OBETZ, Ohio – When Gregg Berhalter was hired as head coach and sporting director of Columbus Crew SC after the 2013 season, he had to sell his new squad on his philosophies as a coach.
Berhalter had been fired earlier that year as coach of Hammarby in the Swedish second division, with the club citing a lack of offense as the reason.
"Gregg has brought order to our defensive game and has good discipline in the squad, but unfortunately we have not seen good enough dividends in the offense," Hammarby chairman Kent Hertzell told the club website at the time.
But when Berhalter arrived in Columbus, he brought with him a different idea, one that he had been formulating between the two jobs as he traveled around Europe, watching games in Spain, England, Sweden and the Netherlands.
“I said, ‘You’re crazy. It’s too much. It won’t work,’” Higuain recalled with a smile.
Berhalter’s plan, as has been demonstrated in his four years with Columbus, was an attacking-first style that included aggressive fullbacks, an appreciation of possession and an uncanny ability to put chances on a silver platter for his strikers.
And by the club’s first preseason game of 2014, Higuain said he was sold.
“It worked,” he said.
That conversion was key for Berhalter, who said his concern wasn’t about forcing his system on his players. Instead, he said he wanted to get “approval” from them.
“None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for the players, and [Higuain] is a big part of it,” Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com. “There are other guys along the way who have been big parts of it. It’s key to have the players wanting to do this and embracing it. If not, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Pedro Santos arrived in the middle of the 2017 season, and the experienced winger said he fit right in to Berhalter’s style of play. Santos and Higuain both said they don’t think the system is unique in world soccer, but think it’s a good way of approaching the game.
Santos said he appreciates its emphasis on exploiting open space, and believes “of course” it would work anywhere in the world.
“If you play against other teams who close the space, the important thing is the movement – the ball and the players,” he said. “[Whether] you do it here or another place, I think you get a result.”
But the system’s player-friendly style and adaptability doesn’t mean it’s easy to adjust to.
Midfielder Artur was just 19 when Berhalter brought him to Columbus last season, and the Brazilian said he’s only now feeling fully “comfortable” in the system at all times. While he said he likes the way the team plays, he admitted it can be difficult to learn.
“It’s hard,” he said. “You have to be very focused and concentrate to do everything right.”
And with new faces performing well once again in key roles for the team, it’s never been more evident that the real star in Columbus is the system.
“We’re about the collective,” Berhalter said. “We’re about 11 players, on the day, being able to play together in a way that makes it difficult for the opponent. I don’t think we’ve ever been about the individuals; that’s not our style.”
None of the team’s ability to move on from its stars comes as a surprise to its coaches or players, who have consistently said their success has never depended on specific pieces.
What does surprise them, however, is that some people are just beginning to notice.
“We’ve been playing this way for [four years] now,” Higuain said with a laugh. “I’m surprised the media is talking about it now.”