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Columbus Crew SC’s strong Carolina Challenge Cup answers key questions

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A strong week shows how Gregg Berhalter’s plan for 2017 is coming together.

MLS: Preseason-New England Revolution vs Columbus Crew SC Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 edition of Columbus Crew SC was going to be different after one of the worst seasons in team history and an offseason of additions. The long preseason trip to Brazil gave Columbus time to integrate new ideas and teammates away from attention. Fans and the media were in the dark about the big questions with the season nearing.

The three games in Charleston cleared up quite a few questions and should inspire some positivity for the season.

Zack Steffen will be the starting Goalkeeper. The biggest question of the offseason appears to be answered as Steffen appears to have locked down the position after an excellent Carolina Challenge Cup. He played the second half of Crew SC’s games against Atlanta United and Charleston Battery. He was consistently impressive while Brad Stuver stumbled a bit. Steffen then went the full 90 in the final tuneup against the Seattle Sounders. His distribution wasn’t as focused as Steve Clark’s, but his excellent shot stopping and presence on set pieces makes him the clear choice. It was a performance that should clear up the doubt Gregg Berhalter had at the position.

The team will have four new starters. Based off of Saturday’s lineup, Steffen will be joined by Jukka Raitala, Mohammed Abu, and Jonathan Mensah in the first 11 on opening day. Adam Jahn started in place of the injured Ola Kamara, but the Norwegian striker will slot back into the lineup when healthy.

Jonathan Mensah: Mensah is obviously a physical presence at 6-foot-2. That’s well documented as he won multiple headers to cut out a lot of long balls attempted over the defense. He consistently covered a lot of ground to close out trouble. More so than the physical skills, he also showed a very good reading of the game and how to play in Berhalter’s demanding defensive system. Being able to know when to step up and when to cover is vital as Crew SC pushes numbers forward.

Jukka Raitala: The Finnish left back has consistently been praised by Berhalter and has impressed in preseason action. He’s performed solidly in limited time defensively, but he’s repeatedly shown excellent offensive instincts moving forward. He has a dangerous shot that will force opponents to defend while showing he can pick out the right pass. The question remains how solid defensively he is, but only because he hasn’t been tested significantly.

Mohammed Abu: The midfielder showed he was able to handle playing in traffic. He’s a skilled passer and will often chose the right option to play. He uses his body well to put himself in position to cycle the ball. He may not be dominant physically like Tony Tchani, but he hasn’t been pushed off the ball easily. The main question surrounds his defensive skills. He hasn’t had to show off his defensive mettle as Crew SC has often had the significant possession edge during his time on the field.

Federico Higuain is healthy and dangerous. It was little surprising when Crew SC picked up Higuain’s million dollar option after an injury hampered season. Coming back from significant injury is difficult as a player hits his 30s, but Pipa looks like his old self. Never the fastest, he once again has his burst of speed to break into space that made him dangerous. His range of passing once again matches his vision and Columbus is that much more dangerous for it.

After a terrible 2016, Crew SC fans could use some good news and the Carolina Challenge Cup gave them some. Beyond the 2-0-1 record and the title, it seems like many of Berhalter’s moves are primed to pay off. The new pieces are fitting in well while the returning players are picking up where they left off. It’s only three games of preseason and there is a 34 game season ahead, but there is enough for fans to be optimistic about.