The Columbus Crew's emphatic 3-0 opening day road win over D.C. United may have been a surprise to many who probably felt more time was necessary before the Gregg Berhalter revolution took effect.
But if you paid attention to the preseason, there were plenty of hints that Berhalter, who took over as new Crew coach last November 6, had already gone a long way toward implementing his philosophy. The Crew not only won the Disney Pro Soccer Classic tournament in Orlando, but they did it with convincing, decisive performances.
And what stood out in Florida is the purpose with which the Crew played. It was evident that every player already had a clear understanding of his role. After only slightly more than three months, the players were clearly buying into the Berhalter way. Saturday night's result was further proof.
"It's nothing I've ever seen before," veteran Josh Williams told MLSsoccer.com about the Crew's new style during preseason in Orlando. "The detail in it is something that strikes me. It was a little shocking at first, and I think it caught everybody off guard a little bit because they're used to other things. But it's something that we like."
What specifically is the Berhalter playing style? Columbus players helped outline the basic characteristics: a 4-5-1 with fullbacks that bomb into the attack and all 11 players getting on the ball, seeking triangles, combinations and 2-v-1 and 3-v-2 matchups all across the field. It's a possession-oriented system that demands building out of the back and passing through the lines and through pressure.
"That's something we haven't had before," continued Williams, who has been with the Crew since 2010. "[Berhalter] wants to play an attacking style of soccer, and you can see we're creating opportunities."
Now just because Berhalter once played for Bruce Arena at the Galaxy and with the US national team, don't assume his coaching methods are a carbon copy of Arena's. Berhalter calls the Galaxy boss a "mentor," but says he has picked up ideas from all his stops during a playing career that has taken him to the Netherlands, England and Germany.
Columbus midfielder Hector Jimenez, who played three seasons under Arena, including one alongside Berhalter, is the first to admit that the Crew set-up is "a lot different" compared to the get-the-ball-wide-and-cross philosophy in LA. He says Berhalter brings "a unique style to the league."
"He's definitely trying to bring a certain style of play that not too many teams that I've seen play in MLS," echoed veteran Michael Parkhurst, who played in Denmark and Germany after starting out with the New England Revolution. "Tactically, the way he's doing it on the field and implementing it, there are some parallels to Europe."
And tactics are a big part of what Berhalter is trying to achieve. Players say every minute in practice is accounted for and they focus on playing in their positions during training and replicating game situations.
"Tactics I think are underrated," Parkhurst continued. "When you're out there on the field, it's just nice to know that somebody is going to be where you think they will be, and it just gives you a basis to start from. … You can always go back to that base. So there's an understanding on the field where everyone is and where everyone should be."
It's all part of the organization and laser-focus that have slowly emerged as staples of Berhalter just months into his MLS tenure. But he's not a taskmaster, according to the squad. Players highlight Berhalter's openness, his reassuring positivity and his ability to communicate without the stereotypical coaching fits.
"He's just a really easy guy to talk to," Parkhurst said. "Sometimes if it's a coach that's barking at you, you might be afraid to ask: 'What am I doing and what should I be doing?' With Gregg, it's not like that. You can have that conversation with him, and it makes a big difference, especially for the younger players."
His new troops talk him up, but do not expect much self-promotion from Berhalter himself. He keeps his cards close to the vest, a public approach he made clear from the start, telling ExtraTime Radio back in November that his style would be "identifiable when you watch my team play."
But what he tells the media matters little in this equation. He has won his players over and transformed a club that admits to having grown stale after five years under former head coach Robert Warzycha.
"Just the level of expectancy and what he expects out of you: It's raised so much," Williams said. "It was kind of stagnant a little bit [before]. Gregg has come in and sparked everyone and brought a new energy, and you can't slack off. Every day, you've got to bring it."
"It's very much more of a streamlined and organized approach to every day," midfielder Wil Trapp said. "Every day has a purpose, and everything is organized how we go about training, how we go about the games. Everything is very efficient. That kind of sums up Gregg in a nutshell."