Ahead of Sunday’s Eastern Conference Championship opener, it’s been just over a year since the Columbus Crew became Columbus Crew SC, and just over two years since the organization appointed Gregg Berhalter to his all-encompassing position of head coach and sporting director.
And as the team prepares to play their high-octane brand of soccer in front of a sold-out MAPFRE Stadium against the New York Red Bulls (5 pm ET, ESPN/ESPN Deportes, MLS Live, SiriusXM 85), it’s easy to forget how recently the club was struggling to bring in fans to watch a less-appealing, utilitarian brand of soccer.
Midfielder Wil Trapp grew up as a Crew fan and signed his first professional contract in 2013. Now in his third season, it’s easy for him to see the growth of the club.
“It feels different,” he said. “It’s been a comprehensive change from my rookie year even into last year and now. Just with the way we approach everything in the locker room, on the field, the fan support, the front office support, [it’s] a comprehensive approach to excellence, in a lot of ways. I think you’re starting to see the fans come through and us making real headway on the field.”
That on-the-field headway has come thanks to Berhalter’s direction. And while he doesn’t want to take credit for it, his philosophies of attacking and attractive soccer make it seem like Crew SC is playing an entirely different sport than they were under former head coach Robert Warzycha.
“It’s not my style of play, it’s our style of play,” Berhalter said. “The players deserve all the credit for what’s happening. They’ve embraced it, and they’ve really put themselves out there, because you expose yourself sometimes and you have to keep pushing and keep daring to fail. The guys have done a great job of that.”
A large part of Berhalter’s revolution has been his work off the field.
Berhalter has made tweaks to the team’s training facility, locker rooms, player meals and more, and has combined that with a collection of signings who have undoubtedly strengthened the team. One of those additions was captain Michael Parkhurst.
“From what guys have told me about what this club was prior to Gregg, it’s been wholesale changes,” Parkhurst said. “He’s moved the club in the right direction, and it’s obviously great for all of us here and the league in general. I think everyone in this locker room is proud of who we are, our identity, the way we play, and enjoys playing soccer every day.”
And with 24 months of experience under players’ belts, the Berhalter style of play is starting to click in Columbus. While the coach himself would always say there’s room for improvement, his players now understand their roles and spaces better than ever.
“With Gregg, he’s always pushing the boundaries of where we can be,” Trapp said. “He would probably never tell us that he’s super satisfied with how we did, but I would say that we’re definitely coming onto the point where it is second nature. We know where guys are; the movements, the execution is just there. You don’t have to think about it.”
But if no one is watching that execution, it’s hard to get excited about.
Just a year ago, Crew SC hosted their first playoff game in four years. On a cold Saturday and competing against a big Ohio State football game, the club drew just over 9,000 fans to watch a blowout loss to the New England Revolution.
Since that match, the club has set records for attendance in 2015, found a naming rights partner for the former Crew Stadium and will draw upward of 20,000 fans Sunday for an over-capacity sellout that required adding more seats within the stadium.
The on- and off-the-field improvements have reinvigorated the Columbus fan base and attracted some new ones.
For longtime fans like Jim Bach, a fan since the club’s first season, the rebrand was tough to adjust to at first. But like the players adjusting to Berhalter’s system, the team’s new look has become second nature.
Bach recalled seeing the now-vintage construction workers logo in a Columbus Applebee’s.
“As I’m walking to the men’s room there’s a giant Crew mural sign on the wall, but it’s the old Crew logo,” he said. “So it was just kind of a shock to see that, after the rebrand. It’s like, ‘Wow, I just walked back in time.’ … I’m so used to seeing the new logo I don’t think about the old one much.”
Not everyone at Sunday’s game will be old fans, however.
- Find more Columbus news at ColumbusCrewSC.com
Shawn Justice started following the team just over a year ago as his six-year-old son Lincoln got into soccer. And the club’s upward trajectory caught his attention.
“The whole rebrand sucked us in a little bit more,” he said. “It’s really cliché, but it feels like we’re not just fans, we’re almost part of it. I feel like we’re in a great time in MLS because it’s growing but it’s still not too big for the fans.”
But once he got into the stadium, Justice, like many others, got to see Berhalter’s style of play. That style of play even has veterans like Bach excited.
“By August I’m not sick of going to games,” he said.
And for Kei Kamara, who was in Columbus in 2006 and returned to the club late last season, the renewed energy around the team translates onto the field.
“Hearing a lot of people in town saying they’re going to the game gives you a lot of energy and hope to try to do something well,” he said. “And we just want to get there and be able to put on a good show for everyone who’s coming out there. I get this energy. I’m alive when they’re here.”