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Drama Exposed: A Columbus Crew Case Study (UPDATED)

Posted by Dr. Mike Voight, Central Connecticut State University on May 11, 2016 in Education, Membership 0 Comments

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Photo credit: FTW.USAToday.com

**This article, originally posted on May 11, has been updated per Kei Kamara's trade to the New England Revolution. Read the update here**

The old adage applies with the drama engulfing the Columbus Crew SC – where’s there’s smoke there’s fire. Team drama signifies the smoke, but the cause of this smoke is what is drawing more and more attention to this story.

The backstory: On Saturday night, the Columbus Crew SC (CCSC), with a lead of 4-1, allowed the Montreal Impact back into the match for some reason or reasons (aka the “fire”) which resulted in a 4-4 result thanks to Montreal’s Dominic Oduro’s equalizer in stoppage time. The “tipping point” came in the 53rd minute, when a penalty kick was awarded to CCSC early in the second half yet there was some confusion as to who should take the kick. This drama ensued for some time (aka the “smoke”) while Kei Kamara, who scored two goals in the match, began to argue with the usual penalty kick taker, Federico Higuain. Higuain eventually won the argument and was awarded the kick, which he converted. Yet the drama surrounding the kick appeared to “leave a mark” on the CCSC’s play, and not in a good way obviously with them conceding three second-half goals.

Compounding the drama further was Kamara’s comments post-game, where he stated, "A team who stays together will win games. A team that doesn't, not gonna win games, and that's horrible. We are home, we go up that much and to give that many, it's horrible." This is not the end of the drama.

Kamara then unloaded on Higuain, saying  “I haven’t really had to depend on Pipa at all,” Kamara said. “How long have I been here? How many goals have I scored? How many have come from his assists? One, maybe two. I don’t depend on him. I depend on Ethan [Finlay], I depend on my outside backs to pass me balls.” As it turns out, Matt Doyle with MLSSoccer.com reported that Higuain has only completed three passes to Kamara in the last two games which seems quite lower than it should be between attackers.

This may lend some credence to Brian McBride’s [former US national teamer, Crew player (1996-2003) and analyst] assertions that the drama-filled PK argument, lack of passes between the two, and the post-game rant may be a microcosm of the “fire” – the big issue - namely that there is a division among the team - Higuain’s guys and Kamara’s guys. 

Abraham Lincoln once stated, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Team derision and disharmony can happen on successful teams (circa Kobe and Shaq’s LA Lakers) but most of the time it occurs on those teams who are losing. The Crew SC are losing games (two wins in the last nine matches), and with this latest result, are not making moves in the right direction. The public displays of this frustration mixed with the undercurrents of team disharmony and derision, presents an interesting case study for soccer fans and coaches, while putting Crew SC coach, Gregg Berhalter, directly in the line of fire.

From a managerial/leadership perspective, Coach Berhalter will need to make some steps to not only quell the flames from the team’s inner turmoil but to set in motion an action plan to get this team to bridge the gaps between teammates through open and honest communication, acknowledging everyone’s contributions to the team’s better efforts, communicating more effectively, and how the collaborative efforts from this point forward will lead to the results. What would you do?

Some suggestions for Coach Berhalter and other coaches facing on-field and locker room drama and conflict:

1. Get Real: Coach Berhalther must start by “peeling the layers” by first addressing the very public actions (behaviors) which led to the breakdown in communication (penalty kick fiasco) first with each individual involved.  He needs to get both versions, then compare it with what he saw and what the team standards are regarding dealing with interteam conflict. It’s always best to address the behavior and not the person. This will help in achieving a meaningful discussion instead of challenging the person and his personality, which will only act to put them on the defense, resulting in yelling and a very emotional rant (which only adds more drama).

2. Accept Responsibility: Coach Berhalter did take the hit and state in the press that he should have clarified who should take the kick. He also stated this situation will not happen again. This way he has accepted some responsibility (which can help take some of the heat off of the two players, which they will appreciate in time for having their back) and set in motion a clear solution for future penalty kicks. These players should take responsibility as well and apologize for their actions to their teammates, staff, and fans via social media in an expedient fashion.

3. Compare Actions with Team Standards: Peeling the next layer includes addressing the post-game comments made by Kamara in the same individual meeting as above, and how his statements broke team protocol (I assume). He also should be asked to verbalize how both of his actions look to the fans, staff, team, and other stakeholders. Consequences for these actions should be handed out based on preset team standards. If ones are not set, then this one case should propel management to create them.

4. Lessons Learned: Ensure some time is taken in the next team video session to focus on what lessons can be learned from both of these rather embarrassing scenarios, and the steps taken to ensure these do not happen again (preset team standards) due to the obvious impact it has on the field.

