (Swedish first division) right now.

3. Amro Tarek - Waived, May 5, 2016. This one just didn't work out. He wanted playing time (he totally would have had it by now!), but didn't get it. He must have been promised time. He's back playing in Egypt.

4. Kei Kamara - Traded May 12, 2016. We all know this one. Open dispute about an incident on the field with Federico Higuain. The team made it seem like it was more deeply rooted than that, but they were the one's that gave him a big DP contract a couple months prior. 

5. Emil Larsen... sent back in his homeland due to a dispute over playing time. Technically, he is still on the roster, but we will not be seeing him back. From Transfermarkt to FIFA 16 and Football Manager, everything pointed to him being a starter. He didn't get his time. Got chirpy and Crew sent him packing, likely because they learned a lesson from the Pogatetz situation.

Now, on to the current roster. Key missing players due to injury, suspension or international travel.

1. Federico Higuain - Sports Hernia. He's out for a few more weeks still. Likely longer. It's amazing how much of the midfield he held together. It's exposing Ethan Finlay (and, perhaps, Wil Trapp). Shoes too big to fill right now.

2. Gaston Sauro - Knee. Key to helping the team get to the MLS Cup last year. Smart player, but appears brittle. With the team running off Amro Tarek, it leaves depth at center back completely thin.

3. Conor Casey - Probably various injuries. This signing felt like an old MLS vet signing a buddy. It's fine, but Casey shouldn't really be considered a viable option behind your starter. He is right now, so his injury is costing the team.

4. Cristian Martinez - International Duty. 

5. Matt Pacifici - Injury. 3rd string keeper.

6. Ben Swanson - Caught in no-mans land.

7. Tyson Wahl - Suspension. Should be back next week.


Resolving player issues. It was interesting to see Steve Clark taunting Kei Kamara yesterday in the second half (before he scored on him) then after the game watching Kei hugging Mo Saeid and chatting up a couple other Crew players. From the outside looking in? Things don't look fixed.

Signing players. Dilly Duka was an immediate necessity. It's difficult to find free agents laying around this time of year that can go right away. 

Things working against signing players. Crew are 19th on a 20 team table. Good players probably aren't knocking down the door to come. You'll have to find players without options and want playing time. You also have the very public dispute with Kei Kamara that pulled in dark clouds. Players see this stuff. 

Lack of reserve team. This is number one on the list, really. It's been on my list of issues since they dropped the reserve team a few years ago. Look at the players Gregg Berhalter is relying on right now. Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, Tony Tchani and even Chad Barson. Old reserve stalwarts I would go watch back in 2012-13 that everyone made fun of took a team to the MLS Cup final. Right now, there is nothing. The affiliations have not worked out (likely been more of a burden). The well runneth dry now. It needs fixed. 

This whole post is the reason for a reserve team. Player issues and injuries happen to every team, it's how well prepared you are to deal with them that makes the difference.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Crew Notes before tonight's match...

Sitting down to do this one because there is a thing about to happen that hasn't happened in Columbus for a long time (possibly has never happened, but my records only go back to 2007, which is plenty far since this league changes so much year to year).

1. Ola Kamara Scoring Record. Gregg Berhalter wondered why his scoring record hasn't gotten more attention (Columbus Dispatch, July 9, 2016). There are a couple reasons for this. Okay, maybe three. First off - He's only played 609 minutes. He's on fire! But he won't start pinging any spreadsheet warrior's radars until he hits 900. 2nd. He's only got goals (7), no assists and has never registered more than one Key Pass in a match so far. Kei Kamara was regularly involved in the run of play. Holding up play or distributing a key pass or header. Ola is a straight up lethal goal scorer. Lastly, Ola has passion to spare, but he looks like one of those placeholder headshots for players in FIFA 16. "Robot-y." Harsh, I guess. But Kei, by comparison, had personality and an amazing, unique look. He also played happy.

2. Where is Wil Trapp? (or) Time for Wil Trapp! When a team loses a couple top players you usually look for other guys to pick up the baton. Both behind (CBs out) and in front (Higuain out) puts Trapp kinda in no-man's land, but you would think he would grow into a larger role. Instead, overall play has leveled off (outside of turnovers, which have tripled this year). Maybe it's a coaching issue. Maybe it's just him being so locked into his ways. Not sure. He's a good player, no question. But he's not getting better. If he wants that USMNT spot, he'll have to do that. Also, not be on a really bad team.

3. This team needs help. Even if it's just warm, healthy bodies.

4. Last one. There's a chance that Columbus drops to the bottom of the combined MLS table tonight. I've never seen that at any point during any season I've been tracking it (since 2011). It's amazing how with modern sports they've got it figured out how you can feel good about a last place team. Or if you are critical of a bad run or bad season that you look like Mr dark clouds. Last is Last. Completely and totally unacceptable in MLS. The team needs to unwind what has happened now that they are in this position. Anthony Precourt knows this. Ohio sports fans are notoriously positive about their teams. Perhaps it's because they are familiar to bad pro teams and always have the Buckeyes to fall back on.

Eventually, a losing record catches up to you and hits you where it hurts (attendance and engagement with fans). What's interesting is that we've never really seen a Columbus team out of the hunt by the team Ohio State University football starts up. At least, not in recent years. It'd be a strange place for all involved. Especially for new operator of the team who isn't complete in-tune with this funny dynamic.

Pressure is on! And it feels kinda good, in a weird way. MLS is a league usually bereft of pressure save for late on. But here we are. Can someone step up and win a few to lift the team?