Tip Sheet: Columbus achieves early success by transforming its identity

US under-20 midfielder Wil Trapp has played a key role in the Crew's shift to a possession-oriented approach.

Ron Schwane/Ron Schwane-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter promised a new style of play when he took charge this year. The early stages of this season have delivered on that decree in spades with a refreshed team designed to keep the ball deftly and press forward earnestly and intelligently.

The revamped dynamic constitutes a significant shift for a Crew side often indifferent in possession and reliant on quick transitions through midfield in the past. This group prefers to dictate terms in the middle third in order to exert control over the match and pick apart the opposition.

“What we’re trying to do is play our style of soccer,” Berhalter said in a phone interview this week. “We’re trying to develop that. We realize it’s a lot of work and it takes time, but the guys have been really good at adopting our philosophies and executing them on the field.”

The strides made during the opening stages of the campaign reflect the framework constructed during preseason. Berhalter spent much of training camp trying to mold the side together and preach his principles to a blended group with familiar faces and fresh options.

Berhalter acquired Steve Clark to add stability between the sticks and rebuilt his back four with Waylon Francis, Giancarlo González and Michael Parkhurst to foster passing principles out of the back. He trusted Will Trapp to link the play in midfield and Federico Higuaín to operate in an essentially free role to create havoc in the attacking third. He turned to Dominic Oduro to lead the line once again.

“Gregg’s really found the people he wants who fit the system,” Parkhurst said by phone earlier this week. “They aren’t necessarily the best players available or anything like that, but they are guys who fit the system and who play in the way he wants to play.”

THE PATH TO POSSESSION

The collective investment in this 4-2-3-1 setup has allowed the Crew to dominate possession (only Sporting Kansas City averages a higher share, per Opta statistics) and use it effectively (84 percent passing accuracy as a team). The patient buildup starts out of the back (Parkhurst completes 91 percent of his passes, the top mark among defenders) and sweeps through Trapp most of the time. Trapp serves as the reliable metronome (455 attempts through just six matches) capable of linking the play positively (75 percent of his passes move forward) and retaining the ball effectively (89 percent passing accuracy). Higuaín, as usual, provides much of the impetus (20 chances created in six appearances) as he roves around in search of space between the lines.

The success of this deportment isn’t down to just a couple of players, though. Clark distributes effectively in goal (74 percent success rate, second in the league). Francis and Josh Williams provide width on the overlap by pushing high and sidestepping potential turnovers from their fullback spots. Every member of the Crew midfield cherishes possession (the five starters average between 84 and 89 percent passing accuracy) and uses it aggressively (only Bernardo Anor plays more backward than forward passes from his perch on the left). Oduro offers a potential release valve over the top and through the channels to supply necessary variety.

The cohesion and the proficiency across the board reflects the investment made by the players in the tactical approach and the willingness to operate within this new dynamic, according to Parkhurst,

“Our chemistry is really good,” Parkhurst said. “I think that makes a huge difference when you’re out there and you’re trying to learn a new system. You’re fighting each other in preseason and, when the season starts, battling with each other. I think chemistry goes a long way in that.”

Every game provides another opportunity to continue the progress made over the first two months. There is still plenty of work to accomplish, particularly as teams assess the benefits and repercussions of the approach and try to thwart it. Toronto FC sat deeply at Crew Stadium and snatched a 2-0 victory earlier this month by frustrating a home side incapable of breaking the dogged resistance. The subsequent draws against San Jose and D.C. United reinforced the need for more incisiveness as the season unfolds.

“I hope to get better in how we do it,” Berhalter said. “The level of execution when teams decide to pack into the box against us has to be there. The ball has to move very quickly. We have to have good movements off the ball. The biggest thing we’re looking to as a group is the off-the-ball movement and really being able to hurt teams even if they’re packing it in.”

Mustering potency on a regular basis represents the next step along the way for a team still in the nascent stages of its development. It will take time for the Crew to evolve into its final state. The first steps in that direction suggest this group will warrant monitoring as it continues to implement the more expansive approach adopted under new management.

Five Points – Week 8

1. New York quelled any last lingering doubts about its start in midweek ahead of a tough trip to Columbus … : Mike Petke’s side romped to a 4-0 victory over Houston to climb into third place in the Eastern Conference. The increased proficiency in possession and the utter ruthlessness displayed against the Dynamo bode well for a team starting to find its footing. The visit to Crew Stadium on Saturday night presents a fascinating battle between two sides staunchly determined to function on the ball. Look for the wide areas to play an integral role in the proceedings given the inevitable congestion in the middle of the park.

2. … while the match between Houston and Portland offers a potential reprieve: Both teams enter Sunday’s matinee at BBVA Compass Stadium in desperate need of three points. Houston lacked the necessary precision in front of goal (chances weren’t an issue at Red Bull Arena) and the requisite solidity in midweek to pull out a result in Harrison. Portland suffered a painful defeat at Real Salt Lake on Saturday despite submitting a good road performance. The primary task ahead for the Timbers: finding a way to transform the chances created into tangible gains on the scoreboard.

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3. Can Real Salt Lake make it eight?: Vancouver visits Rio Tinto Stadium in its bid to remove RSL from the ranks of the unbeaten and stop its six-match winless streak against the Claret-and-Cobalt. It isn’t an easy assignment for the Whitecaps. They must find a way to compete in the middle of the park and limit Javier Morales’ drifting between the lines in order to complete it.

4. Will D.C. United’s resurgence survive a visit from FC Dallas?: United usually prefers to operate in possession, but it relies on a more streamlined approach now to cater to the strengths of Fabián Espíndola and Eddie Johnson. If it adopts the same tack against FCD, then the visitors could punish them for it given their proficiency on the ball and the potency presented when Mauro Díaz finds it at his feet.

5. Is it time for Frank Klopas to worry?: Klopas received his first vote of confidence from sporting director Nick De Santis just seven matches into his tenure as Montreal boss. If results do not improve quickly (and a triumph over Philadelphia at Stade Saputo would certainly help), then the ground underneath Klopas might start to wobble in earnest.