5. Lean on the Leaders: If the Crew SC has some type of a leadership committee, council, or captains, they should be consulted to investigate whether factions exist within this team and who the major dissenters are. Moreover, if there truly is a personality clash between these two players which results in tactical sabotage (not passing the ball to each other due to a dislike or disagreement between the two), the coach needs to know this ASAP. At this point, the coach should repeat step No. 1 above. Coaches are not usually privy to the climate on the team or locker room so the use of team captains can be very valuable here.

6. Team Dysfunctions: If these scenarios do represent a much deeper issue or issues (teammate clashes, divided team, lack of trust and confidence in each other, petty jealousies and resentments, selfish attitudes and agendas), the staff must discuss with the team how fragile teams are and the many barriers that can derail team pursuits. A book that best addresses this is Pat Lencioni’s The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. In it he includes absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results as the most salient barriers. It is valuable to talk the team through these, along with Lencioni’s five productive climates (culture of trust, not fearing conflict, reinforce team commitment, creating accountability, and focusing on results while minimizing individual agendas).

7. Valuing the Individual Parts and Collaborative Action of the Whole: I have had teams in tough spots identify what each teammate contributes to our better efforts and results. These contributions can cover any of the intangibles, including physical, technical, tactical, training, leadership, mental toughness, communication, or anything else that assists us. Leadership thought leader Warren Bennis adds that what makes great groups click includes:  a shared dream (Coach should reinforce team vision and goals), manage conflict by focusing on the mission (Team process), they have a real or invented enemy (never each other), view themselves as winning underdogs, great groups make strong leaders (how has our leadership been over the last week?), and great groups produce (how has our production been lately?)

8. Reset Team Goals: Coach Berhalter, staff, team leaders and team may need to make some adjustments to their goals by focusing more on the short-term mission or process. If for example, their long range goal is to win their conference, this goal may still be in play but the day-to-day focus must be on the short term mission of giving up less goals, taking advantage of more numbers-up situations on the attack, prepare better through film, communicate better with my teammates (switching roommate and seat assignments on road trips to facilitate more discussion with other teammates), engaging team leadership, and so on. Brief weekly meetings should be carried out to gauge progress made on these short-term standards, while also acknowledging areas in need of further attention and work.

Dealing with embarrassing teammate actions, team turmoil/conflict, and losing streaks does not need to define the Crew SC team or their season. By setting a new or adjusted course built on taking responsibility and paying the price for mistakes made, learning from past transgressions, appreciating the importance of TEAM and the fragile nature of it, acknowledging which actions act as barriers to team success, as well as valuing the contributions of the individual and the power of collaboration, can all assist in making this past week’s drama a springboard for not only more wins but a team who plays with and for each other, not against itself.


Updated 5/12/2016: Crew SC trades forward Kei Kamara to the New England Revolution

So head coach Gregg Berhalter and Crew SC did set a new course after all – by moving on without Kei Kamara after first suspending him for post-game comments critical of Federico Higuain made after the 4-4 Montreal result last Saturday. Despite this not being one of the suggestions offered in the previous post, it is always an option, so players beware!

This usually is a company line, whereby no one is above the team and anyone is replaceable. McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc, is credited with saying, “No one of us is more important than the rest of us.” Truer still for those who embarrass the team and organization by their negative actions and remarks. With how difficult it is at the professional level to build a talented, cohesive unit who can compete at a high level each and every week, one cannot blame an organization for trading away anyone who is resistant to the cause, especially when there is some good to gain from it (allocation dollars, SuperDraft picks for the next two years and an international roster spot).

This is one example of why leaders make the big bucks – having to decide to trade away a player who finished last season on top of the scoring table with 22 goals and a member of the MLS Best XI, en route to the MLS Cup title game could not have been an easy decision to make. Keep in mind that the New England Revolution is getting a proven scorer with 79 goals and 31 assists.

Jim Collins, author of the famed book, Good to Great, stated the most recommended way to move a team or organization from good to great is to ensure “who” questions comes before “what” questions. He continued, “Before any vision, before strategy, before organizational structure, before tactics-first who, then what- as a rigorous discipline, consistently applied.” Another leadership practitioner, John C. Maxwell affirmed that with personnel you only have two choices: “Train them or trade for them.” Perhaps this move goes deeper than simply punishment (trading away a star player) and reward (money and draft picks). Since team dynamics can be fragile, especially when mired in losses, removing this one player from the mix could be the panacea this Crew SC team is most in need of. 

Dr. Mike Voight is an NSCAA member and an associate professor in the Physical Education/Human Performance Department at Central Connecticut State University. The former NCAA Division I coach is also a psychology-performance consultant with extensive experience working with many collegiate, elite, Olympic, and professional athletes on performance enhancement, team and leadership consulting, which include some of the CCSU athletic teams. He is the author of The Sports Leadership Playbook (McFarland) & Working the Sports Leadership Playbook (workbook).

Additional Reading

Effective Team Leadership During a Time of Crisis

From Turmoil to Teammates: Conflict Resolution for Coaches, Parents, and Administrators

VIDEO: Dominator or Accommodator?: Improving Team Chemistry

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