Expected Narratives: Gregg Berhalter is the #9 Whisperer / by Ian L.

By Ian L (@ahandleforian)

xN is our weekly look at what you can expect to read, write, and discuss about Major League Soccer this week. We take a look at each prospective narrative and rate it based on its strength and whether or not it has any actual merit.

The good news is that aside from this sentence, I’m not going write a single word about video review this week. Nay, much more compelling narratives are swirling about, mostly regarding fanbases posturing at each other in a miasma of insecurity or self loathing. We have Orlando claiming to be the real deal. Atlanta continuing to make light work of their opponents, and Seattle fans in their annual early season bout of despair.  Needless to say, it’s a good time to be writing about narratives.

Let’s get started.

Orlando is for real!
Narrative Strength: There are a lot of Orlando fans.
Narrative Accuracy: B

Oh Orlando. The Lions. The “Cardiac Cats” (this nickname is horrible and it should be shunned). We've been waiting for Orlando to get it all together for a few years now. They spend money, have a loud and passionate fanbase, a beautiful stadium, and now they've strung a few wins together. Is it time to welcome them into the upper echelon of Major League Soccer?

Maybe on a probationary basis? Six wins in a row is very good for any MLS team and I don’t want to brush that aside lightly but there are some causes for concern and we should look at these victories in their proper context.

Orlando seem to be embracing a similar style to the San Jose “Goonies” season of yore. Late wins are thrilling to be sure, and they can speak to a certain confidence and drive that you like to see as a fan. What you shouldn't take solace in, if you’re an Orlando fan, is how many goals you’re conceding. Giving up three at home to RBNY when they were mostly a second string lineup isn’t great. Nor is giving up two to Portland and then needing three late dramatic goals (including one of the worst penalty decisions I’ve ever seen) to take all three points from a team averaging just over a point per game.

The road wins against Philadelphia and Colorado are good. Road wins are always good, but again, Philly and Colorado you know? You get what I’m saying.

The Cardiac Cats (I really do hate this) also collected wins against San Jose and RSL. Again you can only beat the teams you’re scheduled to play, but these are two more teams that are below the line in a fairly lackluster Western Conference.

It’s never worth sneezing at getting 18 points from six matches, but Orlando fans are going to have to forgive us for wanting to wait a bit for mentioning them in the same breath as the league’s elite. This isn't to say that it isn't forthcoming and this is easily the strongest the Lions have ever been. For those of you inclined to take a look at underlying numbers Orlando are currently at

2.11 PPG (second)
15.2 xG (sixth)
12.8 xGA (twelth)
+2.4 xGD (ninth)

Not bad but also not outstanding.

Anyhow, we won’t have to wait long to get a better measuring stick for Orlando. The next two matches are against Atlanta and Toronto. If they take all six points from those two matches, I’ll be first in line to buy a “Cardiac Cats” shirt*.

Gregg Berhalter is the #9 Whisperer
Narrative Strength: A very cool thing to say
Narrative Accuracy: I’m going to give this one a C+, but will revisit in four years (doubtful).

Gyasi Zardes has five goals this season and that’s three more than he scored in the entirety of 2017 and two less than the entirety of 2016. Lesser observers of Major League Soccer (ok, I’m talking about me) predicted a significant regression from Columbus once they let Kei Kamara go after a particularly embarrassing on field bust up with Federico Higuain. Those lesser observers (again, it was me) weren't totally wrong, but it’s pretty fair to say that few among us expected a new Kamara to show up and start to become one of the best strikers in Major League Soccer. Now Kamara has moved out West and his replacement is a guy who used to be the next big thing. To say Zardes burst on to the scene would be a tad bit overzealous, though he scored 4 goals in his first full professional season back in 2013. In 2014 however, he tallied 17 goals in MLS play. Since then he has never come close to repeating that kind of goalscoring haul. So how exactly has he suddenly gotten himself on pace for for a 15ish-20ish goal season?

In 2015 Kei Kamara returned from Europe and scored 26 goals. Taking over for Kei a little way into 2016, Ola Kamara scored 16 goals. In 2017 he scored 19. Now in 2018 it’s possible Zardes, a frequent punchline, could wind up being much nearer to the top of the golden boot race than the bottom. Now, easy trivia question here for you. What’s the common factor with all of these players? Yeah, I know. Super easy. They were all playing for the Columbus Crew. Ok.

Let’s get this out of the way again. Not unlike heading back to the bar for that fourth glass of wine at a wedding, drawing sweeping conclusions based on a sample size of four strikers is ill advised and justified with spurious reasoning at best. That being said. Come on! It’s a party! Cheers!  

We need to set some ground rules before awarding Gregg Berhalter the coveted “9 Whisperer” title. Now. To my mind, a “whisperer” be they of horses, or dogs, or highly compensated young men who excel at kicking, must have the ability to take a “bad” or “underperforming” horse, dog, or TAM signing, and make them good. Taking a bad striker and making them a bad striker is not “whispering”. That also goes for taking a good striker and making them stay good.

With these rules in mind, let’s take a look at Berhalter’s “9s” (note: for the purposes of this exercise, said player is not required to actually wear the number nine jersey, this is the philosophical nine we’re talking about here).

2014: Jairo Arrieta

Jairo Arrieta isn’t exactly what one would call a prolific striker. He hit a career high of nine goals in 2012. In 2013, under the watchful pairs of eyes of Robert Warzycha and Brian Bliss, Arrieta turned in a paltry offering of three goals in 1862 minutes. Arrieta did improve a bit in 2014 under Berhalter, but only a bump to five goals in 1236 minutes, while technically better, this isn’t going to cut it for an honorary whisperer degree.

