Analysis

Amid Columbus' struggles, Wil Trapp's growth continues

The Crew's No. 6 may be reaching his MLS limits. As Paul Tenorio found out, both Trapp and his coach see more to accomplish in Columbus.

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The video clip went viral within the American soccer Twittersphere two years ago.

Footballing legend Thierry Henry was holding court with reporters after a game against Columbus Crew SC. He was insisting the best player on the field was Wil Trapp.

“Wil Trapp is the key of that team,” Henry told reporters. “… Wil Trapp does his job. He brings the ball out for them. Difficult to stop. He has hopefully for them a good future. He is American. You guys should be happy.”

The moment, of course, was a special one for Trapp. Trapp was just 21 years old at the time and in his second professional season. A legend was singing his praises. It would turn into a somewhat transformative moment for the young midfielder.

Trapp didn’t feel like he played a particularly strong game that night. He did the simple things right. He tackled the ball away from Henry and sparked a goal with a pass. That Henry appreciated that performance, however, reinforced to Trapp how he should approach the game.

“It’s [about], ‘How can I effect the opponent with passing, with movement, with positioning to get my teammates in a better position and be able to really unsettle the opponent?” Trapp told FourFourTwo last week. “My position is one that’s very subtle. Subtle in movement, and subtle in the things that make the difference. … It’s more about the small things done well over time that make the difference.”

Reaching his potential

Two years later, as Trapp approaches the end of his fourth professional season, there is speculation about what should come next for the 23-year-old. He is still one of the best players in the country. On Wednesday, he was announced as No. 7 on MLSSoccer.com’s 24 Under 24 list. Yet some wonder whether Trapp must make a move to Europe to take the next step in his game.

For his part, Trapp believes there is still work to be done in MLS.

“For myself, I’m one of those types of players that if I’m not improving, what am I doing?” Trapp said. “I need to continue to dive into a deeper pool, so to speak, and see if I can swim. If that becomes the decision that has to be made, to go overseas and play, that’s the course of action we will take. At this moment, I’m trying to stay as rooted as possible in Columbus and focus on this year and next year, accomplish everything I can here and get better within this environment.”

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus has struggled this season after winning the Eastern Conference and playing for an MLS Cup last year. Crew SC sits in ninth place in the East with just six wins on the season. Trapp has played in 25 games this year and ranks eighth in the league in passing percentage.

Yet, Trapp said he is learning how to be more of a leader in the locker room, and in the midst of a losing season is evaluating many aspects of what he can do better as an individual.

Excellence in simplicity

Watching Trapp play is an appreciation in doing things the simple way. It’s often one of the toughest lessons to learn as a young player, and it is why Trapp has long stood out from others his age at his position. Trapp is a connector for Columbus. He finds the game and picks the right passes. He keeps the ball circulating through the team and, most importantly, allows the playmakers to stay up the field so they can receive the ball in more dangerous positions.

Columbus coach Gregg Berhalter said he believes Trapp still has plenty of room to grow, and that the development can and should occur in MLS. Berhalter said he is looking at the specifics with Trapp: Key passes – finding passes that really hurt the opposition – and defensive transition moments – killing off attacks before they start.

“Once he does that, then he’ll be ready,” Berhalter told FourFourTwo. “Then he’ll be more of a finished product.”

Both Trapp and Berhalter brought up the prime example at defensive midfield: Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets. The sturdy midfielder will never outshine the likes of Neymar or Luis Suárez or Lionel Messi. But “he means so much to that group,” Berhalter said. Busquets completes 93 percent of his passes for Barcelona while averaging the third-most passes in La Liga.

“That’s the model,” Berhalter said. “A guy who is aggressive in defensive transition when you lose the ball, but also keeps the whole thing moving smoothly. His ball possession, keeping the fluidity of the ball around the field, and when there is that moment to make the pass that is going to hurt the opponent, he can do that also. You get the ball to the right guys to make the final pass. Wil is not going to be the guy that makes the final pass most often, but he can get it to the guys who can do that.”

Laying the groundwork

Trapp is refreshingly candid about his approach to the game. He is at once reflective and introspective, but also confident and optimistic. He knows Columbus has struggled this year, but also sees how the results challenge him in new ways. He believes in the growth of MLS and thinks he is getting better as a player as a result of it. He is also focused on finding a way to break through with a U.S. national team that has moved to a formation that doesn’t fit his role with Columbus perfectly.

Trapp said he knows he has to push himself out of his comfort zones to prove to Jurgen Klinsmann that he is capable of sparking counter attacks out of a 4-4-2, and that he can eat up space in front of a back line. He also knows his club’s form this season directly impacts his standing with the national team.

“When results are not going your way, you have to find ways to look at yourself objectively and find out what’s not going well, what is going well and truly evaluate your progress and performance,” Trapp said. “I’ve done a lot of reflecting this year. I think what can be hidden in a poorly-executed season like we’ve had in terms of results is the amount of work and growth that can come to fruition at the end of this year or next year even. You are laying the groundwork and the foundation for the right habits and the right type of thinking that can push you to create success. Not immediately, but over time.”

It is that type of maturity that struck Berhalter when he first met Trapp. The midfielder has a real understanding for how to see the game in the big picture, and that ability to read the game is what has made him such an integral piece of what Columbus does. Berhalter said he asks a lot of Trapp, but that the Ohio native handles it well. He is, as Berhalter put it, the “balance” of the team.

Columbus has already fielded inquiries from Europe about Trapp, Berhalter said. For now, they’ve turned teams down.

“He’s an easy player to watch,” Berhalter said. “It makes sense. He plays very simple, but effective. There are a lot of teams drawn to that. … The way I look at it is, it’s a collaboration. We want to do it together. We think MLS is the perfect stage for him, but we’re also open when the time is right to put him in a position where he can continue to develop.”

The moment may be soon approaching. For now, though, Trapp has more to prove in MLS.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.