Crew View: Trust the process?

Chris DeVille
Caleb Porter (left) during a break in game action

If you’ve been following this Columbus Crew season, you know it’s taken time for Caleb Porter and his staff to put their imprint on the roster they inherited from the Gregg Berhalter administration. This has been a transitional year for the whole organization, and that extends to the action on the pitch, the one area where supporters were hoping things would hold steady or improve for the post-salvation Crew.

Porter’s squad started strong, rocketing to first place in the Eastern Conference early on. Then from May to July the team suffered a winless streak spanning 10 matches and 73 days, plummeting out of the playoff picture. Despite some positive movement since then, the Crew is eight points out of a playoff spot with only four matches left to play. Although still mathematically in the fight, the team will likely miss the MLS postseason for the first time since 2016.

One reason for this: Porter’s focus on relentless pressing and “killer instinct” is a far cry from Berhalter’s measured, possession-oriented approach. You can’t implement a new system and culture overnight, especially when your philosophy differs so sharply from your predecessor’s, especially when the available players don’t necessarily fit that philosophy. For further proof of this hypothesis, consider Berhalter’s own 2019 experience.

The former Crew coach is tasked with renovating a U.S. men’s national team that missed the World Cup in 2018 for the first time since 1986. After five years of Jürgen Klinsmann’s chaotic rule, Berhalter’s mentor Bruce Arena — who previously guided the USMNT to two World Cups among other coaching accomplishments — presided over an uninspiring, unsuccessful qualification attempt in 2017. Then U.S. Soccer spent all of 2018 under the interim guidance of Arena’s former assistant, Dave Sarachan, who was basically keeping the seat warm for Berhalter.

Thus, Berhalter inherited a team without an identity. If it was defined by anything, it was underachieving and discouragement — essentially a photonegative of the continued dominance of the women’s national team. It’s hard to imagine the famously cerebral Berhalter instilling that kind of outsized swagger in his squad, but Crew fans who saw him lead Columbus within a goal of an MLS Cup victory in 2015 know he’s capable of developing a winning culture. Still, as with Porter in Columbus, Berhalter’s early months with the USMNT have been frustrating.

Berhalter’s tenure began with three straight exhibition wins against regional foes Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador, followed by a draw with Chile and losses to Jamaica and Venezuela. The USMNT then blasted its way to the CONCACAF Gold Cup final with four straight wins, including a 6-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago that exorcised some demons from the loss that kept the team out of the 2018 World Cup.

Then came the final against archrival Mexico, a chance to emphatically prove the USMNT had put its recent failures behind. Instead, Mexico outplayed the U.S. on American soil and won 1-0 in Chicago. The USMNT didn’t play again until a friendly this past Friday, again at home versus Mexico. This time, the Mexicans embarrassed the U.S., winning 3-0 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Another friendly Tuesday in St. Louis resulted in a boring 1-1 draw with Uruguay.

And with that, Berhalter’s first year in charge ended without much sense of progress, from the fan perspective. The long qualifying process for World Cup 2022 begins next September, and U.S. supporters have reason to be nervous about where the team is headed. Meanwhile, the man in charge remains calm and collected.

Berhalter’s approach is basically the soccer equivalent of NBA exec Sam Hinkie’s notorious call to “trust the process.” Berhalter believes in the power of data. He sees setbacks as part of a larger picture. In post-match conferences, he always seems to identify some kind of advancement, offering up concise quotes that drive his critics crazy.

Maybe you’re among the infuriated, but consider this: Hinkie’s old NBA team, the Philadelphia 76ers, is a legit title contender now. The trust has largely paid off; the process has mostly worked.

Similarly, Berhalter led the Crew to the brink of a championship in 2015, and who knows how far his playoff teams could have gone in 2017 and 2018 if previous Crew management hadn’t been more focused on moving the team to Austin. His last season as a pro defender was spent as a player-coach under Arena on a Los Angeles Galaxy squad that won MLS Cup.

Porter’s pedigree is even more impressive than Berhalter’s. He was an assistant on a championship-winning Indiana University team coached by the legendary Jerry Yeagley. When little old Akron hired him as its coach, he built the university into a title-winning college soccer powerhouse. Upon moving to MLS, he led the Portland Timbers into Columbus to defeat the Crew in MLS Cup 2015.

All that context factors in when Porter insists to the Dispatch that his Crew is “building a culture of winning.” So does Berhalter’s own history of coaching success. They’re asking their supporters to put their faith in a long-term course of action — to trust the process. As ever, only time will tell whether that trust was well placed.