Columbus Crew SC revamp academy, enshrining Gregg Berhalter's attack-minded playing style

Gregg Berhalter - Columbus Crew SC - Sideline shot, players in foreground

Owner Anthony Precourt and head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter took another step toward reshaping the image of Columbus Crew SC on Wednesday.

The club announced a revamped academy structure, headed by new academy director Michael Milazzo and modeled after the attacking brand of soccer Berhalter has brought to Columbus.

Crew SC now boasts that they have one of the “most qualified group of youth soccer professionals in the country.”

Milazzo joins Director of Methodology Nico Estevez, U-15/16 head coach and Performance Coordinator Joaquin Gonzalez, U-13/14 head coach James Fields, goalkeepers coach Andy Brinkman, scout and assistant coach Abdi Moallin and academy coordinator Todd Avery as part of an almost entirely recreated staff that promises to be “at the forefront of change.”

“We look at our staff, and myself, as agents of change,” Milazzo told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. “We don’t want to be following the movement, we want to be leading the movement.”

Berhalter said that after solidifying the first team, his sights have now shifted to an academy structure and staff that he says needed change.

“We clearly identified the structure of the academy as needing improvement,” he said. “So in a direct mandate from ownership, we wanted to improve. Not only have we improved, but we have one of the best staffs of any academy in America right now.”

But Berhalter didn’t just receive a mandate from Precourt.

“The budget has increased for the academy,” Berhalter said. “That’s a clear sign from ownership that Mr. Precourt wants us to be successful. He wants to see kids from the academy on our first-team field. Those lines need to be tied extremely close together for that to happen.”

Berhalter has preached the merits of his aggressive and possession-oriented 4-2-3-1 tactics since his arrival, and Crew SC fans shouldn’t expect that style to change any time soon.

The academy will be playing the same style at all levels, likely beyond the tenure of their coach.

“We want the entire community, the players and the staff to be proud of a particular playing style,” Milazzo said. “We want to associate the brand of football that Gregg has brought to the city to transcend his time here.”

That consistency, Milazzo says, will help US soccer as a whole.

“We have 12-, 13-, 14-year-old players playing this brand of football and this style,” he said. “They’re learning at a very young age, and four or five years down the road they’re still able to express themselves in that playing style. That will help the game move forward not just in our community … but improve the level of the game throughout the country.”

With improved academy players moving through the ranks and the promise of “a direct pathway to signing a professional contract” with Crew SC, how will the club accommodate an influx of game-ready players who are older than 18?

Berhalter would not confirm, but didn’t rule out a Crew SC-owned USL team to help players grow. The Austin Aztex, Crew SC's 2015 USL affiliate club, recently announced a one-year hiatus from play following flooding damage to their home venue. 

“Unfortunately, we’re not at that stage just yet,” he said. “We don’t have those numbers. [Like] with [homegrown rookie midfielder] Ben Swanson, it’s on a case-by-case basis.

“But in the long term, as we get those numbers, the USL is certainly an option that we’re going to have to look into more. What we see when you look at teams like LA [Galaxy] and New York Red Bulls, the ability to give these kids valuable games and keep them in their environment can only be accomplished through USL right now.”