Formation change paying defensive dividends for Columbus Crew SC

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Thanks in large part to a formation change, Gregg Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC may have found a way to plug the holes of one of the leakiest defenses in MLS.

The club’s home win over the Philadelphia Union on Saturday marked their second shutout in a row, both resulting in 1-0 victories. The wins have come in a new 3-4-3 formation that marks a major departure from the 4-2-3-1 that Berhalter has used almost exclusively in Columbus.

Berhalter said the team has kept a “good, compact” defense in the formation, and said he’s happy with what he’s seen from the variation on his style, which was designed to fix defensive issues that saw Crew SC concede 32 goals in their first 19 matches.

“Part of the plan was, ‘How can we put ourselves into a position to win more games?’” he said after Saturday’s match. “The starting point is our playing style, but it’s in not conceding goals. … We’re keeping the ball, we’re moving the ball well and we’re able to defend well.”

Midfielder Wil Trapp admitted there’s been a transition period in learning the new style after playing predominantly the same way for three years. But he said the results speak for themselves.

“It’s certainly different than how we’ve been under Gregg for the last three years, so it’s taken a little time to adjust to,” he said. “But the center backs have done a really good job, and everyone else is slowly finding a way to make it work. It definitely shores up things in the back.”

The two 1-0 victories are a major departure from the usual Crew SC way. The club has allowed just over 1.5 goals per match and scored at nearly the same rate, earning a reputation for a potent offense but an inconsistent defense.

That means Berhalter’s men have to adjust to a more defensive-oriented style.

“In these games, it’s going to look a little bit different and we have to get used to that,” he said. “It’s still going to be our style, but the chances probably won’t be eight shots on goal. It’s probably going be fewer shots, but high-quality opportunities.”

But even for the team’s attackers, the wins are the real concern.

“I think sometimes we play so pretty and we don’t win games,” Justin Meram said. “We score a lot of goals and we still end up tying or losing. So it’s kind of refreshing to get these 1-0 wins.”

Berhalter declined to commit to the 3-4-3 as his every-week formation moving forward, but the strategy doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“We have our playing style; we have our way we want to play,” he said. “We want to dominate the ball [and] we want to move the ball around quickly, and we can do it in both formations.

“So now it’s about personnel and it’s about the opponent. What’s the opponent doing and who do we have healthy that can be on the field?”