The Crew managed a resounding victory at home on Saturday night against the Houston Dynamo. It was the 2nd straight emphatic home victory for the Crew, and this great run of form looks to be coming at the perfect time for the Crew’s playoff push.
These positive results are coming right on the back of one of the worst periods of the season, culminating in the 3rd loss of the season to rivals Toronto FC on August 9th. It was the first time ever that the Crew got swept for the season against Toronto and it was clearly a turning point, not just for the players but for head coach Gregg Berhalter as well. Berhalter was clearly disappointed in the performance and bemoaned the player’s lack of accountability on the pitch. His passionate request for more fight and vigor from his players seems to have paid dividends and there is hope that this rejuvenation can continue into November.
In terms of team news, there were some interesting things going on in the Crew backroom. Before the match, Gregg Berhalter confirmed that Giancarlo Gonzalez was on his way to Italy to sign with Palermo. Berhalter talked about how the offer from the Italian club was too good to pass up and it’s also reported that the fee (apparently around 5m) will make Gonzalez the most expensive transfer for a defender in MLS history. Berhalter went on to say “When this type of offer comes around, you take it. I think that, for us, it’s a game-changer in terms of what we’re able to do now with the structure of the club and what we’re able to do with prospective players.” It’s a big moment for the Crew, now with the rebranding of the club soon to come and a sort of transformation taking hold as the club looks to move forward. Owner Anthony Precourt has always compared the Crew to the Green Bay Packers in terms of what he’s trying to achieve with the club and the access of a smaller-city market. This kind of money is a foundation that can help not only further the club playing wise, but branding wise. It’s an important step, and I have no qualms with the club selling someone as talented as Gonzalez. I wish Giancarlo all the best in Italy.
In terms of actual player news on the pitch, Houston started off without new DP DaMarcus Beasley who traveled to Columbus, but was not included in the 18 man squad. The Crew’s Hector Jimenez made the bench after being sidelined with a leg injury for the best part of 2 months. Tyson Wahl came in to the Crew backline in place of Gonzalez and Eric Gehrig kept his place at right back as Josh Williams is still out due to injury. Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay both started on the wings after collectively putting in strong showings against the Galaxy last week. Jairo Arrieta wasn’t available, so youngster (and tallest player on the Crew’s roster) Adam Bedell started at striker.
The match started off with a few decent chances for both teams. Early on, Dynamo forward Will Bruin found himself 1 on 1 with Crew goalkeeper Steve Clark in the first half after a mistake by Wil Trapp, but the Columbus keeper was able to get down and brilliantly block Bruin’s effort. Federico Higuain later missed a glorious chance to open the scoring for the Crew, when his point blank header managed to ease over top of Houston’s crossbar. The chance was set up with a great Ethan Finlay cross to the back post, and a smart pullback header from Adam Bedell to find the Argentine DP in front of goal. Justin Meram finally opened the scoring for the day after capitalizing on a mistake from Dynamo defender Geoff Horst. Horst’s bad touch let Meram in on goal, and, after a few body feints and dribbles at the edge of the box, was able to finish past Tally Hall in goal.
The 2nd half started just as the first half let off with prolonged periods of Crew pressure. Youngster Adam Bedell scored the 2nd goal of the game and his second MLS goal this season, with a great header following a Justin Meram cross. The 3rd insurance goal was scored shortly afterward by substitute Aaron Schoenfeld. The Crew striker was able to latch onto a Waylon Francis pass and bury the ball into the net. Schoenfeld benefited immensely from a spell on loan at the Dayton Dutch Lions earlier this season, and seems to have come back to Columbus as a man on a mission. He’s put in some great performances from the bench since his return and looks to give coach Berhalter some selection headaches in the matches to come. The match ended 3-0 to the Crew in the end, and put the Black and Gold in 4th place in the Eastern Conference standings. Meanwhile, Houston dropped to 9th, a full 6 points behind 5th place New York Red Bulls.
There were obviously a lot of positives to be gleaned from this kind of dominant home performance but one of the biggest is the reinvigoration of Justin Meram. He’s been a kind of journeyman player in his 4 years in MLS, usually coming off the bench when he could see some game action. This season however, has been a revelation for Justin. He’s been given some regular playing time and he has taken advantage with some great performances. Saturday was the 2nd time in 2 matches that he recorded an assist and a goal, and his partnership with fellow breakout season candidate Ethan Finlay is producing some really fun soccer to watch. Meram has transformed himself from an impact sub to a starter in less than a couple of months and will be one of the first names on Gregg Berhalter’s team sheet while this run of form continues. I think the key to Justin’s success has been his returning consistency and confidence. He’s always been an impactful player, but never dependable enough to warrant an elongated period in the starting XI. Finally though, he’s been able to translate his ability into something more stable and it’s coming at the perfect time for the Crew.
Moving past individual break out performances, the most encouraging thing about the win was how complete it was. The team selection was a little disjointed, especially at the back, after some injuries and departures. Tyson Wahl came in for Gonzalez, while Eric Gehrig stayed playing at right back. There is some talk about maybe switching Gehrig and Wahl around, but with Gehrig playing so well on that flank in recent games, it probably made sense to just keep him where he was. For such a makeshift backline, I thought they all played well cohesively as a unit. The only real problem came from the Wil Trapp giveaway in the midfield, but that’s more a product of the style of play (with Trapp dropping deep in between the 2 central defenders) rather than any sort of tactical error. Another area of encouragement was the fact that Higuain had a rare off night, but it didn’t affect the performance and the result. In months past, when Higuain was playing poorly, the entire Crew side seemed to drop off physically, but that wasn’t the case on Saturday, with each midfield player picking up some slack and putting in some really promising performances.
All in all, the mood around the Columbus Crew camp is very positive. 2 straight convincing performances against decent teams has put the Crew right back in playoff contention. Owner Anthony Precourt has also announced that the club was hiring Andy Loughnane as the new President of Business Operations. Along with this new position, comes news that the official club rebranding will be announced in early October, complete with a new crest/badge. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this Crew team and all signs point to a period of prolonged success. Let’s hope it comes to fruition.
(image courtesy of mlssoccer.com)