112515_isi_berhaltergregg_mlsml100315070 Mike Lawrence/isiphotos.com
MLS Playoffs

Gregg Berhalter's Method: Preparation and Evaluation

The 42-year-old former U.S. international has the Columbus Crew on the verge of hosting the 2015 MLS Cup final, and he spoke to ASN about his dual role as coach and technical director.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 25, 2015
6:00 PM

DON'T BE SHOCKED if MLS Cup is hosted in Ohio this year. Thanks to the Columbus Crew's dominant display against the New York Red Bulls in the first leg, Gregg Berhalter's team can lose by a goal Sunday night (7:30 pm ET, FS1) and still advance to the league final. 

This is no anomaly. The club has shown steady improvement under Berhalter, 42, who took the reins in November 2013 and serves as both head coach and technical director. The Crew are always prepared and the players always give 100%, a testament to the culture created by the former United States international and World Cup veteran.

Three days ago, Columbus neutralized New York's wingers and cut off their ability to supply service to Bradley Wright-Phillips, one of the best forwards in Major League Soccer. The Red Bulls will now have to rebound from that 2-0 defeat, find a way to score multiple goals, and keep the Crew off the scoreboard. It won't be easy.

“We're completely different teams in terms of style of play,” Berhalter told American Soccer Now, referring to the Red Bulls. “Our style is related to having the ball. Their style is relating to not having the ball and getting the ball back. It's a big difference. I wouldn't say any one is better or more effective than the other one. They're just completely different styles. Jesse understands that. We understand that. Now it's figuring out how to get the most out of this particular matchup.”

Muliple players on Columbus' roster were overlooked earlier in their careers before finding success in Ohio. Ethan Finlay was drafted by Columbus in 2012 but struggled to earn minutes until Berhalter was hired. Kei Kamara was a solid MLS forward for Sporting Kansas City but this year he has been the best pure target forward in the league. Veterans including Justin Meram and Tony Tchani are also playing the best soccer in their careers right now.

Wearing his technical director hat for a moment, Berhalter explained that he keeps a list of qualities he considers essential for each position on the field. He then evaluates every player against this standard—a process that has helped him transform the club into a title contender.

“The starting point was assessing what we had here and then be able to execute the style we had in mind,” Berhalter explained. “It was a combination of both. Now we’re at a stage where it’s certainly about getting players into our system. We have a very stringent evaluation process with players that we bring in. I know we have a very specific profile of a player that we want. Those two things need to be aligned before we bring someone in.”

Against New York in the first leg, two midseason acquisitions played key roles in the 2-0 win. Right back Harrison Afful was a defensive stalwart and Cedrick Mabwati dribbled through New York's defense on the second goal. His shot forced a great save from Robles and the rebound fell to Kamara for the tap-in.

When looking at the season in total, the Crew allowed 58 goals—tied for worst among all playoff teams. That statistic does not reflect the improvement throughout the season in large part because of the key additions.

“We've added some pieces that have improved our collective defending,” Berhalter said. “That's a big part of it. I think we didn't get wrapped up specifically in the number of goals. We were looking at wins and being successful. We had some games where we won 3-2 and we were more than happy to win that game. Adding some pieces made us better defensively—there's no secret to that—but also helping our offense. Because a lot of times when we're on the front foot and we're able to be aggressive and we know the backline is there, it gives our group a ton of confidence.”

One of the big storylines this postseason has been the early exits of Toronto, New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle—clubs that feature multiple, high-profile designated players. The best story of the playoffs, however, centers on the emergence of young American coaches. Of the four teams left, three are coached by Americans in his early 40s.

Berhalter is confident that the trend will continue and help the sport and the league grow.

“I think you can be a successful foreign coach in this league,” Berhalter said. “You need good guidance and good preparation. I think it certainly helps. I am grateful for MLS in that it has given so many players chances to further their careers and go on into coaching.

"Overall it has been very positive for players in this league to lay a good groundwork to be coaches.”

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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