New era of Columbus Crew soccer begins with confidence, optimism
The wait is nearly over.
It's been a long, cold four months filled with transition since the Crew played its final match of the 2013 season in October. In that time, the winds of change swept through Crew Stadium. Gone are the likes of defensive stalwart Chad Marshall, tireless midfielder Eddie Gaven and the grit of Danny O'Rourke, all of whom helped take the club to its greatest heights in 2008 and 2009. The team is left with 25-year-old Josh Williams, who signed in September 2010, as its longest-tenured player on a roster where the average age is just under 24 years old.
Now, as spring and the season-opening match at D.C. United awaits on Saturday, there is a sense of optimism around the Crew following the disappointment of missing out on the playoffs the past two seasons. The excitement for the season may be higher than even the 2009 season, after the Crew won MLS Cup in 2008.
"If there has ever been this much [excitement], I can't really recall," longtime club President Mark McCullers said. "Maybe after the championship season in 2008 and going into 2009, but even that was tempered because [former Head Coach] Sigi [Schmid] left the team after MLS Cup. I really can't think of a time where there's been this much enthusiasm, optimism.
"People are just having fun and looking forward to the season."
Newly injected into the club's culture is the fresh perspective of first-year Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter backed by Crew Chairman and Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt's vision for the club. At 40 years old, the former U.S. Men's National Team centerback is just three seasons removed from a playing career that took him to Holland, England and Germany before returning stateside to finish his playing career.
It's been so far, so good for Berhalter and the Black & Gold through five preseason matches. The Crew compiled a 4-0-1 record in the preseason, earning the Disney Pro Soccer Classic last week in Orlando. That tournament was capped off by a convincing, 4-1 victory against defending MLS Cup winner Sporting Kansas City.
Players are buying into Berhalter's approach and believing more and more in themselves, something the first-year MLS Head Coach believes is crucial.
"It's more confidence that optimism, he explained. "I think the guys believe a little bit more in themselves. That's the important thing. As a coach, we try to put the players in a position to succeed, but in the end they have to believe in themselves."
Added midfielder Wil Trapp: "There's definitely a buzz [heading into the season]: about the fans, about the team, about the organization as a whole. I think Gregg has been a huge part of that. Myself, as well as the whole team, we've taken to him very well.
"We want to win for him, we want to win for the team."
Right now, it's a clean slate for the Crew. Every team is on an even plain.
Though it was only a preseason match, if the Black & Gold hopes to carry the same mindset they had against Kansas City into every match this season.
"Our mindset going into that game [against Sporting KC] was to have confidence in the way that we play," Trapp explained. "Don't change the way we play just because we're playing the reigning MLS Cup champs or anything like that.
"Play our game, and that's what we did."