Saturday marks two weeks until the start of the Major League Soccer regular season. The Columbus Crew is preparing for the team’s Feb. 26 opener to the new year against the Vancouver Whitecaps at a familiar destination.
On Saturday, the Crew begins the team’s first of three friendlies in the Carolina Challenge Cup, a competition the Black & Gold have competed in seven times and won four. Here’s what to expect from these three matches in terms of roster minutes and when new signings will emerge.
Most of the offseason signings are already with the team in Charleston, South Carolina. Columbus’ influx of youth with additions such as Will Sands and Sean Zawadzki have trained with the team for weeks. This past week, new winger Yaw Yeboah began his integration into the Crew. A couple of names still not with the team are Miloš Degenek and James Igbekeme.
Both players are expected to arrive in Charleston, but not in time for any match minutes in Saturday’s match against Inter Miami FC. Degenek and Igbekeme are scheduled to arrive on Saturday, with Sunday used to assess both players' fitness and health.
For head coach Caleb Porter, Degenek is the more realistic expectation to being match fit. After all, the center back hasn’t had much time away from soccer, coming off two matches in Australia’s bid to qualify for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. On the other side, Igbekeme hasn’t played since the second round of Real Zaragoza’s Copa del Rey match on Dec. 14, only registering eight minutes.
While patience is the key for any new signing, Igbekeme and Degenek may need a little bit more with only two weeks to join the team and get to know their fellow players and new system. Fortunately, there will be plenty of players receiving minutes in the Carolina Challenge Cup’s opening weekend.
Porter outlined how minutes will be allocated amongst the players currently on the roster. Staying fit and injury free is the goal of the preseason, but it’s balanced with seeing who can start for Columbus at the beginning of the regular season.
In Saturday’s match, one group will work towards playing 90 minutes, with a second group receiving between 60 to 75 minutes. A couple of names not expected in the group of 90-minute players are Artur and Aidan Morris. While both are returning from injury, they are still building back match fitness after missing most, or all in Morris’ case, of the 2021 season.
On Tuesday, another group will get their chance to play 90 minutes against MLS expansion side Charlotte FC. This match could also be the preseason debut of Degenek for the Black & Gold.
Finally, on Friday the Crew faces the Charleston Battery of the USL Championship. This match is expected to mirror a regular season game, with the Vancouver game following eight days later.
While trophies are nice, the goal of the next week of competition is staying fit, healthy and preparing for the long trek that is the regular season and it starts Saturday.