With the Columbus Crew SC on an eight-game unbeaten run and conjuring memories of their run to the 2015 MLS Cup Final, sealing qualification for the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs is far from coach Gregg Berhalter’s final goal for his 2017 squad.
“It’s closing the door on the great disappointment of last year,” Berhalter said after the win in Columbus' home finale. “And no one was satisfied with last year. The tone was set early on in preseason of how hard we were going to work, of what we were going to do to get back to this point. And give the guys all the credit in the world because they stayed focused and disciplined to actually achieve it.”
Several influential faces have come into the side since a disappointing ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference a season ago, including two who played key roles in this victory.
Josh Williams, who returned to Columbus after three seasons away, scored the opener and helped keep a clean sheet. Artur, a 21-year-old Brazilian loan addition this season, pulled most of the strings in the buildup that led to Justin Meram’s second.
With other preseason additions like Jonathan Mensah and Mohammed Abu, and the signing of Designated Player Pedro Santos in the summer window, it’s a decidedly different group. Yet it’s been clear to those arrivals how much the disappointment motivated those who returned.
“It was something that was understood,” Williams said. “Obviously the level wasn’t up to par. It started with defense, and we just wanted to get back to our brand, being a tough team to play. We want to out-possess teams, we want to play nice. But then at the end of the day, we want to have a bite defensively. I think we have that now.”
And new blood is far from the only explanation for the rebound. Federico Higuain now has nine goals and 11 assists after an injury-plagued 2016. Meram is having a career year after hitting the net for a 13th time this season on a sensational goal in the second half.
And from a big-picture perspective, there’s a substantial uptick in home form. Crew SC wrapped a club record 12th home win Saturday, and have earned 38 of their 50 points so far in the confines of MAPFRE Stadium. In 2016, they had only six victories while securing 26 points at home, and 10 on the road.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Berhalter said of setting the record. “I think that’s a good accomplishment. How many years the Crew’s been here and to have that record, I think, is special for the guys.”