There are exactly two weeks remaining until the Columbus Crew begins the 2022 MLS regular season. Before that day circled on every supporter’s calendar gets here, the Black & Gold have a preseason to complete.
Saturday was the first chance that many had to see this retooled 2022 Crew roster, in the first of three matches of the Carolina Challenge Cup. Starting the tournament, Columbus controlled Inter Miami FC much of the match but still had to fight back for a 1-1 draw.
Before the whistle even blew to begin Saturday’s preseason friendly, the starting 11 grabbed attention. While Crew staples like Darlington Nagbe and Jonathan Mensah were listed, it was the combination of old and new names that stood out. In terms of new arrivals, winger Yaw Yeboah and midfielder Sean Zawadzki were each given a starting position.
The most exciting name though was the Brazilian Artur. After a hip injury took Artur out for most of 2021, the Black & Gold midfielder played 45 minutes, looking comfortable going up against Miami.
The first half saw a smattering of the usual Crew player qualities. Inter didn’t have a lot of chances on goal, but goalkeeper Eloy Room was strong between the posts. In the 13th minute, Miami had a free kick five yards outside of the penalty area off a foul from midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. The shot forced Room to dive to his left, punching the shot away for a corner.
In front of Room, center backs Mensah and Josh Williams were strong in defense, along with the first line of Crew midfielders. Nagbe held possession in the midfield, earning four foul calls in the first 45 minutes. Next to him in the midfield was Homegrown Player Sean Zawadzki.
Georgetown alum Zawadzki looked comfortable adjusting to the talent of Miami. Throughout the first half, he covered much of the midfield and showed defensive ability too, most notably taking on Gonzalo Higuain. The former European goal scorer went one-on-one with Zawadzki, but the six-foot defensive midfielder held his ground and kept the Inter offense from pushing forward.
Offensively, Crew chances came from the pairings of fullback Moreira and Yeboah on the right and Pedro Santos and Lucas Zelarayan on the left. Head coach Caleb Porter started five midfielders on the day, which shifted between a three-person defensive midfield group and Nagbe shifting forward in attack.
The best chance of the first half came off Zelarayan making the most of a difficult situation. Zelarayan had the ball at the corner of the penalty area, made a move to get past three defenders and turned the run into a lob on Miami goalkeeper Clement Diop. It was Columbus’ only shot on goal in the half.
Both fullback and winger pairings looked dangerous, even Moreira and Yeboah who have only played together for less than a week. Moreira did well at finding Yeboah in space. When Yeboah received the ball, he sent in crosses into the penalty box, but unfortunately, nobody could find the other end of the passes.
Yeboah played 52 minutes, before being replaced by Derrick Etienne Jr. In that time, Yeboah showed flashes of his capabilities and received two not-so-friendly welcomes to MLS. In the 31st minute, Yeboah was in a foot race with Miami defender Chris McVey. At the end of the run, McVey took the winger to the ground with a forearm to the back, with no whistle.
Then, 12 minutes later, McVey had possession and Yeboah ran up to defend. McVey threw back an elbow into the face of Yeboah, which earned the Miami defender an immediate yellow card. The foul was strong enough that the referee went to VAR to see if it warranted a red. The foul stayed a yellow card and the match went into halftime tied 0-0.
The second half began with midfielder Aidan Morris replacing Artur. Morris didn’t play a single minute of the 2021 MLS regular season, after tearing his ACL in the CONCACAF Champions League.
In the 59th minute, the 0-0 deadlock finally broke. Unfortunately for the Crew, it was off an impressive pass by Higuain. Phil Neville’s Miami side found their chances mostly on the counter. Higuain received the ball and threaded a pass to forward Ariel Lassiter. Lassiter received the pass, dragged a shot in stride and slotted it past Room.
Even with that goal, Columbus’ offense looked stronger in the second half. Forward Miguel Berry had his first chances of the match from the right-hand side with a stop by Diop. His second came from a low cross into the 18-yard box by Etienne. Berry shot the ball wide. Forward Gyasi Zardes replaced Berry after that tackle, with Berry limping off the field.
In the 88th minute, Zardes made a match-changing impact. The Crew won possession in the midfield and Zelarayan found substitute Luis Diaz with a high-precision pass. Diaz sent the ball to a charging Zardes who unselfishly passed the ball to Etienne. A first shot hit the left glove of Diop, but it landed right back at the winger’s feet, who scored the match-tying goal.
The Black & Gold continued to apply pressure in the dying minutes of the match, but the match stayed a draw.
A draw doesn’t always feel great, but in preseason it doesn’t carry the same weight. What’s most important at this point of the preseason is staying healthy. Porter gave healthy players 90 minutes and gave players recovering from injury a chance to rebuild fitness. Outside of Berry limping off the field, Columbus was successful in ending the match without too much concern from the training staff.
There’s no word yet if Berry is injured or if he was removed due to precaution.
A trend of the preseason so far has been Porter and the Black & Gold front office preaching flexibility. Part of the problem in 2021 is that injuries made the Crew more predictable on the field without the right players to implement different strategies.
In Saturday’s match, that flexibility was on display. Columbus started the match with three defensive midfielders. Yeboah and Zelarayan played in two attacking midfielder positions and Nagbe found himself sliding between defensive and offensive responsibilities.
The second half saw the Black & Gold move back to their usual 4-2-3-1 when wholesale substitutions were made. When this happened, the Crew looked more comfortable with the familiarity of the formation and was more potent offensively than in the first half. It’s by no means a sign of what’s to come, but something to watch over the remaining two preseason games and how Columbus grows into different formations.
The Black & Gold have two more preseason matches in the Carolina Challenge Cup. Tuesday, the Crew face MLS expansion side Charlotte FC and finish the tournament on Friday against the Charleston Battery of the USL.