Analysis

Why Columbus Crew SC is the best MLS team that nobody's watching

USA TODAY Sports-Trevor Ruszkowski

Small market, quiet personalities, expansive style: Columbus is under the radar, but doesn't seem to mind.

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Gregg Berhalter has already had a taste of an MLS Cup final in his tenure with Columbus Crew SC. But for the first time since he began running the club’s entire soccer operation, Berhalter has a team built in his own image.

This Columbus squad isn’t flashy. It’s rarely found in national headlines, largely disinterested in making grand assessments of itself, and is only able to claw its way onto MLS' national television schedules once in a blue moon. It might be the best team nobody is talking about, and that’s fine with Berhalter.

In the very first press conference the Crew sporting director and head coach ever participated in, Berhalter made his intentions clear. He said his plans revolved around a soccer philosophy. He envisioned “a club about community, a club about togetherness.”

Nearly four years later, for better or worse, that’s what Berhalter has built.

Whether it’s the cause or the product of that cohesion, the group is in the midst of the most recent version of the late-season runs that have become the coach’s trademark.

THIS CREW DOESN'T ROCK THE BOAT

Berhalter’s debut season in 2014 left him with a roster that failed to emphasize the philosophies he so values, and the following season’s addition of Kei Kamara rocked Columbus.

Kamara helped solve the club’s scoring problem, setting the league alight in his MVP-caliber season. But from All-Star snub conversations to lavish celebrations, the striker’s red-hot performances never quite seemed to mesh with the team-first, lie-low attitude of Berhalter or Michael Parkhurst, the boss’ unassuming, cerebral on-field surrogate.

Everything was perfect in Columbus until the infamous 2015 MLS Cup loss at home. And in the wake of the gut-wrenching defeat, the squad began to unravel.

Kamara chased his career year with a winter that likely sealed his fate before he stepped onto the field for the 2016 season. He spent the offseason talking about retirement, discussing a post-retirement acting career and holding out for a bigger contract.

And when he blew up in the face of quiet worker Federico Higuain in 2016 — one of the most infamous MLS moments in recent memory — then sulked in the wake of the tantrum, Kamara expedited his move.

Since the incident, plenty of vague comments have alluded to issues that bubbled under the surface for some time. But Berhalter, Higuain, Kamara and the rest of the Columbus group at the time have been clear in their implication. The star striker wasn’t moved because of the on-field spat.

He simply never fit.

Talking about Higuain earlier this year, winger Justin Meram came the closest of anyone involved to confirming that.

“[Higuain] fits this club — that’s what we’re about,” Meram said. “No matter if it’s my success, his, Ethan Finlay’s or any of the guys that have been around — Kei Kamara — it’s all about the club. When it’s not about the club, guys move on. You’ve seen that.”

WINNING IS THE BEST (ONLY?) PUBLICITY

In retooling his roster for the club’s current run, Berhalter stuck closer to his principles, building a squad dictated by the ideas he laid out in his very first press conference.

The attacking trio of Ola Kamara, Meram and Higuain is among the best in MLS, with 36 goals and 17 assists between them. But even with the addition of Pedro Santos, the team’s most expensive signing in history, it’s an often overlooked group, in part a reality of the shadow cast on the rest of the East by Toronto FC and New York City FC.

“When you’re playing for Columbus, you will probably be a little bit underrated,” Kamara said earlier this month. “You see what [Justin Meram] is doing right now. … If a left winger is scoring 10 goals and has seven assists, in every league you’re probably one of the best players. But in Columbus, people don’t really pay attention to it as much.”

Berhalter had his own thoughts on that idea, and of course, he went team-centric with his response.

“If we win, there will have to be stuff written about us,” he told reporters.

The answer serves a double purpose. Though it may be Berhalter’s actual viewpoint, the secretive and reserved Crew SC boss knows he can’t publicly say that he likes his scorers going unrecognized to keep their ego in check. Being known as “the team that doesn’t get any publicity” isn’t good for attracting talent.

But by tying his team’s publicity to their success, Berhalter steers the conversation back to his own opening words — a club about “togetherness.”

In Berhalter’s eyes, Columbus doesn’t deserve attention if it can’t win. But if his stars take the Crew back to an MLS Cup final, they’ll get the attention they deserve without having to beg for it.

And in the process, maybe he will, too.

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