It would be appropriate to applaud Columbus Crew SC for their success on the field in the last five years — four Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearances, two trips to the Eastern Conference Championship stage and an MLS Cup final on their home field. Columbus are one of six teams to have made the playoffs at least four times in the last five years.
It’d also be appropriate to applaud them for the kind of soccer they’ve played — passing out of the back, quick combinations to create opportunities, perfect spacing defensively.
But it’s the fusion of the two that will be remembered from Gregg Berhalter’s time in Columbus, which officially drew to a close on Sunday.
The combination of style and substance has always been a privilege reserved for a select few in the soccer world, a group connected by the common denominator of “net spend.” Winning is a meritocracy and quality is a tactical choice, but there’s traditionally a glass ceiling on doing both together. Most have to choose one or the other.
Berhalter didn’t though, as his Crew SC broke through that ceiling over the last five years. They played attractive soccer capable of getting results with one of the lowest wage expenditures in the league.
I remember doubting Crew SC’s decision to hire Berhalter in November of 2013. Berhalter was coming off a failed stint in Sweden. The former US national team defender struggled at Hammarby — a huge club for a first managerial job — and seemed destined to a few years as an assistant. But Columbus took a flier on him in 2013, and he took them to places few other managers could have.
Crew SC have become a symbol of the power of coaching. Don’t have the money to sign big names? Coaching can make up for that. Star players looking for more money? Coaching can replace them. Young talent that needs developing? Coaching can do it.
The black and gold Crew SC crest has grown to represent a soccer ideal. A well-functioning team beats a group of individuals. Forget the limitations. Find a capable coach and you can play whatever style your heart desires, and give the fans a playoff game with it.
Every team and fan around the league can point to Crew SC and say that anything’s possible. There shouldn’t be excuses for failing to build a competitive team. Columbus haven’t signed the multi-million-dollar players or lured established superstars. They’ve had tremendous adversity off the field for the last two years. Yet they’ve regularly run (or more accurately, passed) opponents off the park.
Berhalter used specific on-field instructions that ensured the team always played as a unit, using rehearsed understanding between teammates to maximize each player’s ability. He also found inefficiencies in roster building – prioritizing elite outside backs before most teams around the league, for example.
And he never shied away from the idea that players of any age could improve. I’m not sure anyone else in the league would have thought Josh Williams and Jonathan Mensah could have been starting center backs on the most pass-oriented team in the league, but Berhalter worked with them to make it happen.
Berhalter built a group that amounted to more than the individuals. Individuals come and go. The system stays, the philosophy survives, and thus the quality has remained fairly consistent.
The question for Columbus becomes: Does the manager count in that? Strikers, midfielders and defenders have departed. But the coach has been there for the last half decade; he’s the mastermind behind the identity. On Sunday Crew SC announced that a "search for new soccer operations leadership" has begun, with Berhalter's former goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad serving as interim GM in the meantime.
Perhaps the final test of Berhalter’s reign in Columbus will be how well he instilled the ideas and values in the club as a whole. Have the values outlived the leaders? We know who Crew SC are, so it won’t be tough to tell if they go astray.