The year 2019 brought a new Crew. Anthony Precourt got his wish and slithered away to Austin, while head coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter began his rehabilitation of the US national team, leaving behind five years of solid results in Columbus. Replacing them was a new ownership group and front office led by the Haslam and Edwards families. Toronto FC’s Tim Bezbatchenko came in to lead the Crew’s soccer operations and former MLS Champion Caleb Porter took over as the head coach. With the smallest offseason turnover of a perennial playoff team, expectations were that Porter would provide a steady hand for continued success this season. However, that hasn’t happened and Columbus remains third to last in the Eastern Conference with only a game left in the season. Did the transition fail to succeed because Porter couldn’t implement his vision, or because that vision just didn’t work?
Porter hasn’t revamped Columbus’ playing style. Using the frequencies of the 64 pass clusters identified by k-means clustering to measure the passing style of a team, we can see in the image below that the Crew’s passing hasn’t changed this year. The year-to-year change in the passing for Columbus between 2018 and 2019 is small, ranked in the bottom 16th percentile for every year-to-year transition since 2013. In terms of the passing style, Columbus has undergone less change this summer than expected for an average year-to-year transition.
Still, Porter’s changes have been incremental, but they are gradually transforming how Columbus plays in all facets of the game.
Pushing Wil Trapp close to the goal
The first Berhalter trademark to go was the famous tendency to have Wil Trapp drop in between the center backs:
Playing that role isn’t easy. It requires connecting to the fullback with your passes consistently. Trapp is perfect for the job, and few in MLS can pass the ball better than he does:
Blue means above-expected pass completion rates in that direction. Notice Trapp’s passing decline in 2019, which is partly due to the different role that Porter has envisioned for him:
Trapp doesn’t drop in between the center-backs as frequently as he did last year. When he used to drop down from the midfield, he collected a lot of the passes from the center back and Zack Steffen. They amounted to more than 41% of the open play passes Trapp received last year, but have decreased to only 34% this year.
Trapp’s altered activity zone has also changed his role. Making long switching passes to the fullback on the flank was Trapp’s trademarked move under Berhalter, with more than 45% of his long balls reaching the fullback last year. They’ve decreased to only 36% under Porter.
The Crew’s other central midfielder still drops close to the center back when they build up from the back. The goal for Trapp not dropping is to push him close to the opponent’s goal:
Porter’s theory isn’t complicated; he wants to have his best passer play close to the goal so he can wreak havoc to the opponent with his passes. Trapp’s performance last year also supports this move:
His participation in the final third with at least one pass was surprisingly good for Columbus last year according to WOWY. When filtered to central midfielders/central defensive midfielders passing in the opponent’s half, the Crew’s xG per possession in the final third increases by 40% with Trapp’s passing in the final third. Porter might have thought that he could take advantage of this weapon.
Had Trapp kept dropping like he used to, he would have to cover a massive distance to collect the ball in his defensive third and then move up to pick up his position in the opponent’s half. Doing that consistently is too demanding for your playmaker. Even if he is athletic enough (and Trappis not) to do that, Columbus’ attacking speed would be dragged to a standstill. Freeing Trapp from the initial playmaking burden can speed up Columbus’ ball progression and put him close to the opponent’s goal. The Crew are also able to create additional opportunities to destabilize the opponent’s defense when their three central midfielders take turns to drop into the defense.
Transforming Trapp’s role means a lot because it symbolizes a true departure from Berhalter’s reign in Columbus. Surely Porter is making a statement by making this move: he wants a different Columbus, for better or worse.
Porter doesn’t need Trapp to function in the defensive third so much because he also has a different idea for the Columbus offense (relevant part of the interview starts at 36:00):
Those words are best represented by the most significantly modified pass clusters from last year to this year:
Porter has replaced Berhalter’s signature horizontal passes with direct vertical ones. Instead of constantly drawing the opponent into our own half with those bait passes to create space upfront, Porter prefers to the opponent as quickly as he can.
