Boehm: Zardes, Berhalter and Columbus Crew SC's victory of specialization

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “total football” – that golden-tinged ideal that remains a guiding light in our sport even four decades on from Rinus Michels’ coining of the term – as “an attacking style of playing football in which all the players in a team except the goalkeeper can change positions during the game.”

Under coach Gregg Berhalter, Columbus Crew SC have generally gained a reputation for the type of fluid, cerebral soccer that takes its cues from those Dutch teams of yore. They like to win the ball, keep it for a while and use it to move around their opponents to create chances and control time and space.

Gyasi Zardes is the blunted, brute-force spear perched atop that foundation, and he did his job on Sunday afternoon, earning Crew SC a crucial clean-sheet victory in the first leg of their Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinal vs. the top-seeded New York Red Bulls.

On Thursday, Federico Higuain – once again – proved his incisive versatility in that system. The crafty Argentine playmaker has a fairly free role, roaming the pitch to link play, coordinate the buildup and conjure up moments of magic in the attacking third – like his two goals in the Knockout Round win at D.C. United, and the sublime backheel that set up Zardes’ winner in Sunday’s 1-0 victory.

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Michels’ dream revolves around cultivating Higuain types and packing them into the starting XI. Nice work, if you can get it. But it tends to be a tough ask in MLS, where salary budgets, roster rules and the flaws of the wider domestic landscape require coaches and GMs to get creative.

Last winter, when erstwhile No. 9 Ola Kamara requested a trade, Berhalter did what he’s done several times in this Columbus tenure (and what seems to have attracted the U.S. Soccer Federation in their search for the next US national team boss): He identified an underutilized asset, and coached it up.

Despite spending long stretches of his time with the LA Galaxy and USMNT as a wide midfielder and even a right back, Zardes is a pure frontrunner. He’s speedy, rangy, athletic, a hard worker and a renowned locker-room presence who can latch on to scoring chances and put them away if his teammates know how to make good use of his traits.

He’s a specialist, put on the field to do one or two things and do them exceedingly well. As my colleague Ben Baer notes, Zardes has the second-lowest usage rate* this season among MLS players, behind only Orlando City forward Dom Dwyer.
*Usage rate is calculated by taking a player’s passes per 90 minutes and dividing by their team’s passes per 90.

Translation: He touches the ball less frequently than anyone on his team. And that’s OK, because he’s out there to convert chances, and little else. His performance on Sunday was a study in minimalism:

Some people will look at those maps and see a passenger. But Zardes did his job, and it’s given Columbus a head start on the league’s top-seeded team. Berhalter is likely pleased, and the rehabilitation of Zardes – who scored 19 league goals this season, in the immediate wake of the worst season of his professional career – is a prominent feather in the coach’s cap.

“They make things so clear,” Zardes said, of the Columbus coaching staff back in March. “When I’m attacking I know what’s expected of me and I know what I need to do. When I’m defending, it’s the same thing. I know what position I need to be in, I know when I need to press … The coaches help clarify what’s expected of our opponent and what’s expected of us when we step on that field.”

Will Sunday’s efforts be enough to see Crew SC past the Red Bulls in Sunday's Leg 2? That’s an open question. But the No. 5-seeded underdogs are right in the mix against the Supporters' Shield winners. Zardes is a big reason why.

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