Analysis

Maybe the emotional plea isn't such a good thing for Columbus' MLS Cup hopes

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus is no London, but Crew SC might be America's Arsenal. Allow us to explain...

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If the first leg of the 2017 Eastern Conference final reminded us of anything, it was that Columbus Crew SC, the team, as opposed to Columbus Crew SC the organization, is going to lose —if it loses — very much on its own terms.

It’s almost impossible to talk dispassionately about Crew SC right now. The actions of the team’s owners and the #SaveTheCrew movement countering them are pure melodrama. Add that existential angst over the team’s uncertain future to the fact that the team is engaged in a knockout soccer campaign for MLS Cup, and every kick seems loaded with metaphor.

That’s certainly the spirit that saw Zach Steffen’s heroics against Atlanta, or the ricochets off the post that came to the team’s aid in both the Atlanta and NYCFC series, being valorized in a familiar team-of-destiny fashion.

Yet all of that sat slightly uneasily with the fact that all of this was describing … Columbus. It’s one of the paradoxes of all of the emotional intrigue surrounding the organization right now that of all the teams in MLS, this one is the one where it seems most ill-fitting.

ESPN’s announcers had speculated about what the 16-day break in the playoff schedule might have done to rob Columbus of the emotional momentum it had built up. But if anything, Crew SC has progressed by taking advantage of the emotions of others.

Atlanta and NYCFC both, in different ways opened doors for Crew SC to walk through, and if Toronto FC managed to subdue them on Tuesday, the Reds also failed to score against the Black-and-Gold, and could yet have that come back to bite them at BMO Field. Off the field, Crew SC’s fans may be yelling “Save the Crew” in every lull in the game, while pinning hopes on every long-shot solution to keep the team in the city, but on the field there’s nothing blood and thunder about Columbus.

In fact there’s a touch of Arsenal in the general character of the Crew — fastidious to the point of fussiness in possession of the ball, able to beat anyone on a given day, able to raise focus as Cup specialists.

Yet, Columbus also gives off the sense of being very good at everything and the best at nothing. Even its stars are understated — Federico Higuain is a wonderful No. 10, but ask anyone to name the best Argentine playmakers in the league and chances are you’ll hear much more about Diego Valeri and Ignacio Piatti than him. Ola Kamara scores goals at a prodigious rate and flies under the radar with equally impressive consistency.

In part, that low-key presence is encouraged by Gregg Berhalter. If you didn’t know his coaching career had been fashioned in Scandinavia, you might guess by the character of the team: pragmatism born of small-market necessity, with just a hint of design flair.

At its best, it gives the Crew a necessary machine-like focus on moving the ball smartly and with maximum efficiency — and even at anything less than its best, Berhalter is one of the more cerebral managers in the league when it comes to making in-game adjustments.

He drew the sting out of a difficult second leg in New York in the last round, and got his spacing just right in Atlanta. He didn’t win against a weakened Toronto in Leg 1, but nor did he concede, and a road goal next week could unsettle a BMO Field crowd with fresh memories of the New York Red Bulls scare in the semifinal stage.

The flipside to the machine Berhalter has built is that Columbus can be bullied off its rhythm at times. An insistence on playing out of the back has caught up with the Crew on occasion, and in an open game, the team’s central defenders can get stretched out of position. As soccer machines go, Columbus can be both complex and overly delicate.

And just like Arsenal, there seems to be a big gap between peak efficiency and the next level down. As Wil Trapp put it after the NYCFC home leg, “If pieces are missing or form is not the best, then it falls apart.”

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Small wonder that Berhalter’s players are leery of riding momentum, being a team of destiny, or surfing a wave of emotion. It’s not only an awkward fit for them culturally — it’s an active distraction from what they do best.

Kei Kamara’s goals helped drive the team to host MLS Cup in 2015, but Columbus missed the playoffs in 2016 when his presence in the side and confrontation with Higuain ended up diverting the team into a soap opera and out of the playoffs.

Now back there and playing against the backdrop of an even more emotive narrative, Crew SC has more to lose than to gain by letting the team’s uncertain future set the tone for its present.

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