Portland Timbers

Columbus Crew – Up a creek without a paddle…

Out with the old and in with the new; a common theme for a number of MLS teams this off-season and Columbus was no different.

Gregg Berhalter takes over as Coxswain of the Crew this year as they look to steer through the choppy waters of the MLS next season.  He comes with pedigree as a player while also learning some tricks of the trade under the guidance of Bruce Arena – we’ll see how crafty he is quite soon I imagine.

With that said how did his new team perform last year; where were the weaknesses and what strengths can Berhalter draw on as he looks to mold his players (and team) into his playing style?

First off – if you recall in my End of Season analysis on the Chicago Fire it was interesting to see that they finished fourth in head to head matches against fellow Eastern Conference teams.  It was their record against the Western Conference that let them down compared to Montreal or Houston.

Columbus Crew didn’t do quite as well; they finished three points adrift of Chicago in Eastern Conference match-ups and nine points behind them in all competitions.

As for home and away – Columbus took 24 out of 51 points at home (47% efficiency rating).  That home winning percentage was not just third worst in the Eastern Conference it was fourth worst in all of MLS; only the three bottom dwellers (Chivas, Toronto and DC United) were worse.  Pretty clear to me winning at home was a big weakness for Columbus last year!

In order to win a team needs to take three points – to do that they need to score goals “but” this game is not all about scoring goals – it’s also about creating the opportunity to score while also preventing the opponent from scoring.  You usually can’t score unless other team members have a role in creating the goal and you can’t lose if the opponent doesn’t score.

And to support my position, especially with Columbus; they scored 19 goals at home and had 13 goals scored against – with a 47% efficiency rating it seems pretty clear that it wasn’t all about scoring goals – they did and they finished with the 4th worst home record.

So how well did Columbus perform in my Possession with Purpose Process? Here’s a walk through on those 6 Basic Steps; comparing Columbus Team Attacking statistics to the rest of MLS.  

No home and away here – all things being equal every team has 17 at home and 17 on the road – and besides, we already know Columbus had a very poor home record.

Across all of MLS Columbus were 9th worst in Possessing the ball (49.4%) with a Passing Accuracy Completion rate of 74.97%; that was 6th worst last year.

Eastern Conference counterparts, lagging behind Columbus in Possession %, were Philadelphia, New England, Toronto, and Chicago.  As for Passing Accuracy Completion % only New England, Toronto, and Chicago were less skilled in moving the ball from one player to another.

With respect to overall Possession % and Passing Accuracy % Columbus were bottom half in the Eastern Conference and bottom half across all of MLS; not what I would call a strength.

By the way – even though New England lagged behind Columbus in Possession % and Passing Accuracy don’t forget that New England had the 2nd best Penetration into the Attacking Third in all of MLS last year; I wonder where Columbus sits?

As such, to answer that question, here is their team Penetrating the Attacking Third info and how well they made the most of those penetrations…

Columbus were 6th worst (21.56%) in Penetrating the Attacking Third last year (remember New England were 2nd best 26.67%).

Like most other teams that didn’t make the Playoffs last year, Columbus finished in the top ten for average number of Shots Taken versus Passes Completed in the Attacking Third (5th best = 22.79%).

Although counter-intuitive it appears that the stronger attacking teams take their time (have more passes) in the Attacking Third compared to teams that didn’t do well last year.

To support that point the six teams with the lowest Shots Taken versus Passes Completed ratio in the Attacking Third also saw five of those six teams in the top ten for converting Shots Taken to Shots on Goal.

Put another way less quantity in Shots Taken versus Passes Completed yields greater quality in Shots on Goal.   I will pay very close attention to this observation next year.

By the way, the six teams with the lowest Shots Taken versus Passes Completed in the Attacking Third were, in order, Portland, LA Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, New England, New York and Seattle.

Columbus finished 8th highest in that category.

Finally, Columbus were 5th worst in converting Shots on Goal to Goals Scored; those other teams just above were all in the top ten – bottom line is – haste makes waste; less is more; quality beats quantity!

Overall Columbus had okay possession and somewhat-okay passing accuracy, but as the pitch got smaller and the screws tightened within the Attacking Third they got worse; not what I would call a strength.

So what about their team performance in defending (Dispossession with Purpose)?

