We are only two weeks deep into the 2017 season and it is crystal clear that Columbus did not knock the stink off the team from last year.
No doubt that Crew SC has not been able to win much on the pitch over the last 12 months, as the team record in that time is one of the worst in franchise history. There are some quality problems, but the issues we are going to be talking about now aren't so much about results or expected goals or quality of play in this half or that - as they are about the soft skills side of the game. As in - players, coaches and front office working together towards a common goal. Here is where Columbus Crew SC is failing.
All organizations have issues that crop up between people. Especially in sports where so many "type-A" personalities mix together in an intense and small environment. But there are signs in Columbus that point towards some severe issues with fundamental team building blocks.
FIVE RED FLAGS
Red flags have become difficult to see in MLS. It seems as access to franchises increase via the world of social media, the availability of raw information decreases. What "raw" refers to is non-filtered information. MLS is still relatively small in size so they have the unique ability to control most of the information that gets distributed.
Columbus was not able to hide a few things that happened last weekend, however. By a few, I mean more in one game than I've ever seen in one game.
1. Poor Play: Harrison Afful sub at halftime. It was basically a like for like sub and no injury. Afful was not playing all that well, but it wasn't a miserable performance. If he shuts down? It's going to be a long painful year for Crew SC. Whatever the issue. It's not looking good.
2. Bad Fit(s): Artur (who clearly has talent but isn't an easy fit for the team) was subbed off at 58' minute for Abu (who also hasn't really fit in with the team). Both of these players are just sort of dangling out there. Fill-ins for Tony Tchani? And where the hell is Tchani? It's unclear. We know Berhalter wants more interplay up the pitch from at least one of his central defensive mids, but he insists on trying everything besides shifting Wil Trapp out. This leads us to...
3. Leadership Questions: Wil Trapp was given the armband, but with a qualifier. He doesn't have broad enough shoulders to carry the full load of it (per his head coach!) so a sort of captaincy support group was created that includes five other members of the team. It sounds bizarre because it is. This type of action is what you might expect during an intense all day corporate brainstorming meeting at the local hotel to spruce things up. It's completely inappropriate in a sports setting and doomed to fail. One specific example of Trapp not doing his leadership thing was when it started raining last weekend. Both teams just rolled over and accepted the result early in the 2nd half. It was a huge opportunity for Columbus to jump back in. Seems small (and abstract), but leaders see those opportunities. The good ones do, anyway. Houston was ripe. At the very least, let's see some fight.
4. Conflict Avoidance: As mentioned in #2 and 3, working around the Trapp problem instead of addressing it. He had one of his worst games last week (after a down year last year) and he's not able to carry the captain role by himself, yet it was given to him. I'm not sure what the solution is right now. Bench him and it'll be chaos. Keep playing him instead of Artur or Tchani or Abu and the team will not be as good as they can be.
5. Player Turmoil: It's no secret that something hasn't been quite right about the Crew locker room ever since the Kei Kamara issues last year. We don't get to be in that locker room but we can see outward signs of continued problems. Specific example last weekend was the late game argument between Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain. It was more than a minor spat. There is something deeper and darker there.
What this adds up to is; some rooted issues that need to be cleaned up.
After two years of building/rebuilding off the previous coach and investment group's work, Gregg Berhalter is struggling with making this team his own. The transition is sloppy and the roster plan is not cohesive.
All the expected goal metrics in the world are not going to make up or cover up the issues mentioned above. It was an Achilles heel a couple years ago, but now it's a massive issue hanging over the team.
It can be fixed, of course. The process has to start now. Issues have to be directly addressed soon or it's going to get worse.
HOW TO FIX IT
1. Address, don't hope: More than likely, Afful's approach to the team and game was something that was noticed before the start of last weekend (if it wasn't, then we've got some much more severe issues going on). If he wasn't all in, don't start him. You can't just hope it goes away. Most of the time it will not.
2. Make a bad fit good: Sign another Brazilian. Even if it's one currently in MLS, go find him. One thing that stuck with me from reading Soccernomics years ago was signing players in pairs (or groups) to help them feel comfortable. I've recently heard scouts talk about the issue of comfort and to recognize that you aren't signing just the player on that youtube highlight video and that the environment that player is in played a significant part. Artur is such an odd signing for Columbus. There could be something I'm missing about it. A connection with another player or coach, but right now he is just dangling out there. The odds of it working are not good.
3. Realign leadership: And by "realign" I mean blow current structure up. Give the armband to the longest tenured player or to who you believe is the best and or most worldly experienced player. Giving it to hometown kid Wil Trapp isn't going to work. Not in today's MLS where over half the players are from all over the globe and have played in several countries AND at higher levels. The second part of this... the sub-committee on leadership. Dump it. Captain and Vice-Captain and leave it alone. This whole thing is way overthought. Way overcooked.
4. Again. Address issues: A pet-peeve of mine with Berhalter for a while. He's skipped post-game talks with his team because he was disappointed and this past weekend he told the team something to the effect of just pretend it didn't happen. That's bad. Like, really not good. The process should remain the same in loss or in victory.
5. Mend Bridges: Nobody on the outside knows what players do not get along in the locker room - and how deep those problems are. But it's the responsibility of the coaches (and leadership!) to sniff them out and work on them. No, they can't be fixed overnight or even in months, but they have to be in the process of repair. At least pointed in the right direction of repair. I don't see that right now.
The Beginning of Nothing
Things for this team have not improved since the departure of Kei Kamara last year. It might even be generous to just to say that they are about the same. One thing you cannot say is that "it's just two games into the season." Deep team issues don't just magically disappear over the offseason. You can't hope it away. You have to work at making it better.