Tony Tchani, Crew SC

OBETZ, Ohio – For the third straight year, Tony Tchani is playing his best soccer as the MLS regular season winds down.

The Columbus Crew SC midfielder put in a team-of-the-week shift in the club’s 2-1 road win over D.C. United Saturday, and coaches and teammates are noticing yet another of Tchani’s late-season surges.

“He’s been getting stronger as the season has been going, and I think that’s a good sign,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said.

Tchani, who excelled at the end of 2013 under interim boss Brian Bliss and boosted his performances at the end of Berhalter’s first season in 2014, believes he’s simply on a trajectory that a season should follow.

“The season should be going upward instead of downward,” he said. “But it just depends on the games. You can play some games and you don’t do so well, but it’s something that just happens. Every time I step on the field I’m trying to do my best. It happened like that last year, but it’s not something I plan on doing.”

Tchani’s belief in himself has always been the key to his performances. Largely misused and kept on a short leash with the previous Columbus regime, Berhalter and his staff have trusted the midfielder since the coach and sporting director’s arrival, and are now reaping the rewards.

His growing confidence was evident Saturday, as he came out firing against United, letting three early shots fly from distance that were only denied by quality Bill Hamid saves. Tchani then went inches from scoring on a corner kick, which would have been his sixth goal of the season. He had never reached more than two before 2015.

Tchani says he isn’t focusing on adding offense to his game, he’s just taking what the match gives him.

“On Saturday, I didn’t even think of those things,” he said. “Sometimes I’m always looking to combine and pass and stuff like that. But I saw the opportunity because no one stepped to me. It wasn’t that far, so I just thought, ‘Take your chances.’”

Whether intentional or not, Tchani has also become more of a leader in Columbus. He’s not the most vocal player, but his performances and work ethic have given him a lead-by-example quality.

“His confidence has grown with good performances on the field, and with that is always going to come a little more leadership,” midfielder Wil Trapp said. “When it needs to be him, he’s taken that role extremely well.”

Tchani says Berhalter has told him to be more vocal, but he’s taking cues from veteran Michael Parkhurst, who became the club’s captain weeks after his acquisition and has more experience than most on the young team.

“Since day one when he got here, he’s somebody that, just by listening to him and the way he does things, you go, 'Wow,'” Tchani said of Parkhurst. “He’s a guy that I really respect. He’s not that vocal, and it’s always positive. There’s no negativity in the group. Having those guys always make things easier.”

This year he’s scored more goals, taken more shots and grown in leadership: Does that mean it’s been the best of his career?

Tchani says that’s not for him to decide.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s something that I’d like the coaches to give me some feedback on. I’m really hard on myself sometimes, and I don’t really care about goals. I don’t feel like goals should be the focus for whether you’re having a good season or not. The focus should be on your play, not the goals.”