The Columbus Crew continued preseason preparation in the team’s second match of the Carolina Challenge Cup against Major League Soccer expansion side Charlotte FC. The Black & Gold’s goal of the preseason was to remain healthy, with the MLS regular season approaching. What transpired was an unexpected friendly that ended with four Charlotte yellow cards and a fight pushed to the sidelines that made a 0-0 scoreline much more dramatic.
Crew head coach Caleb Porter opted for a different lineup than supporters will likely see for Feb. 26’s season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Instead, Porter pushed to increase new players and depth pieces and give the Black & Gold’s new additions time to gel.
The backline featured four new members, including new signings Milos Degenek and Jalil Anibaba at center back and two fullbacks out of college in Will Sands and 2021 MLS SuperDraft pick Justin Malou.
In the midfield former Crew Academy teammates Aidan Morris and Sean Zawadzki started, with the latter being the only Black & Gold player to start both matches of the Carolina Challenge Cup. Morris showed flashes that Black & Gold supporters haven’t seen since 2020. Morris broke up passing lanes and halted multiple Charlotte advances on offense.
On the offensive end of the pitch, it was a familiar foursome with a twist. Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz started on the wings, with Gyasi Zardes at forward. Alexandru Matan was the No. 10.
With the influx of new names, Porter went with the tried and true 4-2-3-1 formation. The result was a first half with not a lot of offensive pressure. Instead, the starting 11 failed to connect on any dangerous passes, with players learning the movement of their teammates. The Crew’s best chances came off Charlotte's defensive errors.
In the sixth minute, a poor backpass gave Zardes possession with the Charlotte FC goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina out of position. Unfortunately for Zardes, the angle was too difficult to convert.
Columbus’ best first half chance came in the 19th minute when Diaz intercepted a poorly located Charlotte pass just inside the Crew’s offensive midfield. The Costa Rican found Zardes, who located a charging Etienne. Charlotte’s defense recovered and blocked the final shot, keeping the score level at zeros.
Charlotte set a tone of physicality from the first minute. Defender Chris Hegardt hit Diaz with an elbow, earning what’s usually a rare booking for a friendly. Charlotte added three more yellow cards, and one started a skirmish on the field. Charlotte forward Yordy Reyna upended Matan in what wasn’t close to a bang-bang play. Reyna received the yellow but Diaz approached the forward, which escalated.
Minus the foul on Matan, rough plays made by Charlotte turning into cautions didn’t look like they were laced with malice. Charlotte looked like a team of a lot of players either earning a spot or trying to learn with a brand-new roster from top to bottom. The match calmed down in the second half, lending to the notion that most fouls were based on growing pains.
In the second half, Columbus substitutions gave the Crew better offensive movement. Midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Artur came in, alongside a first appearance in the tournament for Marlon Hairston.
Two of the Black & Gold’s newest names came onto the field in Yaw Yeboah and James Igbekeme. On the Charlotte side, the most notable change was fullback Harrison Afful. The Crew legend played the second 45 minutes in his first match against the Crew after seven seasons in Columbus.
Although the game ended scoreless, each side had a strong chance at breaking that draw. In the 64th minute, Igbekeme intercepted a lost Charlotte pass in the midfield and immediately turned it up field. He found a charging Zardes, who missed on the final shot, just to the right of the post. The forward had two defenders on his left and the keeper standing near post. The tight window couldn’t be threaded.
Charlotte found multiple chances of their own in the last minutes of regulation and stoppage. Charlotte goalkeeper Kahlina sent a goal kick to midfield that caught Anibaba too far up the field. Luckily, Degenek had a well-timed slide tackle in the penalty box that made the shot go over the crossbar.
In the second minute of stoppage, Anibaba made two clearances directly on the goal line. Charlotte sent passes around the penalty area, with some attempts at a shot missed and a few turning into a bouncing ball around goalkeeper Evan Bush. As the ball looked to be trickling over the line, Anibaba launched it clear. Charlotte’s second chance on goal had more velocity, but the veteran stood strong on the line, keeping the Crew from a loss.
New names and big moments
The Crew accomplished its mission in building fitness among players and bringing new names together. Degenek and Anibaba played their first match together in their tenured professional histories. Outside of the late chance by Charlotte, which Anibaba more than made up for, the expansion side didn’t have strong opportunities to put the Crew away.
Down the sidelines, Malou and Sands performed well. Sands showed speed and good decision-making. There was some hesitancy at times, and opting for the pass back instead of pushing the offense forward, but it was a night of positives for the former New York City FC Academy player.
A draw as a win
Porter shared before this tournament that the first two matches are about keeping the team healthy. That mission was accomplished. While some players received knocks, like Hairston who needed treatment in the final minutes of the game, nobody came off with injuries.
Also, there was doubt surrounding forward Miguel Berry, who limped off the field after being on the wrong end of a rough tackle from Inter Miami in Saturday. Berry, however, came into the match in the second half and looked fine. In addition, Morris played well into the second half, and Artur played another 30 minutes.
The Crew finish the Carolina Challenge Cup on Friday, at 8 p.m. ET. Porter alluded to this match looking more like a dress rehearsal for the Feb. 26 regular season opener. Look for more of a starting lineup that supporters can expect in league play when the Crew takes on the Charleston Battery.