His first unsuccessful season is serving as a learning experience for Gregg Berhalter.
The Columbus Crew SC boss had nearly immediate success when he joined the club in 2014, overhauling a depleted roster to improve a team that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference in 2013 into a three seed in the playoffs in his first season.
He followed that performance with an impressive 2015 season that included some of the league’s most attractive soccer and a trip to MLS Cup, where Columbus lost to the Portland Timbers.
But coming so close to a title may have doomed the team in 2016, and Berhalter said after the season that he didn't put enough pressure on his squad and wasn’t sure his team recovered from the loss in the final match of 2015.
“In my eyes, we were a little too complacent,” he said. “We took into account the short break. We took into account that we had multiple guys on multiple national teams and we pulled back a bit. We didn’t push them as hard as we had in the past, and I think we sent the wrong message.”
Midfielder Justin Meram, one of the team’s longest-tenured players, said that while the MLS Cup hangover faded as the year went on, it certainly affected the team.
“I know I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I think maybe in the beginning of the year, we couldn’t get over it. That’s why results weren’t going our way.”
Berhalter was adamant that he doesn’t regret the choice to bring back most of the team that nearly won the Cup. He said he’s “the type of manager that stays by the guys and gives them as much rope as they need,” and put the blame on his own shoulders.
“If anything, it’s the management of it that I could have changed,” he said. “There were times in preseason where I sensed what was happening and I gave too much benefit of the doubt instead of tightening up and saying, ‘OK boys, we need to pick it up a notch.’”
Berhalter says he’ll approach things differently now.
And while he’s always been a one-game-at-a-time coach, Berhalter says he’ll redouble his efforts to keep his players focused on the task at hand.
“You can’t take things for granted and you need to continually manage,” Berhalter said. “It doesn’t [happen] by itself. Collectively, we all want to do better. It’s about complacency.”
For Meram, that message rings true. And he thinks a difficult year may help those who remain from that team.
“I think this season maybe needed to happen to realize that we’re not going to get in the playoffs [automatically],” he said. “You had the playoffs in Gregg’s first year and then the next year MLS Cup and everyone just thinks results are going to come.
“But there are a lot more to results…and I think everyone needs to really understand their roles and how important it is to the system. You can’t be left alone on an island or we’re going to get picked apart. I think we learned our lesson this year.”