Photo by David Heasley

The One-Two Punch

In case you didn’t notice, the Columbus Crew SC has gotten remarkably better in the last two seasons under the direction of Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. The team got an additional boost when Berhalter added Steve Tashjian as his high-performance director last midseason.

“[Steve’s] job is to maximize players’ performance on a daily basis,” Berhalter said, adding that the small percentage of game-time performance fans see on the field is built from the large percentage of physical and nutritional training off the field. Tashjian uses a system of screening, monitoring and data collection to fine-tune their programs.

His role is unique to most teams in Major League Soccer and gives the club an approach that’s yielding results.

The Crew qualified for the MLS playoffs in its 2014 campaign for the first time since 2011, enjoyed higher rates of national team call-ups amongst its squad, earned more attention for prospective U.S. national team players and created individual standouts like Ethan Finlay, who went from zero goals in 2012 and 2013 to 11 goals in the 2014 season.

“[Berhalter], when he came in, was direct and concise on the type of team he was going to run and how the system was going to work,” said Finlay, named MLS Player of the Week for the week of April 27. “He was clear that we were going to work first, and he was going to get every percent out of us, whether it was in the weight room, or watching tapes or nutrition.”

Finlay, who already racked up two goals in the first seven games this season, said Tashjian’s approach for executing Berhalter’s vision has made all the difference.

“[Tashjian] is great at delivering his message. For guys to buy in, they need to have an understanding of why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Finlay said. “We see the benefits. Now when [Tashjian] says something, we do it.”

The Tashjian effect is a result of his elite, one-on-one physical and nutritional training on and off the field that’s grounded in Berhalter’s “player first” mentality. The approach aims to address specific training issues of the individual, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“In order to produce performance, you have to look at an individual,” said Tashjian, who rejoined the Crew after five years with the Premier League’s Everton Football Club, where he was its head of sports science and conditioning and director of end-stage rehabilitation. Tashjian had previously been with the Crew from 2007 through 2009 as its assistant coach and head of fitness, director of end-stage rehabilitation and reconditioning.

“Everything we do on a daily basis influences how well [the player] is going to do on the weekend [during the game],” he said.

Tashjian is known for his unconventional approach to training and, especially, nutrition. He works with anyone on the Crew who may provide nutrition to the players, including the players themselves, and talks to them about spices they use, ingredients and what they’re cooking.

“All these things come into play,” Tashjian said, adding that the diet often depends on the results Berhalter needs to see on the field that week. “Our diet doesn’t look the same week to week or day to day.”

The nutrition program was a big change for Crew players. They bought into the plan once each of them felt and saw the results, including Crew standout midfielder Wil Trapp, who earned a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up in January.

“Some of the work we put in during the offseason prepared me extremely well for what I faced [at the call-up],” Trapp said, adding that he’s never experienced anything like what Tashjian brings to the table for the Crew. “He and [Berhalter] really are a one-two punch in terms of getting the tactical side of things as well as taking care of ourselves on and off the field.”

Trapp said the individualized approach to training has been good for the team.

“[Tashjian] can be a stickler, but it’s good for us,” he continued. “It’s very much a comprehensive approach on how to be a top-level professional athlete.”

Tashjian also brought in new technology to more effectively measure and understand how players’ bodies responded to physical stress on the field.

“Simple daily screening gave us a quantitative idea for how [their bodies] were responding,” Tashjian said.

“It’s become a very integrated process,” he said. “Everybody stayed true to form and stayed on the path. And now we’ve created a standard for the way we do our work.”

The combination of Berhalter and Tashjian has the club pointed in the right direction—up.

“We want to be an organization where players that come here get better,” Berhalter said. “We set the bar pretty high for ourselves.”