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Crew open Tucson Sun Cup with a win

Black and Gold defeat hosts

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew opened the Tucson Sun Cup with a 1-0 win over the hosts Phoenix Rising of the USL. Playing a strong lineup, the team struggled early before pulling ahead in the second half to secure the preseason win.

Columbus tried to play direct early in the game by switching the ball wide through Luis Diaz. The plan freed the speedy Costa Rican three times into the Phoenix defensive zone. The Crew weren't able to turn the opportunities into shots on goal.

The Crew had an open goal chance from distance in the 32nd minute. Zac Lubin sent a ball from the back that was intercepted by Artur. He quickly found Zelarayan. His shot from 25 yards went wide of the open goal.

The hosts settled into an advantage on the ball and pressed for an opening goal. Phoenix would tally 5 corner kicks and got off several shots through the first half. None tested Eloy Room.

Phoenix had their best chance in the 39th minute as Harrison Afful got turned around and Junior Flemmings barreled in on goal. Room parried a close range shot from The shot from Flemming. The followup was tapped goal-ward by Rufat Dadashov and Room came up with the reaction save to keep the game level.

The Crew nearly broke the scoreless deadlock just before halftime. Milton Valenzuela found space on the left and fired in an early cross cutting through the penalty area. Gyasi Zardes sent the resulting shot from 10 yards wide right.

The hosts started the second half strongly. Room was forced into a kick save and a followup volley was blocked over the bar. The Crew weren’t able to clear the danger and Pedro Santos gave up a penalty after trying to dribble out of danger, pushing the ball too far and fouling a player while trying to recover.

Room again came up big as he saved the Solomon Asante penalty, pushing the shot wide. The Crew defense cleared the danger to ensure the game stayed scoreless.

The Crew attack would finally create danger 10 minutes after the break as Diaz again created chances through his speed. His early cross was cleared back to him. He turned the Phoenix defense and got off a shot that forced a corner.

Immediately off the corner, the Black & Gold thought they won a penalty as Lucas Zelarayan appeared to be clipped as he cut back in the box. The referee waived off the appeals while the fourth official was on the receiving end of Caleb Porter’s impassioned pleas.

After a quiet half, Zelarayan continued to build through the second half. In the 69th minute he launched a 25 yard shot that forced a parrying save from substitute keeper Eric Dick.

Zelarayan finally showed off the skill that had Columbus paying a record fee in the 70th minute. Playing wide right, the Argentine playmaker slipped a defender and looped a cross into the box. The flight fooled goalkeeper Dick and Zardes headed the ball in from the doorstep. After failing to create all game, the Crew took a 1-0 lead.

Zelarayan nearly doubled the lead in the 80th minute. Given just little bit of space, the new playmaker ripped a long distance shot that forced and excellent save from Dick to parry it wide and off the bar.

Substitute Sebastian Berhalter gave up the ball and was forced to foul at the top of the box. The close range free kick was sent high by Phoenix. The hosts would fail to test Columbus for the rest of the match.

Minutes Managed

The Crew sent out a strong team and were approaching this much like a regular season game. Room, Valenzuela, Jonathan Mensah, Vito Wormgoor, Darlington Nagbe, Zelarayan, and Santos all played 90 minutes. Diaz and Harrison Afful logged 60 minutes. Zardes and Artur got in 80 minutes. With two weeks to the opening game, the team looks match fit.

As the rotation tightened, it also illuminated a little bit about Porter’s rotation. Chris Cadden, Youness Mokhtar, Sebastian Berhalter, and Fanendo Adi all saw action. It’s a glimpse of who the team would rely on when the games count.

Lastly, the biggest positive is that the Black & Gold appeared to escape the match without injury.

Preseason Form

Saturday night’s game was the first real chance to see the team in action and it was clear the team was in preseason form. The set piece defense allowed several Phoenix chances. The defense struggled to command the penalty area and gave up a couple decent chances. The team also looked uncomfortable in possession, not really able to control the ball for long periods of time.

Where the Crew really shined was in transition. The team looked best moving quickly through midfield and passing more vertically than they have in years. Artur, Nagbe, and Zelarayan looked to move forward and find outlets wide. That often meant that Diaz was tasked with getting behind the defense and creating havoc. Several of the team’s best chances early came from this very direct play. The Crew will have to sharpen those transitions to be consistently dangerous.

The team also was very successful in the high press. Another Porter wrinkle, the Crew pressed more aggressively and higher than Berhalter did throughout his tenure and the contrast was striking. The result was several rushed passes and turnovers to give Columbus a short field to attack at.

What’s Next

The Crew come back quickly to face the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night at 8:30 pm. With short rest and the team trying to get into a regular season routine, Columbus likely will rotate and play a substitute heavy lineup before playing a full strength team against the Houston Dynamo next Saturday.