McIntyre's 23 Thoughts: Columbus Crew, Gregg Berhalter, Steve Cherundolo and more

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Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter gives instructions to young defender Milton Valenzuela earlier this season. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter gives instructions to young defender Milton Valenzuela earlier this season. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 23 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

Given last week’s announcement that significant progress has been made toward an agreement that would keep the Columbus Crew in Ohio’s capital rather than move to Austin, Texas after this season, it’s appropriate that we devote much of the first 23 Thoughts since the international break to the Black and Gold.

Truth be told, the idea was to give the Crew and its coach, Gregg Berhalter, some love in this space even before the good news came down. They deserve it. Because despite the dark cloud of uncertainty that had been looming over the club’s future for a year, Berhalter somehow kept Columbus in the playoff places for basically this entire season. They can clinch that postseason berth on Sunday — in their first game since the news broke — against dreadful Orlando City, which on Wednesday set an MLS single-season record by conceding its 72nd goal of 2018.

How the hell have they done it? That was the first question I had for Berhalter when we sat down for an interview a couple of weeks ago, when it still looked for all the world like the Crew would shut up shop and leave Columbus after 23 seasons.

1. “There’s different phases you go through,” Berhalter said. “At the beginning of the year, you have time on your side. You’re in preseason. You’re getting the guys focused. You mention it, but you also mention that we have a good group, there’s quality in the group, the team’s been put together for a reason. This is our focus. As the year goes on, it changes. The media and fans are talking about it. We have the ‘Save the Crew’ chants in the stadium. So in the middle of the season, the message is, ‘Let’s control what we can control.’ There’s going to be votes coming up. Lawsuits. Announcements. We can’t control any of that. What we can control is the way we train and our effort on every Saturday.”

2. Toward the end of the season, though, things got trickier. Players were in the dark. They didn’t know if they would have to uproot their families after this season. “It’s on me to explain to them what we’re being faced with, and what the potential options are. If option A happens, here’s how we’re going to handle it. If B happens, here’s how we handle it. Just being really clear and transparent with them. Because that’s what you owe them. The amount of work that these guys have put in all year, the message changes from ‘you guys focus on today’ to ‘in every scenario, the club is going to take care of you.’

3. “The families are a sensitive issue,” Berhalter continued. “I have four children myself. I get asked about it all the time: around town, by neighbors. What’s going to happen? When the guys go home, their families are asking them the same thing. We give them as much information as we can to put them at ease so they can refocus.”

4. Easier said than done. Much of the time, there just wasn’t much intel to share. In those moments, the Crew players fell back on Berhalter’s consistent theme. “Guys could’ve been fixated on it all year,” captain Wil Trapp said of the potential relocation. “Gregg made it easy: We can’t control it. He’s done an excellent job of keeping us in a great spot mentally to be able to focus just on what we can control.”

5. The off-field saga admittedly hit closer to home for Trapp, a Columbus native. “As a professional athlete, you know that at any moment things can change. You can be traded, sold, whatever,” he said. “It is a little different when its an entire club moving, and that club is in your hometown and you’ve grown up watching. I’ve tried to distance myself from the emotional side as much as I can, because I also have a job to do. If I’m always upset about things, it translates to the group.”

6. It’s no secret that Berhalter is the odds-on favorite to become head coach of the U.S. men’s national team when the Crew’s season is over. Of course I asked him if he’d been interviewed by USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart, and of course I got the expected “no comment” in response. I was also curious if the constant speculation has been an additional distraction. “If I’m asking the guys to stay focused on what we want to accomplish, I owe it to them to do the same thing,” he said. “My focus is 100 percent on what we can accomplish this year as a group.”

7. The more time goes on, the more sure I am that Berhalter will get the U.S. job. Like the rebuilding American program, Columbus has a young team — easily the least experienced in Berhalter’s five years at the helm. I wondered if having a youthful side requires a different approach. Apparently it does. “You’re much more forgiving [with young players] because you know there’s going to be times when there’s mental and physical fatigue that affects performance,” Berhalter said. “For us, it’s just managing through that and giving them support and instruction and a structure that they can rely on.”

In his first season in Columbus, Gyasi Zardes leads the Crew with 16 goals. (AP)
In his first season in Columbus, Gyasi Zardes leads the Crew with 16 goals. (AP)

8. One of the biggest reasons for the Crew’s success this year has been forward Gyasi Zardes. His 16 goals have the former L.A. Galaxy man tied for third with Mauro Manotas of the Houston Dynamo. Zardes credits his production to the fact that for the first time in his six-year MLS career, he’s playing solely as a No. 9. He’d toggled between wing and forward for the Galaxy, and even spent time at right back last year.

9. “In the past, with other coaches, I felt like they were amazing coaches, but one week I played up top, the next week I was out wide,” said Zardes, who worked under Bruce Arena, Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid in LA. “It was crazy. Here, I know what’s expected of me each and every week.”

10. Berhalter knew that the the 27-year-old could score in the right system; playing alongside Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, Zardes also had 16 goals in 2014. And he had the engine, speed, and defensive responsibility Berhalter looks for in a frontrunner. His intangibles were a pleasant surprise.

11. “I didn’t know him very well,” Berhalter added. “I didn’t understand was how much of a professional he is and how hard he works. I’ve been really impressed. He such a team guy. He’s willing to sacrifice. If the team wins and he doesn’t score it’s no problem. He just keeps working. That’s not always the case with a striker. He’s also open to information, and he’s been learning and progressing.”

