For fans of the Columbus Crew 2018 was not merely about success in Major League Soccer. It was far more fundamental than that, it was about survival.
The Anthony Precourt era of the club’s history was defined by a civil war between owner and fans as the former tried (and failed) to relocate the team to Austin, Texas. This was despite the city’s best attempts to satisfy his wish for a new stadium.
In the end, Precourt sold the club to a group of investors fronted by Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns. The ownership group also includes Dr. Pete Edwards, the longtime team doctor. Edwards has held the position since the team debuted in the league in 1996, and in the wake of the takeover, he has been keen to stress the bond between the club and its supporters.
Throughout this uncertainty, Gregg Berhalter coached in earnest. His reward for just over four years in Ohio was an opportunity to coach the United States National Team. A month later the Crew confirmed his successor as Caleb Porter.
The 44-year-old, formerly of the Portland Timbers, was a man with connections to Ohio following a spell coaching at the University of Akron. He also knew the Crew well.
"This is a good team," Porter said. "I’ve always admired this team and watched this team from afar. That’s one of the reasons I decided to come here."
Porter’s admiration for what he inherited was not the only reason the transition has begun smoothly. Porter and Berhalter share similarities in their outlook. While not identical both men favour possession football, but Porter evolved from dogmatic to pragmatic during his four years with the Timbers, a spell that at its apex earned an MLS Cup win (the club’s first) in 2015.
This season the Crew have remained that same possession-focused team that operates in a 4-2-3-1. Porter has, however, implemented subtle tweaks. Gyasi Zardes enjoyed a career-best year under Berhalter last season by scoring 19 regular season goals.
In 2019, Zardes has been asked to involve himself more in build-up play. The core principals that made him so effective last season —being a presence in the box, connecting with crosses— remain, making his new role more evolution than revolution.
“We’ll still do that [crossing in from the wings], but I also like to combine central and to do that you need to involve your nine at times,” Porter said. “It’s really simple movements, check, pull out the center backs and then just pop it off.
Playmaker Federico Higuain, the brother of Chelsea’s Gonzalo, has also dropped deeper to involve himself more. This facilitates more freedom for wide players looking to attack, as well as aiding Porter’s long-term vision that sees more combination between the Argentine and Zardes.
“I want the 9 and the 10 to connect a little bit more than in the past,” Porter said. “To get Pipa [Higuain] involved if we are trying to play balls directly to him all the time it’s very difficult. If we can bounce it through Gyasi into Pipa, we’re getting the 9, and the 10 opened up a little bit easier central in the build-up.”
After three games Columbus sits second in the Eastern Conference on seven points with just one goal conceded. They are level on points with Conference leaders D.C. United, and it would be fair to say the players are already a fan of their new coach.
“I think Caleb has done a very, very good job of taking a group that’s been established and evolving it and trying to implement small things that he believes will take us a little bit further,” said midfielder Wil Trapp.
It is worth noting the transition to a new era can be difficult. Atlanta United won MLS Cup last season under Tata Martino, but new coach Frank de Boer is still to win a game in MLS. The tactical shift, from Martino’s aggressive, attacking style, to a more rigid 3-4-3 system has felt awkward.
That is why so many fans backed the decision to hire Porter. Any new appointment holds an element of risk, but the Crew did their due-diligence.
Porter has ties to Ohio, his ethos overlaps with his predecessor, and in time he will also bring a new twist to things in Columbus. He represents a shift, but a subtle one. The Crew have not been to an MLS Cup final since that defeat to Portland in 2015, but they now hope the man that beat them that day can bring success back to the club as they begin their bright new era both on and off the field.