Friday, March 31, 2017

Meram, Trapp Rewarded

Earlier this year both Justin Meram and Wil Trapp signed new contract deals that, under today's MLS roster rules, ensures they remain under the $480k max budget hit range. Details, of course, are not exactly known but it's understood that allocation money was used to buy down the player deals to prevent them from becoming "Designated Players." (Teams are only allowed three.)

In many ways, this is a reward for the two players for being above average performers since Gregg Berhalter's arrival. Both of them were important ingredients in his first offseason that late laid the foundation for what the team became in the successful 2015 season.

Both are contributors in different ways and both deliver in key areas for the team. Meram provides a wicked attacking ability in Berhalter's system while Trapp provides stable defending and distribution from the back. Beyond those things, both check off many soft skill boxes like being a team player, leadership, and work ethic.

Strong parallels can be drawn between this contract event and what happened in Kansas City a few years ago with Graham Zusi and Matt Besler. The two of them were important parts of a complete re-branding event and helped guide the team to a couple of the best years in franchise history while earning calls up to the US Men's National Team.

That was about two years ago. There was some concern at when the deals were struck that paying high wages to them would mean the movement of other, less sellable, players. Turns out that it did happen and the team did/has struggled since (I looked at that > here).

History should always be a guide in these situations. Especially when these types of events happen within a restrictive salary capped league. By increasing two player wages as much as they did, and moving out a key midfielder, Sporting KC chose style over substance. Marketability over results and it burned them.

Will that happen here in Columbus? Will the team now be strapped for money for a few years to come because of Meram and Trapp contracts? Large pay increases for individual players often lead to contentment (Ethan Finlay a possible example in Columbus). But it's going to be difficult to track. Rapid expansion of MLS and ever-changing roster rules will make it nearly impossible to tell.

What we do know is that two players got improved wages. Always a good thing, especially in a league that is tight with money in regards to player wages. Especially organically formed talent.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Rd. 4: International Break Broken

Crew SC finished off the Portland Timbers last weekend 3-2 in Columbus. The win is their second in a row and puts them one step away from finally getting a third. Something they haven't done since 2014.

The game was just one of three over the weekend, as MLS trimmed the schedule to make way for World Cup Qualifiers. What this means is that it is a random "Broken Game." While it's important for the teams that participated, the actual result might as well been decided by a role of the dice as both sides were missing key folks (more notably Portland with Darlington Nagbe out with USMNT duties).

Despite these things, the gears of the PR and hype machine continued turning. The lead has players and coaches on a high.

"The idea was to send a message,” Crew SC head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “Send a message that we're a good team, that we can hurt teams.”

Justin Meram, de facto team captain, echoed Berhalter's feelings, saying: “To [Portland] or to the league, to everybody, this is a team with a lot of quality,” Meram said. “We’re going to compete with the best of them.”

Columbus can compete with anyone. Confidence is good but this game vs. Portland isn't an indication of much. Crew SC were at home and facing a team without a couple of their best players.

Columbus looks for that elusive third win in a row this weekend vs. Orlando.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rd. 3: Crognale shines in forgettable game

1st-year player and locally raised Alex Crognale had a successful debut playing central defense for the Crew as they went on to see off DC United 0-2, in Washington.

The takeaways beyond the Crognale, are slim. Last weekend's game was everything early season MLS is and has been for the past handful of years. Sloppy play, lumpy surface, and varying degrees of interest from players on both sides.

DC is a bad team this year. They haven't scored a single goal through three games and have given up six. To make matters worse, they only real threat they had in attack (Patrick Mullins) pulled a hamstring in the opening half hour of the game.

Things weren't much better on the Columbus side. While they did create a couple good chances, they ended up playing most the match close to the chest due to (finally) rolling out a new formation that often times left a six(!) player back line (Afful, Williams, Trapp, Crognale, Naess, Riatala). Ben Olsen's DC side had no key to unlock that besides crossing it in (29 times!) towards a poor José Guillermo Ortiz or trying to play it over the top of a non-existent Crew midfield.

In the end, the formation change worked out for Columbus. Olsen sucks at figuring that stuff out, even if he bothers to try and Columbus benefitted from incredibly poor play in the box from fringe USMNT player Steve Birnbaum that resulted in two penalties for Columbus.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Red Flags (already)

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.


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.


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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Round 2: Troubling Loss for Crew

Crew did what most teams do after they are scored on early - they focus / re-focus and look razor sharp.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter praised the way the team played the first half, even though they finished it down two goals.

The 2nd half was a different story. Rain started falling and the game devolved into a sloppy mess.

An Erick Torres goal midway through the 2nd half saw Crew SC players dropping their shoulders and showing frustration with others.

By the end of the game, it was clear that there are more deeply rooted issues with Columbus Crew SC. The sub of "Harry" Afful at halftime and the early pull of quasi-captain Wil Trapp were concerning. Both of them were largely anonymous in their time on the pitch.

Late in the match cameras picked up a pretty good dust up between Ethan Finlay and Federico Higuain that looked like it had more history behind just what happened during the match.

We are only two games into the season and critical team issues are already showing. These types of things manifest themselves in arguments, preventable errors and bizarre halftime subs of non-injured players.

Might be a long season for this 2017 team.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Crew Open 2017 Season

Federico Higuain turn.
The 2017 Crew season opened with a 1-1 draw, at home, to Chicago. After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the first half via a beautiful cross from Justin Meram to Ethan Finlay's head, Chicago were able to level the match in the 2nd half (nifty footwork by David Accam).

This would be just another game were it viewed on its own, but it dropped a stink bomb on the opening week fanfare because of the issues Columbus had with closing out games from leading positions last year.

Good performances were turned in by new signing Jukka Raitala, as well as Justin Meram. Both commanded the left side for and owned the first half for Columbus.

For Chicago, it was the David Accam show. He was everywhere. Notable, however, was also goalkeeper Jorge Bava who made a handful of difficult saves taken by Crew players in and around the six-yard box.

Final Thought:

Columbus was the better of the two teams, but Chicago played the kind of game that neutralizes Gregg Berhalter's style. The secret to bottling him up has been out for over a year now, it's just a matter of whether or not opposing teams bother to shut it down or just play their own game.