Gregg Berhalter - Columbus vs. NYCFC - 2017 playoffs

Columbus Crew SC ended the regular season on a 10-match unbeaten run, and have upset higher seeds in back-to-back rounds to find themselves in the Eastern Conference Championship against Toronto FC

This is head coach Gregg Berhalter’s second run to the Conference Championship in the last three years, and it is interesting to note that his team are not exactly succeeding in the way they have in the past. While Crew SC finished the regular season with an average of 51.8 percent possession, good for the eighth-highest percentage in the league, they have averaged just 39.8 percent possession in the Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, which is the second lowest of any of the 12 teams in the playoffs so far, including the lowest possession percentage in a home match under Berhalter.

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This change in possession percentage raises questions about how to succeed in MLS's second season. Is there a difference between prioritizing getting three points in the regular season vs. putting yourself in a position not to lose in the playoffs? In an interview conduced on Friday, Berhalter told “The nature of a two-legged series forces you to alter some of the gameplan.” That said, he thinks that Columbus were not trying to avoid defeat in the home match against New York City FC, when they beat the Cityzens 4-1 in the first leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

“We scored four goals and could have scored six goals. We weren’t trying to not lose that game, we were absolutely trying to win it. When we were up two nothing, I was telling the guys ‘we need to score more goals. We need to add a couple more to the scoreline.’ It doesn’t necessarily have to be a conservative approach, but it could be a different approach.”

It is worth noting that two of the other bottom five home possession numbers in Berhalter’s four seasons in charge came during their 10-match unbeaten run. While Berhalter still clearly believes in his vision for Crew SC, he also recognizes that a different approach might work:

“We can be very effective in the offensive transition based on what the opponent is doing. We have to take advantage of it.”

Against NYCFC in the first leg, Columbus scored six minutes into the match through an Ola Kamararebound. Up until that point, in a small sample size, Crew SC had 56 percent of the ball. They won only two further five-minute possession intervals for the rest of the match. With a one goal lead, they were able to soak up the inevitable NYCFC pressure and attack more vertically, particularly after Alexander Callens was sent off for a wayward elbow.  They scored the second goal after regaining the ball near the center circle with just eight touches and the third after going from their own penalty box the NYCFC goal with three passes in about 12 seconds.


Berhalter noted that his team’s effectiveness in transition depends on what their opponents are trying to do while the opposite also holds true. Columbus struggled to defend in transition in a 5-0 loss at Toronto earlier this year, in a game that Toronto did not have Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore. Berhalter said that Crew SC played a 4-1-4-1 that was a little different than their normal formation,  and it was a “complete failure” but it “sends a signal to the group” that he was willing to try and be so open away to one of the league’s best teams.

The 4-1-4-1 formation isn't the only time that Berhalter has experimented this situation. In several matches he has trotted a three-man backline, to differing results, and it could be something we see against TFC.

“One of the revelations of the season for us was being comfortable playing in a three-back system. We wanted to integrate it. We put a lot of work into our playing style both offensively, defensively and I didn’t want it to throw us off that much. But we got to a point where we were very comfortable playing a 3-4-2-1. The spacing was good, the movement was good, our defending was much better in transition. It is something we should be aware of and that we’ll maybe consider.”

Earlier this year, Berhalter appeared on the “Soccer Speakeasy” podcast and noted that playing a back three gave his own team more stability in transition defense.  Given how effective Toronto has been at soaking up pressure and countering all year, being prepared to defend in transition will likely be a priority for Crew SC. You can see an example of when they struggled in transition playing in a back four in the 5-0 loss at Toronto.

Crew SC fans will hope the team’s ability to approach games differently can help them knock off one of the best teams in MLS history and host an MLS Cup final for the second time in three years.

Matt Pavlich is a youth soccer coach in the New York City area who holds a NSCAA Advanced National badge. He is the Assistant Coaching Director, Recruitment Coordinator and Girls 2002 head coach at Asphalt Green Soccer Club, and boys assistant coach at Martin Luther King high school. He has worked for Opta since 2011, primarily focused on MLS. He also played varsity soccer at Vassar College, where he could fairly be described as mediocre.