OBETZ, Ohio – Heading into a stretch of matches that will determine whether a playoff run is a dream or a real possibility, Columbus Crew SC are relying on Gregg Berhalter’s Scandinavian pipeline more than ever.
Four of the team's most crucial pieces, after all, have roots in Europe’s northern corridor.
Goalkeeper Steve Clark, defender Nicolai Naess and striker Ola Kamara all came from Norway’s Tippeligaen. Naess and Kamara are Norwegian and both played with Staebeck at one point, though Kamara spent time with several teams. Meanwhile, Michigan-born Clark spent his formative years as a professional with Honefoss BK.
And Berhalter, who coached Sweden’s Hammarby IF in 2012 and 2013, also saw midfielder Mohammed Saeid play for fellow Allsvenskan club Orebro SK before bringing him to Columbus.
The major contributors in 2016 join past acquisitions like Giancarlo Gonzalez, Kristinn Steindorsson and Emil Larsen as players Berhalter has brought from Scandinavia to Columbus during his tenure. Even Michael Parkhurst spent time in Denmark.
But the Columbus head coach and technical director consistently downplays the link, insisting the players simply fit his scouting profile.
“The players were unrelated in how we acquired them; there weren’t really links between these players,” Berhalter said. “We’re scouting all areas of the world and we’re looking for two things: good players and good value. Wherever we can find that, we’ll bring players from. It happens to be that we’ve got three guys from Norway and one guy from Sweden.”
He does admit, however, that the players he sees in Scandinavian leagues are often suited to move on to bigger clubs.
“I think they’re tactically pretty well-schooled,” he said. “They have a good understanding of the game. A lot of teams play a zonal concept where you need to have the concepts of the game down to play that type of game. And technically, they put a lot of emphasis on building technically sound players.
“So you may never get the creativity side that you get from Argentines or Brazilians, but I think you can get a very steady, sound player.”
Saeid expects more and more players from the area to break into bigger leagues. He said he knew of 30 players transferring to larger clubs when he departed for Columbus, and thinks the players the area produces are capable of the step up.
“We all accept the challenge,” he said. “The fundamentals of the game are always there in Scandinavia. Tactically, guys are aware of how to win games, how to get results. Technically, everybody is gifted because most guys over there play futsal indoors and that improves your technique a lot.”
Naess said the transition from Norway to MLS isn’t easy, but he thinks players like himself and Kamara are motivated “to show…the Norwegian people that we can do well over here.”
He admitted that the difference between clubs has been “a big step for me,” but added that everyone in Norway thinks about moving to a bigger league like MLS. And with Naess and Kamara in starring roles for Columbus, he thinks the Scandinavian pipeline is only getting stronger.
“You have a couple guys who played here before, and you have two Norwegian guys who play in Columbus right now,” he said. "So of course the Norwegian people look more at the club and at the league and it’s more interesting to follow us.”