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Trapp earning more of the spotlight as Crew SC make another run at MLS Cup

OBETZ, Ohio -- The limelight has an odd way of leaving Wil Trapp almost as soon as it finds him.

Part of that is down to the position the 24-year-old plays on the field, that of a deep-lying midfielder. It's a spot where his killer ball leading up to a goal comes two passes before the decisive shot is taken. Even when a player of the stature of Thierry Henry lavishes praise on Trapp, as he did three years ago, it's not so much forgotten as the focus soon shifts to someone else.

The up-and-down fortunes the Columbus Crew have experienced throughout the past few seasons have also contributed to Trapp's being nudged out of the spotlight at times. An MLS Cup finalist in 2015, Columbus missed the playoffs entirely in 2016.

But lately, attention has tended to fixate on Trapp with a bit more regularity and for more-sustained periods. The Crew are back making another deep playoff run, and they will open the Eastern Conference finals at MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday against Toronto FC. Trapp is in his first year captaining the side, so, in addition to being a key cog for manager Gregg Berhalter, he's also been the face of the team.

That role has taken on increased importance in the past month thanks to the elephant-sized distraction that is the Crew's potential move to Austin, Texas, and it is in part through Trapp's efforts that the team has stayed focused. That Trapp hails from nearby Gahanna, Ohio, means he feels the emotional knot of the moment more than most.

"From a player perspective, it's been, not business as usual but we've done a really good job to make it seem that way because we know that we're in the middle of the crunch time of the season," said Trapp as the sun warmed up a typically chilly November day outside the team's training complex. "The most important games are here, and you can't allow distractions to seep in.

Columbus Crew SCColumbus Crew SC
Toronto FCToronto FC
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"So I think, as a player, that's been my focus. As a citizen of Columbus and as a person, it's been a little bit more difficult just because I'm from here and I have a deeper connection to the community and a lot of my friends are fans of the club for a long time, and also my family."

If not for the dread hanging over the franchise, Trapp might find himself enjoying the moment a bit more, because this is a player who has found the rarest of sweet spots. His cerebral, technical game is perfectly suited to the style implemented by Berhalter.

"When Wil is playing his best game, we play our best game," Berhalter said. "His performance is so closely linked to how we play."

Trapp is also at an age when his ability is augmented by experience. And the connector role he's asked to fill on the field is what jazzes him the most about the game.

"If I get the ball and I break a line with a pass, and the next guy can turn and he plays the ball wide and he crosses and we score, that fires me up because I had a hand in it and I had to play the ball at the right tempo to the right foot," he said in an exclusive interview. "It's details. I think the details of scoring a goal when I'm involved in it means a lot to me."

Trapp has grown into the role of captain, as well. When Berhalter named Trapp to the role, it wasn't a complete surprise. The midfielder had been one of the team's vice captains under Michael Parkhurst, so there was a natural line of succession that was followed when Parkhurst was traded to Atlanta United in preseason. But Berhalter liked the attributes Trapp brought to the job despite his being much younger than your typical captain.

When Wil Trapp plays his best game, according to his coach, so do the Crew.

"You think about how you transfer information and how players can accept information. Wil is very good at both of those," Berhalter said. "He was a young player, but we knew that if we structured the leadership the right way, he could thrive in it."

Assuming the captaincy required a certain transition period. Trapp has long been a lead-by-example type, content to let his play do the talking. But he realized there were moments when speaking up was needed. As the season progressed, Trapp eventually found his equilibrium.

"I think our whole style of soccer is about the collective and the team playing, and it is an eloquent type of game," he said. "You can't be too emotional and fiery and play in that system. But there are times where, I've found this year where, I have to be that force for the team. But also I think it's being compassionate, as well, and putting yourself in the shoes of your teammates and knowing what they're going through. And that's a big part of leadership because it's respect both ways."

Trapp's approach is one that has resonated with his teammates.

"[Wil] has always got something positive to say at the right time," defender Josh Williams told reporters after Monday's training session. "To me he's been a helluva captain, and I'd run through a wall for that guy."

Trapp's ascendance has yet to translate into any extended looks with the national team beyond call-ups to the January camp. There was even the time when former manager Jurgen Klinsmann gave Trapp a look at outside midfield.

When asked how that experiment worked out, Trapp gave one of those rueful laughs and said, "My pace, you know? Enough said."

One longstanding criticism of Trapp's game -- and why it might not translate to the international level -- has been that he struggles to cope with physical battles and that his success is more a product of Berhalter's system than of pure talent. That impression has been reinforced by the fact that Trapp has tended to be paired with more robust central midfield partners such as current Vancouver Whitecap Tony Tchani. But Berhalter has seen improvement in Trapp's defensive game, though there is still a ways to go.

"I see Wil as a player who can adapt to different systems," Berhalter said. "He's a smart player, and I see him as a fantastic tool at our disposal. As he learns to read the game quicker, he's going to get even better. You don't have to be the most physical guy to dominate defensively. You just need to read the game, and he's been working on that. There's no doubt that he's going to keep improving."

Trapp insists he does all he can to focus on the present, even though he continues to pursue a Greek passport, which would ease his path toward a European move. As for his international prospects, he knows that is largely dependent on the coach and thus is largely out of his control. He admitted that there have been times in training when he found himself focusing on things the national team coach wanted, which might be at odds with what Berhalter desired. He quickly recalibrated, realizing the path to the national team went through his club.

"If my team wins, and I'm a big part of that team winning, the opportunities will come," he said. "I just think when it comes to the national team level, it's just trying to fit in and find ways to contribute to the program."

If Trapp is successful at both levels, he'll find himself in the limelight for a bit longer.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.


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