12. Soccer-wise, it was the perfect situation for Zardes. But life in the midwest took some getting used to off the field. When the lifelong Southern Californian arrived in Columbus, it was January. “I’d never really been in snow,” he said. “You have to shovel your driveway, you have to be careful on the roads because it’s icy. When your feet are frozen and you still have to go out and kick a soccer ball, that’s tough. Getting used to the weather was a mental challenge. But I think it brought the best out of me, because it brought me out of my comfort zone.”

13. Zardes earned his 39th and 40th international caps against Brazil and Mexico last month, but wasn’t summoned by interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan for recent matches versus Colombia and Peru despite being the top USMNT-eligible scorer in MLS. Considering the lack of depth up front for the Americans, I still think Zardes will be a consistent call-up this cycle, especially if Berhalter is the manager.

Steve Cherundolo made 82 appearances for the United States before entering the coaching ranks in Germany. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)
Steve Cherundolo made 82 appearances for the United States before entering the coaching ranks in Germany. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages)

14. This isn’t strictly MLS-related, but I had a long chat with USMNT great Steve Cherundolo in New York earlier this week. Cherundolo was in his second season as an assistant coach with Bundesliga club Stuttgart before being let go two weeks ago along with manager Tayfun Korkut. Cherundolo was in town for the opening of the Bundesliga’s new Manhattan office (as were his former U.S. teammate Jermaine Jones and coach Jurgen Klinsmann). And he had lots of interesting things to say.

15. Cherundolo spent his entire 15-year professional career with Hannover. He lives in Germany with his German wife and kids, and plans to use his time off to work toward his UEFA pro license. But the San Diego native still keeps a close eye on what’s happening stateside. Eventually, he’s hoping his coaching career takes him back home.

16. The night before Stuttgart’s match against RB Leipzig last month, Cherundolo spent a few hours catching up with Leipzig assistant and ex-New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch. Marsch was on current LAFC boss Bob Bradley’s staff during the 2010 World Cup. Cherundolo was the starting right back. “It was great to pick his brain,” Cherundolo said of Marsch. “He’s a fantastic coach. I would love to see Jesse get a team of his own.”

17. What sorts of things did the two talk about? “We spoke about Leipzig’s development program and how Hannover does things, because I was involved in Hannover’s youth system,” Cherundolo said. “They’re definitely different. That’s the great thing about this game. You can have different philosophies. But there have to be some common denominators as far as how to develop players. I disagree a little bit with the way Red Bull does it. They develop kids for one kind of soccer, and I believe you have to develop them for more, because you never know where they’re going to end up.”

18. I asked Cherundolo if he’d heard from Stewart, his teammate on the 2002 U.S. World Cup team. Over the summer, Stewart sought the counsel of a number of prominent former national teamers. I would’ve been shocked if Cherundolo wasn’t on his list. “Earnie and I chatted maybe a month ago,” Cherundolo said. “We spoke about the direction he wants to take the team. And I think this idea of giving the team a style of play is something Earnie is more than capable of doing. I think that’s what he’s trying to achieve.” Cherundolo retired in 2012. But he says he’s watched almost every national team game since then. “I’m still a fan,” he said. What was his take on the qualifying failure?

19. “If you looked at every individual player, that fight was still there. They’re giving everything they have. But maybe not as a unit. I think that was easy to see,” he said. “When I joined the national team, it was such a tight-knit unit. They fought their way through games and scratched out results because they were tight on and off the field. That has changed a little bit. I think they need to find the right mix to achieve their goals as a group as opposed to [relying on] individual quality. That’s basically what I told Earnie.”

20. What sort of manager does he think makes sense for the U.S.? “I think it’s important that the coach understands how MLS works, and also knows his way around Europe to speak to the coaches there,” he said. “I would like to see Earnie hire someone who understands the American mentality, somebody who knows how to grind out results in CONCACAF. That’s what the national team needs right now. We need to qualify for the World Cup.”

21. I pointed out, only half-jokingly, that he checks most of those boxes. “I would never say no to the U.S. men’s national team,” he said. “It was always a privilege to play for them. If I’m the right guy for the job a few years down the road, I would be all for it.” It’s interesting, given Cherundolo’s glittering resume, that he hasn’t even been mentioned as a possible candidate, while Tab Ramos and Thierry Henry, also with no senior head coaching experience, have. (Henry was just hired by Monaco.) Maybe it’s because Cherundolo is the most underappreciated USMNT player of the modern era, partly because he never played in MLS.

22. Nick Besler scored his first MLS goal Thursday in Real Salt Lake’s 4-1 win over the New England Revolution. Besler’s a good story. The 25-year-old defender didn’t play a minute during his first three seasons in the league but has made 22 appearances this year, including 15 starts, for an RSL side that can make the playoffs with a win in Portland on Sunday. He’s also the younger brother of Sporting Kansas City captain and 2014 U.S. World Cup starter Matt Besler. The athletic bloodlines don’t stop there: His other brother, Mike, was a state championship-winning quarterback in high school. His aunt, Marcia Pankratz, is a former two-time U.S. Olympian who has coached the University of Michigan’s field hockey team for the last two decades.

23. More that a few people have suggested that Wayne Rooney is producing (10 goals in 18 games) in MLS only because the league is a step down from the Premier League and other elite circuits. I don’t buy it. Rooney can still play at the highest level. The insane free kick he scored on Wednesday is a goal in any league in the world.

Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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