How Gregg Berhalter transformed Crew SC into an MLS Cup contender

Gregg Berhalter - Columbus Crew SC

In just two years, Gregg Berhalter – enabled by owner Anthony Precourt – has turned around the soccer culture of Columbus Crew SC.

When Berhalter arrived in late 2013, Columbus was a middling club in MLS. There was no buzz around the franchise and nothing for fans to be excited about. The team wasn’t horrible enough for a massive overhaul from the Hunt family, who owned the club at the time, but wasn’t good enough to contend for anything meaningful.

But when Precourt bought the team and installed Berhalter, the coach began tearing down walls – literally.

“He gave up his office at our training facility to make the gym bigger,” midfielder Justin Meram recalled, noting that former boss Robert Warzycha’s office was “pretty sick.”

“(Berhalter’s) office is the smallest room in that building. He knew what was important. And that extra space right there just shows what he wants. He’s all for us. Just by tearing down that wall and clearing down his office for us to have a bigger gym…it just shows that he has all the right answers for this club and he’s doing everything he can to make us champions.”

But even a partial demolition project can’t turn things around on the field.

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For Berhalter’s tenure, the renovation represented a shift to a holistic approach. His attention to detail has become a hallmark of the club, and the players have taken notice.

“Off the field, [Crew SC leadership] has made a lot of changes,” defender and team captain Michael Parkhurst said. “[As] players, we recognize that and we’re thankful for that. We have a lot of respect for those people when they’re looking out for your best interests on and off the field, and it makes you want to work that much harder for them.

"The more seamless things are off the field," continued Parkhurst, "and the more well taken care of you are, you can focus solely on soccer and working hard and getting better on the field, and they’ve put us in a position to do that.”

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On and off the field, players say they know Berhalter cares about them.

Meram and goalkeeper Steve Clark get into competitive golf matches with their coach. Other players appreciate that he asks them about their personal lives and families.

But when he needs to be, Berhalter can be an intimidating presence.

“He can be intense sometimes, but he always means well,” midfielder Tony Tchani said. “He’ll yell at you sometimes, but he’ll call you to the side and be like, ‘You should do this.’ If you get a little frustrated, he has a different approach for everybody.”

Even with the occasional outburst, those who knew him as a player say Berhalter has mellowed as a coach.

Hector Jimenez now plays for Crew SC and was a rookie when he was Berhalter’s LA Galaxy teammate. He remembered a fiery center back who was never afraid to begin an altercation.

“Now that he’s older, he’s gotten a little softer, but he was definitely really intense; he would get in people’s faces a lot,” Jimenez said. “He would come into the locker room and call people by the wrong name on purpose just to get them upset.”

He recalled Berhalter calling Dustin McCarty [younger brother of Dax] “Justin” repeatedly and intentionally “just so he would be upset and wired and rattled for practice.”

How Gregg Berhalter transformed Crew SC into an MLS Cup contender -

But Berhalter’s fervor wasn’t purely mind games.

“He would come into a tackle and get into your face and say, ‘I didn’t even touch you,’ when he came in two-footed,” Jimenez said. “He was pretty intense. But deep down inside, he’s a really great guy.”

And while his players can tell stories of Berhalter’s fire coming through, they agree most with Jimenez’s last point. Ultimately, they love their coach as a person.

It was that personal connection that attracted their star player, forward Kei Kamara, who notched 22 goals this season. During their first conversation before the club acquired Kamara in the summer of 2014, Berhalter made his focus clear.

“He said, ‘I have your rights, and I’ll trade your rights to any team that you want to go to. I’m not forcing you to come to this team. Just let me know, and we make that happen,’” Kamara said. “When he told me that…I just felt like he’s a good guy. If somebody is willing to give you all that you want, then why not work with that person?”

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Kamara’s example was just one of Berhalter’s many attempts to put players first.

He’s said he wants to make Crew SC a “player-first” club many times, and Jimenez says the approach is all-encompassing.

“It’s [about] what we need,” he said. “If we need things on or off the field, if we need help, if we need video, they’re always there. It doesn’t matter what time of day, they go out of their way to make things easier for us, whether it’s outside or inside the pitch.”

Crew SC leadership may pride itself on flexibility for its players, but on the field, Berhalter allows for none of it.

“If you’re counting steps for cones in a drill and it’s off two inches, he’s going to freak out,” Meram said.

His attention to detail is second to none, and while players were in for a harsh change from the last regime, they’ve come to recognize how important Berhalter’s perfectionism is to the team.

Those ideas have helped the likes of Meram, Tchani and Ethan Finlay develop from passable MLS talents with potential into key parts of an MLS Cup-caliber side.

How Gregg Berhalter transformed Crew SC into an MLS Cup contender -

“That organization is so key,” Meram said. “I never really thought [about] being organized in training. When you do the grid sizes, everything has to be to the right dimensions and all these little things are the reasons guys like myself, Tony, Ethan have really had a breath of fresh air under this group of coaches. I give a lot of credit to them for my success over the last two years.

“The last two years have been the best years of my career, and it’s no coincidence that it’s with Gregg.”

Since his arrival, Berhalter has built a title-contending team. But he’s also facilitated that growth.

Under his leadership, Meram, Tchani and Wil Trapp have all received their first calls for their national teams, while Kevan George, Waylon Francis and Cedrick Mabwati have become regulars.

And when players discuss the reasons for their opportunities, Berhalter is always among the first.

“When Gregg came, he opened a lot of doors that weren’t accessible to us," Meram said. "We were playing in an era of Columbus Crew that wasn’t succeeding on the field. Off the field, it was kind of just here. There was nothing exciting, there weren’t any great players coming in. …There was nothing that was like, ‘Wow, Columbus Crew is the real deal.’”

The concepts Berhalter preaches are nothing new to him.

Jimenez remembered Berhalter using his now-trademark attacking style with aggressive fullback play when he worked with the Galaxy’s reserve teams as a player-coach during his transition into coaching under Bruce Arena.

And while Jimenez says that the attacking style is even more elaborate compared to those reserve games, Jimenez immediately recognized it when Berhalter brought him to Columbus as one of his first moves with Crew SC.

Looking back, it seems that it was the start of something great.

“At that age, when I was a rookie there, you could see that he was really into it and sooner or later he was going to be a great coach in this league,” Jimenez said. “Even at that age, you could see he had a different mind for the game.”

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