Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire ended with a disappointing result. Columbus Crew SC fell 10-9 after 11 rounds of penalty kicks. The shootout followed 90 minutes of 1-1 soccer and an extra time that saw each side score. Still, for the second consecutive year, Columbus was out of the tournament after just one game.
The Black & Gold would have loved to progressed further in the competition. Fullbacks Hector Jimenez and Connor Maloney both told Massive Report before the match that one of the team’s goals in 2018 was to win the competition. That won’t happen now, but Crew SC weren’t hanging their heads following elimination.
“The guys aren’t taking this as a negative,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said following the game. “We played against the majority of Chicago’s first team, and we did a good job and I’m proud of the guys. This is the same group, basically, that played Louisville, and that was scrimmaging college games.”
Berhalter was in a strange situation heading into this Open Cup game. The Black & Gold are in the midst of a four-game-in-eight-day stretch. Last Saturday, Crew SC faced the defending MLS Cup champions, Toronto FC, and play the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United in the next week before a brief World Cup break.
Given Columbus’ position in the standings, tied for fourth in MLS, Berhalter couldn’t risk losing a key starter in such a busy stretch, especially considering both Wil Trapp and Zack Steffen will miss their second consecutive match on Saturday while on international duty. Instead, the head coach elected to let his reserves give it ago.
Columbus’ starting lineup featured 10 changes from Saturday’s 3-3 draw with Toronto. Six of those players were 23 year of age or under. Of those who did start the match Cristian Martinez — who is in the middle of a two-game MLS suspension — and Niko Hansen have the most minutes this year with 777 and 451 respectively. After that, it was Jimenez (255) and then rookie Luis Argudo (250).
Conversely, the Fire, who have only 17 points in MLS play, started a number of regulars, specifically offensively in Nemanja Nikolic, Luis Solignac and Diego Campos.
When it came time to go to the bench, Berhalter turned to more youth in winger Eduard Opoku (21), Lalas Abubakar (23) and Milton Valenzuela (19). Chicago manager Veljko Paunovic brought in a World Cup winner in Bastian Schweinsteiger, 13-year MLS veteran Dax McCarty and 27-year-old Aleksandar Katai.
To drive the point home, the salaries of the Chicago players who featured, based on the players’ union numbers, was $11,544,706. The Black & Gold’s added up to $1,672,077. Nikolic, who scored both Fire goals, reportedly gets paid a base salary of $1,700,000. Martinez and Adam Jahn, Columbus’ two goal scorers, make a combined $166,415.
Despite the difference in approach by the two teams, Crew SC still pushed Chicago to the death and only failed to advance in the Open Cup because third-string goalkeeper Logan Ketterer had his penalty kick attempt saved in the 11th round.
“It’s huge,” Argudo said of the reserves going toe-to-toe with the Fire. “It obviously gives us a lot of confidence. The guys who don’t play much, it’s a big thing for us. We competed against a first-team MLS team, so it was good for us.
“It’s a tough loss, but all in all I think we’re all happy with how we performed, coming back. Everyone’s happy for each other. We played well, we played together.”
What’s even more impressive is that this team was able to fight back in extra time and even force the penalty kick shootout. All but Martinez and Hansen have failed to see regular time this year, yet this group battled for 120 minutes and scored the equalizer in the 114th minute.
“You can see we were fatigued; you could see they got tired,” Berhalter said. “It was a group that normally hasn’t played together. A lot of new faces, a lot of guys playing major minutes, basically in a competitive game for the first time this year, so I’m really proud of them. I thought they did great job, and that’s what I told them, ‘Keep your head high, you guys really showed resiliency and courage to keep going.’”
“Everyone gave it their all and it was amazing just getting out there and playing with the guys,” Argudo agreed with his head coach.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted, but we stuck together the whole game and got the tying goal at the end.”
For a number of these players, the Open Cup was a chance to see more regular minutes. Advancing in the tournament would likely provide them with the knowledge that they have something to train for because there is at least one more Open Cup game.
But according to Berhalter, these players don’t have to be concerned about not seeing game action again this year. He believes in his depth and the talent that doesn’t always make the game-day 18-man roster. After Wednesday night’s performance, despite the final result, these players have demonstrated they can be counted on against MLS opposition.
“Some guys proved that they deserve more minutes as the season is going, and I think that was the important thing,” Berhalter said. “We’re a squad, we have weeks, we have times, at all times, when the whole team is needed, and this is an opportunity for some guys to play, and they are going to be involved moving forward.”