OBETZ, Ohio – When Columbus Crew SC took the field against D.C. United last Saturday, it marked the debut of head coach Gregg Berhalter’s new-look 3-4-2-1 formation, a departure from the familiar 4-2-3-1 the system-oriented manager has become known for.
But with the change in formation came the debut of the man who anchored the center of that three-man backline, rookie center back Alex Crognale.
The University of Maryland product and Columbus Homegrown did far more than just fit in during the club’s 2-0 win, he excelled in his first MLS appearance. His performance earned him man-of-the-match honors, he was named to multiple league teams of the week and he even found a spot on the MLS Fantasy dream team.
“It’s nice,” Crognale said with a laugh at Crew SC training on Tuesday. “Getting all the recognition after a debut is kind of unexpected, to say the least. But I’m trying to stay grounded. It’s only one game. I haven’t done much yet.”
Multiple last-ditch Crognale tackles helped secure the clean sheet for Columbus, and the rookie credited Berhalter – himself a former US national team center back – with a piece of pregame advice that helped him stay focused.
“One thing I notice is that the speed of the game in MLS is fast, and for most rookies, that’s what they need to adapt to,” Berhalter said. “So the way they compensate to make up for being out of position is to rush over and try to make up for their error by sliding.
“I said before the game, ‘Stay on your feet. You’re big enough, you’re good enough at one-on-one defending, just stay on your feet.’ And for him to do that, I think, was a testament to him.”
Crognale said he was “mentally prepared” thanks to Berhalter’s advice, but admitted that he had the butterflies of any first-time MLS starter before the match.
“There were nerves at first, for sure, [for] the first time stepping on the field and an away game against D.C. United – it’s tough,” he said. “But once we got to the stadium and I got out on the field, the nerves kind of settled and the whistle blew and it was just like any other game.”
Despite the widely-praised performance, Crognale’s starting role is far from guaranteed. Not only is Berhalter non-committal on the permanence of the three-man backline, but starting center back and Designated PlayerJonathan Mensah is again available for selection on Saturday against Portland(7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE) after missing last week’s win due to a red card suspension.
And though Berhalter wouldn’t make any guarantees, he admitted that it’d be tough to make any lineup changes this weekend after the team recorded their first victory of the year last Saturday.
“Any time the team wins, it’s tough to change the team,” he said. “That goes without saying. So it will be tough to take anyone out of the lineup.”