Those who follow the Crew closely have seen the influence of Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter's influence on the side. The Black & Gold have become a possession and passing machine in 2014, among the League's best at keeping the ball and moving it around the pitch.
The improvement in the team's statistics has been clear. What is less known is the individual improvement made by many of the club's players under the new system, such as those made by defender Eric Gehrig. Gehrig, in his fourth season with the Black & Gold, has taken a giant stride under Berhalter. The Harvey, Illinois native is the League's most accurate passer by a defender with at least six matches played. Not only that, but he is also MLS' most accurate passer by a defender in the opponent's half, meaning that Gehrig's passing has not been limited to unpressured cycling at the back.
Evident of how successful the Crew has been at playing Berhalter's system, Gehrig is joined by teammates Michael Parkhurst and Tyson Wahl in the top seven of overall passing accuracy among defenders:
|Defender (min. 6 GP)||Club||Passes Successful||Passes Attempted||Passing Accuracy (Overall)||Passing Accuracy (Opp. Half)|
These numbers are impressive given the context of Gehrig's improvement from his first three seasons to this year:
|Season||Passes Successful||Passes Attempted||Passing Accuracy (Overall)||Passing Accuracy (Opp. Half)|
The Loyola University Chicago product's overall accuracy has jumped 14% above his career average in 2014, with his accuracy in the opponent's half jumping by 18%. Again, Gehrig leads the League in both of these categories this year. It's been a season of impressive improvement for the defender.
"I didn’t know I was that high, but it’s something that I always try to focus on in our system," said Gehrig about his passing. "Especially with Gregg, he wants us to connect, but if it’s not on, bring it back around, find feet – that’s the way we play. I just try to limit my mistakes, to be honest, because if you limit your mistakes, you connect passes."
Gehrig credited Berhalter's system for helping him improve his game in the technical area – the short, incisive passes that have so often been the Black & Gold's trademark this year.
"The way I’m built, I’m always going to be able to match – knock on wood – people running, 50/50 balls, tackling, stuff like that," said Gehrig. "One thing that I think I’ve really come a long way in Gregg’s system is technically: passing on the ball, passing on the ground, finding feet and finding the runners. I felt like I could always hit a good switching ball, 40-50 yard balls to feet, but if there was one area going into this year that I wanted to queue on and improve on, it’s those seven-, 12-, 15-yard passes into tight spaces and finding feet more."
The improvement has been palpable in the statistics, and Gehrig's Head Coach has noticed as well.
"We’ve certainly seen a response in Eric [this year]," said Berhalter. "I’ve been in similar situations [like] when I first went to Holland – the speed and possession games were a lot to handle. Taking your first touch, passing it with that amount of pressure – Eric’s been steadily improving and he’s been adapting well to it as the year’s been going on."
Implementing and adapting to a new system is one thing, but it's another to commit to improving part of your game to fit that system. That's something that Gehrig has done extremely well with this year, whether from his traditional centerback position or the rightback spot he has manned in recent matches.
"Gregg’s system forces you to play," said Gehrig. "We play out of the back and you see it. You get the ball in tight spaces and you have to deal with it."
With the transfer of Giancarlo Gonzalez to Palermo, Gehrig has an opportunity to seize a full-time starting role along the backline. With the success he has had under Berhalter's system, it would not be a surprise to see him earn it.