Let me start by saying that any thoughts on Columbus Crew SC's 2-2 draw with the Swope Park Rangers come from listening to the broadcast last night and not any sort of visuals. While Neil Sika does a great job on the radio, there's only so much insight you can take from audio.
With that said, let's se what we can make out from this game and the three preseason games so far.
1. Are Ties Becoming a Thing for Columbus?
Three games in to the preseason and Crew SC has three draws. While head coach Gregg Berhalter, as well as any coach ever, has emphasized that preseason results aren't that important, there is becoming an alarming trend in a small sample size.
In the first preseason game against Sporting Kansas City, the Black & Gold conceded an 88th minute goal that led to a 2-2-2 draw. On Wednesday, Columbus allowed a late corner which resulted in a stoppage time equalizer for another 2-2 draw. Sandwiched in between that was a 1-1 draw where Crew SC actually came from behind.
What concerns me isn't that they aren't 3-0-0 or 2-0-1, but the fact that they've allowed two late goals. It has not been against the starters necessarily, but this is a matter of focus, an area that a team with championship aspirations can't have a let down. Will this carry over to the regular season? That's tough to say, but twice in three games isn't a great sign.
2. Is This the Same Old Crew SC?
From what we've seen out of the Black & Gold this preseason, I'm still waiting to see improvement from last year. Maybe improvement isn't the right word, but progress from a team that was so reliant on Kei Kamara to score goals and had a leaky defense.
While Ethan Finlay scored 12 goals and Federico Higuain added eight, everyone in MLS knew that Kamara was the player to focus on in this offense. It was a good thing no defense figured out how to stop him or Columbus may have not reached such great heights a year ago. Can Kamara repeat that season? Will he even be on the field week one or will he hold out?
It's good that Crew SC got goals from Higuain and Finlay against the Rangers, but I think the scoring will need to be more spread out this season and so far the club looks pretty dependent on Kamara.
The defense was improved at the end of last season once the additions of Harrison Afful and Gaston Sauro settled in on the back line. Many believed that would help solve open faucet that conceded 53 goals last season, but through three games in the preseason, the defense has allowed five goals. Again, this isn't with the starters necessarily, but everyone needs to improve.
3. What to Make of Hector Jimenez?
The former LA Galaxy man was brought to Columbus by Berhalter and is entering his third year with the club. In his first season, Jimenez played in 24 games with 19 starts, but became more of a substitute when needed in 2015 with just 12 starts and 582 less minutes.
So far this preseason, Jimenez has started two games and played the second half of the tie with SPR. Berhalter has always been a big proponent of Jimenez, but what role does he fit with this team? Over his two seasons, Jimenez has proven a diverse player, lining up on the wing, at either outside back position, and even underneath the striker.
With the additions at outside back and on the wing, Jimenez could be the odd man out but Berhalter has gone to him frequently. Will he see more time this year? If these three games are any indication then he is still in the coach's plans.
4. Like Jimenez, Where Does Cedrick Fit?
Cedrick Mabwait is in a similar situation as Jimenez, but only plays one position. Last year, we saw Cedrick mostly as a second half substitute to run at a tired defense and that's where he was most impactful. Is this his role this year or can that be expanded?
With Justin Meram still recovering from offseason surgery, the speedy winger has started two of the games and done well. In Wednesday's contest with the Rangers, Cedrick fired a shot that resulted in a rebound which Higuain tapped home. He was active throughout and his name was mentioned often by Sika in the attacking third.
Is Cedrick okay with just coming off the bench to provide a spark or can he demonstrate that he can push Meram for a starting spot? I think Berhalter likes what Meram gives the team and he knows how he works in this system. Unless Cedrick has shown a lot in the preseason, I think it's Meram's job to lose right now.
5. From Forward to Outside Back
Marshall Hollingsworth was drafted 41st overall by Crew SC as a forward out of Wheaton College, but his height, 5-foot-8, was called into question. Berhalter answered that by playing Hollingsworth at outside back, which was a surprise to many.
Hollingsworth missed out on the first preseason game, but played 28 minutes at right back back against Real Salt Lake and saw 45 minutes of action at left back against SPR. The outside back position already has depth with the addition of Corey Ashe to go along with Waylon Francis, Chad Barson, Afful, and potentially Tyson Wahl, Amro Tarek, and Jimenez who all have experience playing out wide.
With the way the Black & Gold's outside backs attack, it wouldn't be too big of a transition for Hollingsworth. He will have to work on crossing and some defensive skills, but it could be a way for the rookie to make the Crew SC roster.
6. Intensity Questions
During the broadcast on Wednesday, Neil Sika mentioned that Columbus looked like a team ready to play a meaningful game, that the intensity wasn't really there. This worries me.
First, this team has played just three preseason games. It's not as if they've gone through a ton of offseason matches and just want to get to the regular season. While I'm sure that's true, these players should be looking to impress their coach. If Berhalter is to be believed, all spots are up for grabs, so why aren't players trying to seize those?
Second, this isn't a team that has accomplished anything. One trip to the MLS Cup Final, a year after failing to win a playoff game, does not make this a team that can sleepwalk through the preseason. Sure, there's plenty of motivation in week one with a rematch of that Final, but I would think Crew SC would be chomping at the bit to be ready to go from the start of the season.
Finally, why didn't Crew SC dominate their USL opponent on Wednesday? Two draws against two quality MLS sides isn't a big deal but to play down to a team, even in preseason, isn't acceptable for a team that is talking about the Supporter's Shield.
Fans will hope this is just preseason and the team will turn it on in just over a week when the games begin to matter, but that's easier said than done.