Stejskal: Crew SC's Gregg Berhalter emerging as league's master tactician

OBETZ, Ohio – On the broad spectrum of soccer coaches, Gregg Berhalter skews more towards severe than showy. In a profession that usually labels its most flamboyant and flashy as its most creative, the Columbus Crew SC manager gives off a stereotypically Midwestern sense of austerity. He often rocks all black on the sideline, typically restricts his public displays of emotion to steely, stern glances at the fourth official and has a reputation in American soccer circles for being something of a hard-ass.

His outer shell is tough, and Berhalter is certainly demanding. But anyone who’s paid attention to Crew SC since he took over ahead of the 2014 season knows the 44-year-old is much more than some buttoned-up taskmaster. To hear certain Columbus players tell it, he’s less dour drill sergeant than gifted artist, a coach with the tactical chops to build a rock-solid identity and the imagination and courage to creatively tweak his foundation on a weekly basis.

“His ability to paint a picture for us and then draw up and think of drills to then take that picture and make us understand it and progress with it early in the week is unbelievable. I’ve never been around anyone like that,” said Crew defender Josh Williams, an eight-year MLS veteran who’s played under five different head coaches, including two different stints with Berhalter in Columbus.

“He always finds a way to play to our strengths; he’s always putting us in good positions. To the rest of the league, it looks like a very complicated system, which it is, but we spend so much time on it that I think we go into each game having the same type of picture painted in our head as he does. His ability to prepare us for those moments is incredible.”

Berhalter’s coaching talent isn’t the only incredible thing in Columbus these days. Despite going through unprecedented off-field turmoil surrounding the club’s potential move to Austin, Crew SC are on an absolute tear on the field. Columbus are unbeaten in their last 12, a streak that goes back nearly three months. They’ve saved their best performances for the playoffs, outlasting Atlanta in a penalty kick shootout after an epic Knockout Round contest at Mercedes-Benz Stadium then ripping apart 10-man New York City FC 4-1 in Columbus on Tuesday night to take a huge lead into Leg 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Sunday (5 pm ET; ESPN in the US | TSN1, TVAS in Canada).

Crew SC are playing some of the boldest, most attractive soccer in the league out of their 4-2-3-1, and they’re doing it with a budget that pales next to the other MLS teams playing solid attacking ball.

They had their share of sloppy moments on Tuesday, but their comprehensive win against NYCFC had all the hallmarks of an excellent Crew SC performance. Alexander Callens’ second-half red card made things a lot easier for them, but Columbus’ shape was solid all night, their movements finely coordinated. Their transitions from back to front were breakneck and relentless. Their passing sequences were often pretty, and always full of intent. Fullbacks were popping up as No. 10s, holding mids were shifting out to the flank, wingers were cutting in and leading the forward line. Everything had a purpose. Every player seemed at ease.

My favorite sequence from Tuesday came on Columbus’ final goal, a 93rd-minute Harrison Afful strike that was as surprising as it was elegant (watch below). Berhalter had shifted to a three-man backline late in the second-half to throw more attackers at 10-man NYCFC. Afful and fellow outside defender Hector Jimenez moved up to wingback, a shift that paid off hugely on the goal. Afful won an errant NYCFC long ball near the start of the attacking third and started a 12-pass, 35-second sequence that he ended in a feat of amazing patience and skill. The Ghanaian turned down three different opportunities to fire a shot on frame from inside the box, waiting and cutting again and again until four different defenders were left helpless on the ground and he was calmly rolling a five-yard shot into the back of the net.

It was a beautiful bit of a position-less soccer, a taste of Total Football in Central Ohio. That sort of play doesn’t just manifest out of nowhere, either. Afful’s goal was driven by individual brilliance, but it also required an in-sync XI, an entire team that understood their coach’s tactics so well that they could read the game three, four and five passes ahead.

“We’re a team that has guys that can play multiple spots; positions don’t necessarily define our players,” said Williams. “Even though Harry’s a right back, you might find him in the middle of the field dribbling four guys and slotting it home at the end of the game.

“I don’t think you can define our guys in that little box. Even I like to get forward at times, we were just talking about it in the locker room. And [Berhalter] gives us that freedom. As a player that’s where the fun comes from, and that’s where you enjoy showing up every day. You’re constantly going to be tested and he might put you in a spot that you’ve never been, but he’s going to prepare you for that.”

That sort of coach is scarce in MLS. Too many teams in the league look tactically naïve, like they don’t have a clear idea of what they’re doing. Even when they’re not executing, that’s never been the case for Crew SC under Berhalter.

At least some of the league has taken notice. Williams said he regularly gets unprompted messages from players on other teams (including a few “huge names”) praising Berhalter and Columbus’ style of play. It’s time for the rest of us take a page out of their book. Crew SC are far from a perfect team, but Berhalter has been one of the top managers in MLS for years. His demeanor might not demand it, but we should start recognizing him as such.

“He’s a tactical genius at times,” Williams said. “I saw it when he first signed on with Crew SC in 2014 and that first preseason, even the first game against D.C. at the start of the season, I had guys coming up to me and they were just like, ‘You guys are playing amazing, what are you guys doing, we couldn’t figure it out.’ There are still times like that, like during this streak we’re on where you can tell a team has no idea how to process what’s going on. It’s amazing.”

“He’s the best coach in the league, bar none,” Williams added later. “It’s not even close in my eyes.”

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