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Columbus Crew SC turns attention to the final phase of preseason

After spending time in Arizona and Hawaii, the Black & Gold now head to Charleston for final preparations.

Soccer- Audi MLS Eastern Conference Semifinal Leg 2- New York CIty FC vs Columbus Crew Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

It’s crazy to think about it, but Columbus Crew SC’s preseason is almost over. The 2018 Major League Soccer season begins in just over two weeks when the Black & Gold head to Toronto to take on the defending MLS Cup champions.

Since Crew SC opened camp on Jan. 24, the focus has been on preparing for the new year.

After one day of training in Columbus, the team traveled to Casa Grande, Arizona for a week and a half of practice in the desert. There, the Black & Gold scrimmaged the Colorado Rapids and Seattle Sounders — both wins — before departing for Honolulu, Hawaii to take part in the Pacific Rim Cup.

On the Hawaiian islands, Crew SC took part in the club’s first two official preseason games, falling to Japanese first division side Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo 3-2 and defeating Iwaki FC 5-3.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter stated the players came into preseason saying they were motivated to get back to work after falling one goal short of hosting the MLS Cup Final a year ago and he has seen that reflected in their preparation.

“The guys worked extremely hard, they’re extremely focused,” Berhalter said of the first two phases of preseason. “I feel like we’re further ahead of last year when we started in terms of the concepts and the guys understanding how we want to play. So I think all of those things are positive.”

In the first game in Honolulu, Berhalter used a different lineup in either half, giving him a good look at 22 different players. In the second match, the head coach only made four changes at the break, allowing players such as Harrison Afful, Lalas Abubakar, Federico Higuain, Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes to see 60 minutes of game action while Jonathan Mensah went a full 90.

Although the Black & Gold went just 1-1 and finished third in the four-team tournament that also featured the Vancouver Whitecaps, Berhalter was pleased with how his players performed in the two outings.

“Overall I think it’s been positive,” he said. “The Japanese teams gave us a different look with extreme pressing and continual movement throughout the game, so that was really good.”

While Berhalter is pleased with what he’s seen from the majority of his team, he has not been able to see everyone in game action, or as much action, as he would like due to injuries.

“We’re still getting Gaston (Sauro) and Mike (Grella) back to full strength,” Berhalter updated this week. “Niko Hansen has a little bit of hamstring. He’s going to be limited in Charleston. And Josh Williams will be limited also with a little bit of Achilles pain. But other than that, we’re full.”

After a few days off back in Columbus, Crew SC left for Charleston, South Carolina on Thursday in advance of the 2018 Carolina Challenge Cup.

Down south, the Black & Gold will face MLS sides Atlanta United and Minnesota United as well the host team Charleston Battery of the USL.

With MLS play beginning soon, the emphasis changes quite a bit in Charleston.

“We want to continue on building team unity. Now we’re focusing on performing,” Berhalter said. “We know we have three tough games ahead of us, so that’s going to be important. And just the detail, the detail of now we’ll start integrating set pieces, more detail on how we’re going to press teams, just the detail of our game model I think is going to be important. We’ll use these 10 days to really fine-tune that and get ready for the start of the season.”