In the face of subjective soccer statistics, the Crew is finding at least one truth: It's better to have the ball than chase it.
In the face of subjective soccer statistics, the Crew is finding at least one truth: It’s better to have the ball than chase it.
Major League Soccer does not publish official cumulative possession statistics, but according to WhoScored.com, the Eastern Conference-leading Crew is first in MLS with an average of 57.2 percent possession per game. Last season, the Crew finished 11th with 49.3 percent while falling out of playoff position in late spring and never recovering.
Not all possession advantages in soccer mean the same thing, but the Crew’s ability to retain the ball this season is showing some correlation with success.
“This year we’re controlling games more vs. last year (when) it was very sporadic,” Crew vice captain Wil Trapp said. “Our consistency with the ball is significantly better, and I think that’s a testament to the style (coach) Gregg (Berhalter) wants to play and the players we have on the field.
“Granted, possession doesn’t always mean goals, and I think we can do a better job of using our possession to be more dangerous.”
When he was hired in the offseason, Berhalter said one of his goals was to get the players to let the ball do the work for them. Berhalter said passing efficiency is one of the team’s most valued statistics, and the Crew has consistently led MLS in passes attempted this season. Overall, it is completing 84.0 percent of its passes — up from 75.8 percent last year, which was fifth-worst in MLS.
The high-water mark has been 62.3 percent of possession, which was reached twice: March 29 at Seattle and April 5 against Toronto. The Crew beat the Sounders 2-1 after a Seattle player was sent off in the 58th minute. It allowed an early goal to Toronto, ceded possession and favored its defense in a 2-0 loss.
In other words, possessing the ball more does not necessarily translate to a dominating performance — but it helps.
“I think we want to try and control games, and that’s not always easy,” Berhalter said. “It takes courage. It takes guys wanting the ball, wanting to get into spots, wanting to get the ball under pressure sometimes. As long as we’re trying to do that, I’m happy. If it leads to a possession advantage, I’m even happier.”
The Crew possessed the ball more than all five of its opponents despite playing three road games. Last season, the Crew possessed the ball more than opponents on the road only three times. Midfielder Bernardo Anor said it took a shot of confidence from the new coaching staff to get the players to believe they could play this way.
“We want to keep the ball for as long as we can,” he said. “That’s going to open up spaces and then you get the other team tired, and that’s when we take advantage of the free spaces, play the ball through and try to find those spaces to be dangerous. It’s a new philosophy, a new mentality, and it’s good for us”
And should it continue, it makes for a more enjoyable game — for Crew fans and players alike.
“It’s significantly more fun,” Trapp said. “It’s fun when you’re the ones that are in charge of the game. When you have the ball, you dictate the rhythm and the tempo and it’s our game to lose, almost. Whenever you can make the opposing team change what they’re trying to do to fit us, it’s always a good feeling.”