Friday, October 24, 2014

On the Road with Vidda "JibJab" Grubin

The open plains of Southern Illinois are rolling by outside the driver's side window. They're also rolling by the passenger side window, and under the tires of my Odyssey. (A Honda van, not the crumbling fa├žade of my mind's thinly veiled, ill-chosen path through life).

The open plains, covered in soybeans, corn and wheat, are home to sudden miles of tall white sentries, whose hair spins in the ever present Midwestern breeze. If I don't fall asleep at the wheel while writing this (I'm multitasking. I'm possibly the only writer to ever compose an in-depth analysis of a professional soccer team's style of play while simultaneously navigating the coma-inducing middle of America at 70mph).

Okay, so I'm sitting in McDonalds trying to win a million bucks one Big Mac at a time. But, I am in the heartland and there are many miles, 240,000 to be exact, on the odometer. Travelling the tournament poker circuit in North America is a mysterious fantasy, achingly lonely and eye-opening.

The poker (Mostly cash-game play. Play made-up of staring at total strangers across a couple feet of felt) is not going well of late. Folding winners after the turn, and not getting paid off when value betting the nuts, makes losing hands the primary focus of one's bankroll graph. Unlike the plains, the graph representing money spent versus money earned looks like a downward sloping mountain side.

So, naturally, I've decided to write about the Columbus Crew.

One nice side benefit of playing cards in casinos from Columbus to Las Vegas, and everywhere in between, is the ability to watch almost any sporting event known to man. Simply ask the floor manager to put a certain channel on, and there's the Columbus Crew, beating the NY Red Bull's to every lose ball.

The Black and Gold's maturation in 2014 has been as exciting as it has been surprising. The clues that Gregg Berhalter knows what he's doing were there for all to see during preseason. (Well, for those few who follow the American soccer scene closely. A more ubiquitous presence in the unencumbered media MUST be a priority for Major League Soccer going forward)

In a matter of two or three weeks, Greg Berhalter transformed the stagnant, clearly dissatisfied, roster of Columbus Crew players into a team of creative souls unleashed. While early positive results were followed by a long string of frustrating ties and losses, the trained eye could see the players wanted what their coach was serving on a daily basis.

The spark of excitement displayed on the field never waned. Gregg Berhalter stuck with his core players game after game. Young players meshed with veteran players.

Berhalter wanted his squad to pressure up the field. He wanted his defenders to do their job, with or without cover from the midfield. The midfield was being asked to read the game as they saw it happening in real time. There was/is more freedom of choice being offered by the manager. But, and this is a doozy, Gregg Berhalter has managed to convince his players that with each inch of freedom and creative license comes another inch of personal accountability, for not only self but team.

This is a key difference between the mindset of the players assembled each Saturday in Crew Stadium in 2014 and that of the same players the last 2-3 years. The idea of responsibility and accountability took a front seat to creativity's spot in the trunk of the Odyssey the past couple of years.

Over reliance on stressing responsibility narrows focus. Narrow focus is easily exploitable on a soccer field. The Columbus Crew's focus had narrowed to such a pinpoint between 2010 and 2013 that opposing coaches had little to worry about when it came to preparing their team to play the boys in gold.

The Crew's expanded focus has not only made them more successful, it has created a team that is truly fun to watch. From the chances taken on the back line, moving the ball on the ground through the goalkeeper and central backs, to the overlapping runs of the outside backs and the immediate pressure applied by the mids and forwards when the ball is lost, the Columbus Crew Soccer Club has brought joy, and a love for the game, back to Hudson Street.

Watching the quick interplay in the opposing teams end of the field is inspiring. Seeing players like Tony Tchani, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay find their voice on the field is what the game is all about.

Bottom Line, Gregg Berhalter gets... IT. IT'S... the players and the combination of equal parts freedom, creativity, inspiration, responsibility and accountability. We as fans have been the big winners this year. Regardless of the outcome of this year's playoffs, we all know, hell, we all feel, the magic of the game is back in Columbus. May it never leave.

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