2015: Kei Kamara

Kei Kamara is a much more interesting case. Kei was an undoubtedly talented wide player and that’s why he was plucked from Major League Soccer and signed by an honest to goodness EPL side Norwich City. Things didn't go swimmingly for Kei across the pond for Norwich (one goal, 656 minutes) and he was then sent back to Sporting Kansas City for a season (seven goals, 1022 minutes) before rubber banding back across the Atlantic to English Championship side Middlesborough where he notched four goals in 1512 minutes. At this point in his career Kei wasn’t sticking around in one place very long, and found himself right back in MLS the following year with Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew. Berhalter had an interesting idea. Why not take this nominally wide forward and stick this aerial winning monster front and center. Kamara was astounding that season, scoring 26 goals en route to an MLS Cup final appearance. Not before or since has he come close to matching that season’s tally. The following season Kei became unsettled and was traded away to New England. He now plies his trade for Vancouver. I’m going to go ahead and call this one a very successful whisper from Berhalter. Kei was never that prolific before and it’s unlikely he ever will be again.

2016, 2017: Ola Kamara

Now cometh the second Kamara. This one was already pretty good but still managed to fly under everybody’s radar (again it may have just been MY radar). I hope you know how difficult it is to find 2015 goals and minute breakdowns for the Tippeligaen in Norway. It can take at least an hour of finding incomplete or dubious archives before you remember that it’s probably all on Transfermarkt (and it was, whoops). Ola scored 14 goals the season before for Molde so he wasn't exactly as unknown of a quantity as I would have led you to believe. Onwards to Columbus. Kei Kamara left and the next match Ola Kamara scores a hat trick. He’d go on to find the net 16 times, receiving some consideration for Newcomer of the Year (ultimately it went to Nicolas Lodeiro). The following season, Columbus improved as a team, but Kamara’s goal scoring rate fell slightly. He was by no means bad, and indeed was one of the very best in the league. This one is hard for me to put down to Berhalter. Ola was a very good player who managed to be a very good player flirting with greatness while under Berhalter’s stewardship. It remains to be seen how things go for Ola in the future before I’m able to make a very complete appraisal of Berhalter’s whisperings.

2018: Gyasi Zardes

Alas, we are far too early in the season to make any actual ruling on Zardes. It’s hard to write columns like this early in the season because you know that in three months you’re very likely to look back at these and wonder just what the hell I was talking about. That being said, it wouldn't be a very good weekly column if I waited until October to do it. So here we are. Zardes has taken a lot of flack over the last couple of seasons. I don’t think it’s entirely undeserved, but Zardes’ lack of a first touch and inability to score easy chances is about as big an American soccer meme as I can recall. At the height of his success with the Galaxy, Zardes benefited from being surrounded by Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, and it was hard to maintain that level of production once had both departed. Zardes has wonderful physical tools and only the most cold-hearted and close-minded would have written him off for good (ok, that was also me).

Once it was announced that Zardes would be joining Columbus, people started to cautiously opine that maybe Berhalter’s Columbus Crew was exactly the kind of change of scenery a player like Zardes really needed. I mean, just look at what he did for the Kamaras! Wouldn't you know it? Things have gone very well so far. We’re only 10 games into the season, but Zardes has already scored five times, and looked more goal dangerous than he has in a very long time.

Ok. So let’s make a final ruling on this one. Is Gregg Berhalter the “nine whisperer”?  It’s a lukewarm yes at best from me. I mean, he did wonderful stuff with Kei Kamara, and looks to be doing good things with Zardes, but I chalk that up more to being good at identifying players which will thrive in his system which is very friendly to strikers who like to score a lot of goals. Maybe that IS nine whispering. We don’t have a real established definition for it. Berhalter is a fantastic MLS manager. That can’t be argued, and many people would point to him as the very best in the league. That CAN be argued, but I’m not sure who I’d take over him. What this comes down to is “Did Berhalter take bad strikers and make them good strikers?” The answer to that is “sort of”. So “nine whisperer” might be a bit much, All of that being said, if Zardes scores 30 this year I’m deleting this column and moving to Columbus.

For reference, I made this table of Gregg Berhalter’s nines. This table was done in a professional spreadsheet program with formulas and everything. As such the data it contains is incontrovertibly accurate and should be taken as MLS canon.

Year Player Goals Minutes Goals per 90 Goalsp90 Season Before Berhalter Whispered to by Berhalter?
2014 Jairo Arrieta 5 1236 0.36 0.15 If Berhalter was whispering, Arrieta surely didn't hear him.
2015 Kei Kamara 26 2761 0.85 0.24 A loud whisper, soft but firm like thunder
2016 Ola Kamara 16 1859 0.77 0.52 Minimal whispering, but possible telekinses
2017 Ola Kamara 19 3333 0.51 0.52 Ola: Last year when things were going well I looked at the sand and there were 2 sets of footprints
2018 Gyasi Zardes 5 879 0.51 0.09 The saxophone solo from Careless Whispers cranked to 11 and repeated on a loop for 90 minutes

Two narratives for the price of none. That’s all you’re going to get this week, but I hope you found them worth your time and attention. It was certainly tempting to go ahead and dive into Seattle’s misery, but with two tricky matches to navigate this week next time we could very well be discussing whether or not Brian Schmetzer should be on the hot seat. And who doesn’t want to wait for that?

Enjoy your banter my MLS watching friends. I’ll be back next week to talk about what we’re talking about.

*but not really. I hate that nickname.