Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter
It was quite noticeable coming in to the first couple days of training that the mindset of the group was completely different from last year. It was a group that was extremely motivated, extremely hungry, and was working really hard. And as coaches, I think it gives us a great feeling because those are the types of players that are easy to work with. And we’ve pushed them hard. The whole Brazil trip was designed purposely to exhaust them and to push them to points they couldn’t go and they handled that really well. We are pleased with the new additions that we brought into the team. We think the squad is more well-rounded than it was last year. We got certainly more physical with some of the draft picks, with Jonathan [Mensah], with Jukka [Raitala] at left back, and Artur in the midfield. So we feel like the physicality has improved in the group and are looking forward to starting the season. I think the Charleston trip was a good example of now having to take everything that we learned in Brazil and now apply it to MLS opponents. Atlanta is a highly touted team, with all the designated players and some veteran experience. I think we did well handling them. And then Seattle, the defending champs, played almost an identical line up to the final and we had another good game against them. We are looking forward to getting started. A couple things that I know you’re going to ask. The starting goalkeeper on Saturday will be Zack Steffen. That clear; we worked through that in the final week of preseason and that’s our choice to start the season. The other thing is that we took a different approach to the leadership of the group this year. Wil Trapp will be named our captain. He’ll be supported by a group of five other players that will form a leadership council. And that consists of Federico Higuaín, Jonathan Mensah, Ethan Finlay, Justin Meram, and Josh Williams, who were voted on by their peers. We think that this will be an effective way for the group to be empowered and to take control. We want them leading the way. We are here to guide them, but we want to give a lot of ownership to the players. As I look around and look at these guys, they are experienced. They’ve been in this league long enough, they know what this league is about and I think they have a clear direction of where they want to go and we are here to guide them to get there.
On Wil Trapp’s leadership
Well it wasn’t easy. I think Wil [Trapp] is a great candidate. Having said that, we don’t want to put too much on his shoulders and that’s why we did this other mechanism for leadership. Wil is a pros pro. He’s a guy that comes to work every single day and is focused and works hard and wants to learn and wants to apply what he’s learned to the game. I think he’s been fortunate enough to be in a leadership capacity for the past three years and I think he’s ready. With the help of the other guys, he’ll be able to lead this team.
On Zack Steffen as starting goalkeeper
To be honest, that was another one that wasn’t straight forward. I think that Brad [Stuver] was playing well. Zack [Steffen] was playing well and I think that it wasn’t until that last week of preseason that Zack separated himself from Brad. This is never an easy decision. As a coach you would like it to be much more clear, but we are comfortable with this decision. I think Zack has earned it and I think that Brad is still in a position where he could potentially get an opportunity. The way I see it is that we are in a good position.
On the role of the leadership council
We see these guys setting the tone for the group in a number of ways. I think the first thing is that they have a very clear understanding of our playing style and how we want to embody that in each and every game. That’s something we protect and we defend in every single game. The second things is that we feel like these individuals have been around long enough to understand the culture that we want to impart on the group. Then thirdly I think that this is the voice of the team. I think any time that there is information that needs to be relayed to the coaching staff, we are going to depend on these six guys to get us that information.
On the greatest need during the offseason
I think it was both. As far as last year goes, any time you are missing your three highest paid players and you’re not maintaining expectations, it’s difficult. What I would say is that I don’t want, in any way, to paint a picture that the guys had attitude problems or they quit on each other or they quit on playing hard. That wasn’t the case at all. They did their best to maintain dignity, keep fighting, up until the very end. And for that I’m proud of them. It didn’t go our way. In terms of the offseason we clearly wanted to get better on the field. That was certainly part of it. We think, like anything, one of the filtering processes that we use to bring players in is how they are going to fit culturally, what type of character do they have. So that was an important piece in who we brought in.
On other line up options
We are there, barring any injury tomorrow in training, we have a good understanding of what our starting lineup will be on Saturday. I think that there were a number of positions. I said to the guys, going into the Charleston trip and I firmly believe this, that there are four or five positions that are up for grabs. And it was about them performing in Charleston to either break into the lineup or cement their place in the lineup. It was good to see the response from the guys and we do have a clear picture of where we are going on Saturday.
On a roster compliance update
Nothing has changed on that.
On how the leadership was formed
Wil [Trapp] was appointed.
On expectations of team chemistry this season
I think that a guy like Josh Williams is a good example, who is a veteran of this league, a veteran of our organization and I think that they bring their experience and are able to guide the team through difficult times, but also good times. They have a good understanding of what is expected of them from the coaching staff and what we embody of the players of Columbus Crew [SC]. So we are going to rely heavily on the veterans and thankfully we have a young team, but its young guys with a lot of experience and we like that.
