Preseason is a strange time of year. It begins with a lot of fitness and team building, but eventually the club has to begin to get into game shape and that only comes from playing matches.
Columbus Crew SC has entered that phase of the preseason training and the team had its first live action against another opposition last Wednesday night in a 2-2 draw with Sporting Kansas City.
"I'd say as a team, we were right where we thought we'd be," head coach Gregg Berhalter said of the performance. "We're a little rusty, not having played but there were some good moments. We created some good chances and overall it was a good game."
In that contest, 22 players saw 45 minutes of action. For those who aren't great at math - myself included - that's two teams each playing a half. With the season about two weeks away, Berhalter still isn't focused on the lineups or results, but rather seeing how his players are performing.
"I think what's happening is people are competing for positions," he said. "Nothing's set in stone right now and it's good to give different opportunities to guys at different times. By playing a mixed lineup, it gives us [a chance] to see players in starting roles, in reserve roles, and how they can perform with a different combination of players."
This is a benefit of preseason. During the regular season, the focus of each game is on the final result. Berhalter must play the lineup he believes will get a win and doesn't get time to experiment with lineups and see how players work with different players around them.
"Both of those lineups had consistent starters in it," Berhalter said of Wednesday's match. "You're able to see what guys who haven't been consistent starters look like with that group. For us, it gives us a good indication of the progress they've made and that's all we're looking for. We're looking to see if guys are making progress and learning the system and developing from year to year and from week to week even."
It also helps him get a good look at the young and new players. Do they fit in with the team? Are they worthy of a roster spot come the cut date? What role might this player fill and does he do it better than someone else?
All of these questions can be answered during preseason.
There is also a balancing act. At some point between the fitness, the scrimmages, and the preseason games, Berhalter must begin to develop his starting 11 for the start of the season. As the team gets closer to opening day, the preseason lineups will begin to reflect what Berhalter is thinking.
"It's going to happen soon," Berhalter said last week. "We're working into it right now. I think certainly by next Wednesday, you'll start to see a more solidified lineup. We know we'll have two games left then until the opener. So that's going to come."
Fans that tuned in to Crew SC's 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake Saturday night. Berhalter played the starters 62 minutes before making wholesale changes. While he's said multiple times this preseason that he is working with a blank slate, it is pretty clear that Berhalter is giving last year's starters the first crack.
Crew SC's starting lineup vs. RSL:
With a couple games remaining in the 2016 preseason, Black & Gold fans will begin to see the lineup form to a greater degree. While things will continue to change throughout the season, we have reached the portion of the preseason where decisions will be made and the team's make up is beginning to take form.