No rocket science here – if Columbus averaged just over 49% Possession then it would stand to reason their opponents averaged just over 50% Possession – they did (50.60%).

So how well did the opponent move the ball when in Possession?

Columbus were smack in the middle on yielding the opponent position on the pitch – the average number of passes made by their opponent was 389 with ~297 of those completed for a opponent passing accuracy of 76.29%.

That was 8th best in MLS and given they were 2nd best in executing the most Defensive Activities across the entire pitch (69.12) that seems reasonable; only Sporting KC exceeded the number of activities (tackles, interceptions, clearances and blocked crosses) than Columbus.

I wonder why they let Chad Marshall go?  Anyhow – in narrowing the pitch down to the Defending Third Columbus was also 6th best in preventing pass attempts (94.88 per game) and they were 4th best in preventing their opponent from completing those passes (60.24); again Sporting KC led that effort.

As expected their number of Defensive Activities within the Defending Third should be good; all told they were 4th best in the MLS in Defending Third Activities. For a cumulative number – opponent’s of Columbus averaged a 63.48% Completion Accuracy within the Columbus Defending Third; that was 3rd lowest in all of MLS – only bettered by Real Salt Lake and Sporting KC.

In considering the length and width of the Entire Pitch, as well as the Defending Third, Columbus were strong, very strong – from my viewpoint this was a huge strength and something to build from.

Given those strengths, did it all go pear-shaped as the opponent actually looked to take a shot and score a goal?

Unfortunately this is an area where Columbus begins to falter – while doing well in applying pressure, and closing down as the field got smaller, they actually gave up the 8th highest average number of shots taken per game (13.06).

And with that they were 5th worst in yielding Shots on Goal (4.76) and 7th worst in Goals Scored Against.  Probably fair to say that defending in the 18 yard box was not a strength.

What does that say about the move of Chad Marshall to Seattle?  In my view it seems like a very good move on the part of Columbus to move Marshall and look elsewhere for help within their 18 yard box.

Sorry Seattle but some team defending statistics seem to indicate Marshall may not have been a great addition; others may have a different view?

In closing…

Strengths – Applying pressure and working to prevent the Opponent from penetrating the Columbus Defending Third.

Weaknesses – Possession, Passing Accuracy, Penetrating the Attacking Third, Creating Goal Scoring Opportunities, Taking Shots, Putting those Shots on Goal, Scoring Goals, Defending within the Penalty Box to prevent Shots Taken, Shots on Goal and Goals Scored Against.

Berhalter has a huge and inordinately large challenge in front of him.

The Crew have added the following players their roster; Steve Clark (GK); Waylon Francis (D); Ross Friedman (D) {fullbacks by the looks of things given their height} Daniel Paladini (M); Brad Stuver (GK); Matt Walker (M); and Matt Wiet (D) {Centerback at 5’1″?)…

Given they only have three defenders 6’0″ or taller, and three roster slots open, it is likely one more 6′ footer is added for depth; or maybe to start?

Hard to say if Paladini replaces Gaven (like for like?) but as things appear today the primary attackers (Oduro and Higuain) remain with the team and are proven goal scorers.

Finally, even though Lampson was the understudy last year for Gruenebaum, Steve Clark has probably been signed to start; he comes from Honefoss BK; a team relegated from the Tippeligaen (top Norway league) in 2010.

Next up my End of Season Analysis on the Vancouver Whitecaps – as a tidbit to get you started – guess what team had the highest Opponent Accuracy in Pass Completions across the Entire Pitch?

Aye – Vancouver – they allowed their opponents to complete 79.73% of their Passes per game last year.  To put that into context; just about every game Vancouver played last year their opponent passed the ball about like Real Salt Lake (79.41% Passing Accuracy).  Is it any wonder they didn’t make the Playoffs?

Chris Gluck

Chris Gluck

I have been covering the Portland Timbers and Major League Soccer, as a community blogger/analyst for the Columbian Newspaper, since June, 2012. Since then my involvement in soccer analysis has expanded to include participating in the Regional Emmy Award Winning Soccer City PDX TV Show (Comcast Sports Northwest). My unique analytical approach has been published in Europe and presented at the World Conference on Science and Soccer 2014. I also appear regularly as a co-host on Rose City Soccer Show and the Yellowcarded Podcast. You can find my work on PossessionwithPurpose.com, PTFC Collective and Prost Amerika.