He’s still using a 4-2-3-1 with similar players to thoseBerhalter had, but these changes in passing behavior transform the role and function of every single player. Under the current USMNT manager Columbus’ buildup featured a lot of interactions between the keeper, center-back, fullback, and central defensive midfielder in the defensive third. Most of those actions are now gone:
The center-back now makes fewer passes to the fullback or the goalie. Those passes are rerouted to the attacking central midfielder and striker:
Considering only passes that move over 20 yards forward, the connection from the center back to the striker has increased by 136%, while the connection to the fullback has decreased by 33% compared to last year.
The same is also true for the fullbacks:
The long pass from the fullback to the winger has increased by greater than 11 % compared to last year.
To Porter, pushing the tempo seems to be more important than finding the best possible open player. But when you take such a direct approach, you will also end up with lots more long balls and headers. That approach doesn’t seem to have worked well.
Gyasi Zardes is Columbus' primary aerial target and his performance has dived this year: Zardes’ aerial duel success rate in the opponent’s half dropped from 39% to 26%, sitting in the bottom 12% among 120 forwards with more than 30 such headers. Columbus’ possessions in the opponent’s half from headers without a cross have decreased their xG by 40%. In other words, the quality of the chances they’re creating have deteriorated under Porter.
Since pass success rate decreases as the pass length increases, inevitably you will encounter more transitions when you play longer. Thus, Columbus’ average time per possession in open play dropped from 16.6 seconds last year to 14.8 seconds this year, more than a 10% decrease. Conversely, Columbus' number of possessions increased by 4% this year. They are playing faster and more direct than they had done under Berhalter.
Stylistically, Porter has transformed Columbus into a more direct, less possession-oriented team.. Whether the transformation is good or not remains unclear
A “Shifting” Defense
The transition-heavy style change has meant Columbus has also increased their counter-pressing: the Crew pressure 5.2% of their lost balls in the opponent’s half, a 10% increase over last year.
But outside of those situations, the Crew don’t press high; their Pass Per Defensive Action (PPDA) is 31.8 (54th highest since 2016), similar to last year’s (32.6, 54th highest since 2016).
Porter has largely retained Columbus’ defensive scheme; he is still using the Berhalter’s famous 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2 block. The goal is to stuff the center and make it difficult for the opponent to pass through. If you try passing through the middle block this happens:
Or you can try to pass over it with an aimless long ball:
If you try to pass around it, as the ball gets closer to the flank, Columbus’ confrontation pressure increases. One of the two forwards runs at the ball handler from the inside to limit the vertical forward passing lane to the center:
As the ball reaches the flank, Columbus has finished setting up its trap. The winger on the ball-close side comes out of the line to confront the ball-handling fullback. The forward and the central midfielder close to the ball to mark the space in the middle, making it easy for the Crew to trap the ball in the center. The key concept is the space control: within the immediate area close to the opponent’s ball-handler, Columbus’ players occupy most of the area. Every inch is within reach.
But even though Columbus has done this trap better than anyone else in MLS, it has shown some occasional lapses this year:
When the opponent passes the ball back to the center back or to the keeper, the Crew often respond by moving the whole team forward. But the high zonal defense can be difficult to set up with so much space to control. Another recurring issue for the Crew is that the players don't move as one unit and leave space between the lines.
The large distance between the lines destroys any pressure Columbus’ players want to exert. When they lose the control of the space it has a ripple effect: the central midfielder moves out of the line to confront the opponent's player, his team-mate can't cover him, and the whole structure becomes wobbly.
The occasional lapse in Columbus’ defense seems to come from their transition-heavy game:
In open play the Crew can hold up their defensive strength per possession. What drives the increase of xG against comes from an increase in the number of possessions per game. The main problem this season is when they defend in the corner: the Crew’s opponent creates nearly double the xG per corner they did last season.
It has been a disappointing season for the Columbus Crew and Caleb Porter. While Porter has tweaked around the tactical edges, it still remains unclear if this is the way Porter wants his team to play, or if the multitude of injuries and lack of a full offseason to bring in his players has forced a slower pace of change. With multiple potential designated player spots opening up, more chances to make his own signings, and more time put his tactical stamp on the team, next season will be the real test for Caleb Porter and the Columbus Crew.