The Columbus Crew played its first official preseason game — although is it a preseason game if none of the fans can actually watch it? — on Wednesday night against New York City FC in Saint Petersburg, Florida after taking part in a few scrimmages during the team’s time in Chula Vista, California earlier this month. The game was played behind closed doors and little was known other than a brief recap on NYCFC’s website, an even briefer one on the Crew’s site and a few New York highlights.
Here is what was provided for us from those descriptions. The game ended 3-0 to City with goals coming in the 3rd, 65th and 86th minute. The Black & Gold played two lineups, one for 60 minutes and the other for 30. The first lineup was largely a reserve group:
Evan Bush, Marlon Hairston, Josh Williams, Grant Lillard (Aboubacar Keita, 46’), Anthony Samways, Isaiah Parente (Sam Sarver, 33’), Perry Kitchen, Pedro Santos, Miguel Berry, Bradley Wright-Phillips
The second group looked closer to what the team will put out once the games start to matter:
Evan Bush, Harrison Afful, Aboubacar Keita, Jonathan Mensah, Anthony Samways, Aidan Morris, Darlington Nagbe, Isaiah Parente, Derrick Etienne, Lucas Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes.
Let’s dive into what we’ve learned since then.
The Crew played undermanned
Coming into this game, head coach Caleb Porter knew he would be without some important pieces. Starting goalkeeper Eloy Room is with the Caraçao National Team for World Cup qualifiers and left back Milton Valenzuela was called up to the Argentina Under-23 team that is currently in Japan. New signing Alexandru Matan is not with the team yet either. Midfielder Artur and center back Vito Wormgoor are still coming back from injuries.
In addition, offseason signing Kevin Molin and left back Waylon Francis both missed the game with what Porter described as “a little bit of some tight hamstring.” It’s nothing serious and both players are expected to play in the next preseason match on Saturday.
This made the game more difficult against a New York City team that has played well throughout preseason and had a much stronger squad to select from. But this brings to an important point.
Porter isn’t worried about results
Every year, in every sport, fans get all up in arms about preseason games. Either their team does really well and they think it’s a championship season or they do poorly and all hope is lost. In reality, preseason performance generally has no bearing on how a team performs once the game matters.
Need proof? The Crew hadn’t lost a preseason game in three years. Two seasons ago, the Black & Gold didn’t make the playoffs, last year the team won MLS Cup. It doesn’t matter.
“For me, preseason and these training matches are about growth,” Porter explained when speaking after the game. “That’s why we scheduled them. When you get to the last couple, you want to see the complete picture because you know that’s the last time for your team to play in a game before you play in a real game for points. We still have a ways to go, obviously. We have 16 days, 15 days until we play that first game and we have three more games.”
Porter said on Thursday that he is pleased with where Columbus is at this point in preseason, and that’s what you want to hear from a head coach heading into the year.
The Crew tinkered with the system
Very rarely under Porter have the Black & Gold diverged from the 4-2-3-1 formation. While there are always adjustments made for any given match, that is Porter’s preferred look and it’s been successful for him over the years. But against NYCFC, he elected to try something a little different.
While Porter didn’t divulge exactly what the formation was — based on the players in the lineups, it could have been a 4-4-2 for the first 60 minutes and a 4-3-3 for the final 30 — he did say he believes the team needs other ideas, both to keep other teams honest when preparing for Columbus but also to keep the Crew players on their toes. This will be something to monitor going forward.
Academy players getting their shot
If there are names in the lineup you don’t recognize, there’s a good chance they are from the Crew’s Academy — either that or you just haven’t paid much attention this offseason. Six Academy players were invited to preseason with the first team and two of them saw action in this game. Additionally, Homegrown signing Isaiah Parente played the full 90 minutes.
Regardless of whether they saw the field or not in this game, this is a great experience for these young players that can help them as they get into their careers, similar to how it did with second-year players Aidan Morris and Sebastian Berhalter.
“It’s been a great experience for them,” Porter said. “If you can imagine high school junior, senior, sophomore, literally being thrown in with Darlington Nagbe or Lucas Zelarayan or Gyasi Zardes or Jonah Mensah, top, top players, players with big-time pedigrees, players that have accomplished a lot. If you can imagine what that would be like for a kid that’s not a pro, a kid that aspires to be a pro, it’s an amazing learning opportunity for these kids.”
Approach going forward
While Porter won’t put too much stock into results going until the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League against Real Esteli, there is a plan that will involve seeing more of the first-team regular players getting more game action in the upcoming preseason matches.
“For me right now, from here on out, Orlando, Minnesota, we’ll probably rotate that game as well, and Toronto, those two games, Orlando, Toronto, will be prep, 60 and 90 for those first three games of the year, the two Champions League and the league game,” Porter explained.
The Crew wants to make sure the players are ready to go for the Thursday, April 8 match against the Nicaraguan side. The Black & Gold will face Orlando City on Saturday, followed by Minnesota United on March 31 and Toronto FC on April 1 to round out preseason.