After three relatively quiet Superdrafts, Columbus Crew SC head coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter made it clear that he expected more from the process.
Berhalter believes Crew SC improved on his first three performances this year, drafting defender Alhassan “Lalas” Abubakar with the fifth pick and forward Niko Hansen with the ninth selection. And after admittedly having disappointing drafts in the past, Berhalter said he and assistant coach Pat Onstad were more prepared than ever.
“In this draft, we had a very clear understanding of the top players,” he said. “I think that was a result of a two-year process with Pat Onstad scouting these players extensively.”
With their first pick – the highest pick Berhalter has had to work with in his Crew SC tenure – Columbus may have given fans a hint at a new direction. Abubakar is now the fifth center back on the Crew SC roster, and Berhalter admitted that the team’s approach may include some experimenting.
“You could read into it that we would be experimenting with some sort of three-at-the-back situation,” he said.
But regardless of formation, Berhalter expects Abubakar to contribute. The Ghanaian center back went to the University of Dayton, a short trip from Columbus, and Berhalter said he was very familiar with the defender.
“He’s a guy that gave all these forwards a very difficult time in this Combine,” Berhalter said. “We’ve been watching him over the last year and a half at Dayton and at our Las Vegas combine we had, and we saw him again here.”
Berhalter’s mention of the combine echoed the reports of many who said the defender drastically improved his draft stock in the last week, and Abubakar credited the combine with his draft position.
“Coming into this Combine, I was really prepared,” he said. “So when I got here…I told myself that I was going to compete and raise my stock. That’s what I did this past week.”
While Abubakar may have expectations of quick contribution, Hansen appears to be more of a project for Berhalter’s staff. The versatile attacker is expected to play as a winger or second forward in MLS, and Berhalter said a generous comparison could be made between the New Mexico University product and Crew SC winger Justin Meram.
“In terms of the versatility, [Hansen] certainly has that,” Berhalter said. “He can play forward, attacking midfield and the wide positions. He’s a very dynamic player who gets into dangerous positions.”
Hansen isn’t sure where he fits in Columbus, but says his speed and nose for goal will be his major assets.
“I feel confident wherever I’ll be,” he said.
Niko has some highlights. https://t.co/UaxA6y9uG4— Major League Soccer (@MLS) January 13, 2017
Berhalter feels good about what his team accomplished, but said he doesn’t want to over-promise. He reiterated the gulf in competition between college and professional soccer, and tempered short-term expectations.
“When you look at this [draft] group here, it’s a big step from this group to MLS,” he said. “I think there are probably two players that will be starters in this group, so it’s going to be difficult for them.”
Crew SC has two more draft picks in 2017, selecting fifth in the third and fourth rounds, which take place Tuesday.