On expectations for Mohammed Abu and Wil Trapp
So far in the games in preseason, they worked well together. It was something that we were concerned about a bit, of how to defensive minded midfielders would work together. It has looked good and I think that Mohammed [Abu] has a good quality of combining with other players and getting other players into the game. He has a very good amount of quickness and is very good in some tight spaces. So he is a guy that can transmit the ball from one area of the field to another pretty well. It’s been nice watching him play in our team, but also adapt. I think, as Jonathan [Mensah] alluded to, the new guys in particular have adapted really well so far. When I think of Jukka [Raitala] and Mohammed Abu and Jonathan, some of the rookies, how they’ve been doing. It’s been really nice to see how they’ve adapted.
On preparing for colder conditions
I’ve been actually thinking about it today. We have a number of guys from warm climates. I was thinking about, in particular, four Ghanaians, I was thinking about Artur. And then it struck me that Jonathan [Mensah] has been playing in Russia. I’ve watched some of his games where the field is completely white and they are using an orange ball. Mohammed Abu has been in Norway, which a day like today is a spring day in Norway and Lalas [Abubakar] was in Dayton. So I think we are pretty much good. The ones that I would be concerned about is Artur. Today for the first time, he saw snow, which is nice that we had experienced it with him, but he’ll take a little bit to adapt. The movement is a little different when it’s cold and the flexibility. So some of that stuff will change a little bit. What happened in preseason is we were able to establish a very good fitness base in the warm weather. Training in extreme heat builds fitness better, faster. So we think that is going to go a long way, especially in the start of the season.
On preparing for Chicago Fire
I’m not seeing that. When I look at their lineup, I see seven guys that were starters last year and are starters again. I think they maybe have four new players, right? They have the goalie, he’s going to be new, probably the two central midfielders and the striker. That makes seven of the other players are going to be starters from last year. Having said that, they added quality and I think Nelson Rodriguez deserves credit for how he’s built this team. He added two extremely good central midfield pieces in Juninho and Dax McCarty. They added a very good striker and a good goalkeeper. So I think hat the pieces there are going to help this team, certainly.
Midfielder Wil Trapp
On his thoughts about being named team captain
Obviously it’s humbling and it’s an honor. Three years as the vice-captain for the team and now I’m moving into the full captainship. It’s an honor. I think, like Gregg [Berhalter] said, we have a great plethora of guys here with experience in the league and experience in other leagues as well. I’m very fortunate to have a good group of guys around me.
On the drive of this year’s team
I think that Gregg [Berhalter] has touched on it, but the way in which new players to this group have adapted to our style of play and the culture is fantastic. I think that the competition level in training itself is high and our willingness to sacrifice for each other in games is high and just the belief that if we stick to our game plan and stick to our style of play then we can win games and play against anyone. As a whole, I think that this group, with new guys as well as a lot of this group here who were with the team for a while now, we are ready to attack this year. We are ready to come out of the gates flying and I think we’ve prepared well throughout the preseason to do so.
Midfielder Justin Meram
On his leadership and growth and development
Personally, it’s focused me in a different way that I haven’t been. I kind of looked up to the other guys throughout the years, looked for their leadership. And now being on this council, it’s definitely an honor to be on it and being in meetings with the coaching staff and the other players to talk about direction that the team wants to go. For myself, I feel that it’s going to help me in the long run in becoming a leader in many different ways. It’s definitely great to be a part of it and helping the guys on the field and off the field.
Defender Jonathan Mensah
On his first MLS game
I’m just honored to be invited by Gregg [Berhalter] to join this team and it’s been great so far. It will be a different experience for me, but still soccer so I’ll just go out there and have fun and help my team out.
On being a leader and new to the team . . .
I will just give thanks to the team, because when I came in they really received me very well. I just adapted very fast because I need them and they also need me. I saw what the team wants and they also saw what I want to bring on board and I’m just glad to be here.
Midfielder Federico Higuaín
On his feelings about preseason and Opening Match
Hi to everyone. I feel healthy. I was working hard during the preseason to bring my normal level of soccer and I’m very excited to play good soccer this season. We think that we are going to be fine.
On instilling his passion into the younger guys
I think they are not young guys. I think they are men. As Gregg [Berhalter] said before, I think the new guys are making this team much better. As an old guy, I’m really happy with the new additions and I hope that all together we have a good season.
Forward Ola Kamara
On his motivation during the offseason
For me it’s just been about being in a team that does well, as I want to get in the playoffs as I think about the playoffs I didn’t play in last year. For me, of course, I also want to score a good amount of goals. It is fun to be on the field again and I’m looking forward to Saturday. Just to raise the level of the team and the performance has been a big motivation.
Midfielder Ethan Finlay
On his expectations for the season
Thank you for all being here. I think we are excited. As Pipa [Higuaín] touched on, we feel healthy. We feel that when we are at full health and when we have all of our guys available that Gregg [Berhalter] is going to have a tough time picking 11. And that’s an important thing. That’s something that maybe we were missing a little last year. We are ready to shoot out of the cannon right out of the start on Saturday and I hope you see that. Obviously home games are extremely important to us and I think somewhere that we could have done better at last year. We hope to start with a good result come Saturday.