The Black & Gold’s reserves took care of business against the Cardinals, winning the game 3-2.
#CrewSC scrimmage lineup:— Patrick Murphy (@_Pat_Murphy) April 22, 2018
Columbus got on the board early with am Adam Jahn goal in the second minute. The forward headed home a Mohammed Abu corner early in the match. Sixteen minutes later and Crew SC was up by two after Jahn found winger Cristian Martinez. His cross was tapped home by fellow winger Mike Grella.
Louisville cut the deficit to one early in the second half, but substitute winger Edward Opoku redirected a Connor Maloney cross to restore the advantage.
The Cardinals would score one more time, capitalizing on a bobbled save by goalkeeper Logan Ketterer, but Columbus held on for the win.
But the victory was not the story of the game, rather the return of Grella and Gaston Sauro, both players who have been out for multiple months dealing with knee injuries.
“That was a huge part of the exercise, getting guys who haven’t been playing that much, getting them game minutes, in particular Gaston and Mike,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said following the scrimmage. “We haven’t seen them out on the field and I thought the objective was fulfilled today.”
For Grella, this was his first game action since early last June, a part of a season in which he only played eight games (three starts) due to the knee issue. He managed just under 60 minutes in his scrimmage return.
“Surprisingly really well,” Grella said of his fitness. “At the end of the first half, I think with 10 minutes left, I was pretty tired, but when I started the second half, I felt fine. I felt good the first 15 minutes of the second half. So I played 60 minutes today and I felt surprisingly pretty good actually physically.”
Sauro has been out even longer, last stepping on a soccer field for a game last on Oct. 1, 2016. Both players dealt with complications that made their issues take longer to recover from. Sauro played the first half for the Black & Gold before watching the remainder of the game.
“I feel okay,” he said with a bag of ice taped to his knee. “I have some feeling, but nothing that bothers me to stop playing.”
While Sunday did not mark a return to Major League Soccer for either player, it was a big step in both player’s return to the field.
“It was a really good step forward in the right direction,” Grella said of the scrimmage. “Played, covered a lot of distance, felt no pain, felt great, got a goal, so I checked off a bunch of boxes that I wanted to and I think it was a very positive day.”
“I think after a long time, coming back and playing I think it’s very nice for me to come back and start to move again and feel like a soccer player again,” Sauro said. “I’m so happy.”
While both players admitted to having nerves before their first game in some time, each had positive moments in the scrimmage, showing what they can do when back to full health. Aside from his goal, Grella had a couple of nice runs, including beating a defender and racing down the sideline.
Sauro didn’t have much to do aside from some simple passes around the back. When he was called up to make a defensive play, the Argentinian center back battled hard, showing no concern on his knee.
“I love to play this game because I like to compete and to compete again,” the defender said. “I was playing with many teammates, young guys, it was very nice for me.”
Of course, after being out for so long, both players — who returned to full training at the beginning of April — showed signs of rust. Grella had a few passes, especially early on, that went awry and a few off touches. Sauro also had a few arrant passes, but that’s to be expected.
“I think there’s no better way than getting involved and getting sort of thrown into the fire,” Grella explained. “That’s how you get sharp again and get going again. But I feel pretty happy with where I’m at it. I think for sure I could be sharper and a lot better and a lot more comfortable on the ball, but that takes time. How much time? I don’t know, but the more I get involved, the faster I think it will come.”
Now that both players have returned to some kind of game action, the next step is about recovery.
Crew SC is off on Monday, and the group that scrimmaged on Sunday will continue regeneration Tuesday. On Wednesday, it’s back to full work.
As for what Berhalter is looking for next, it’s about these two beginning to contend for playing time in league play.
“Next would be trying to get involved with the first team,” he said of Grella and Sauro. “Trying to get minutes for the first team and continue on that final phase of fitness and then trying to make an impact on the first team.”
For Grella and Sauro, there’s no telling for sure when fans may see them in black and gold on Saturdays, but certainly Sunday was a big step for two guys who are aching to get back on the field for meaningful games.
“It’s nice to play in a more of a realistic game with guys who, they went after it,” Grella said. “But yeah, very pleased actually with the way today turned out. Driving here it was weird. Driving here, it was a little nervous. Not for the game or anything, but I don’t know. I just haven’t played in a long time. A little bit for myself, a little bit for Gaston and I’m really pleased with how the day went for us.”