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The Crew’s final preseason match continues competition for places

Columbus has a distinct focus in their final match of the preseason and some players may be playing for a starting spot in the regular season.

Photo courtesy of Columbus Crew

Friday marks the end of the Columbus Crew’s 2022 preseason. Before the Black & Gold take the field against the USL Championship’s Charleston Battery to close out the Carolina Challenge Cup, the team has a fun off-the-field matter to attend to.

“I love every team I have, honestly. Had nine teams in MLS and I’m enjoying this one as much as any I’ve had,” said head coach Caleb Porter talking with the media virtually from Charleston on Thursday. “It’s just a new energy, it’s young guys, new staff members. We’re going to close it off tonight with a little karaoke, believe it or not.”

With 12 new players and two staff members in the fold this preseason, Porter has paired up the newcomers to the team to do some singing on the final free night of preseason. Porter is adamant that he won’t take the stage. He’s also confident in how the Black & Gold will tackle Friday’s match after karaoke is over.

Porter has made it clear over the last two weeks that winning the preseason tournament isn’t the goal. While the Crew could end up with a fifth Carolina Challenge Cup, Friday’s match is a dress rehearsal for Saturday, Feb. 26, when the Vancouver Whitecaps descend on Lower.com Field in the opener of the 2022 Major League Soccer regular season.

Supporters can expect a team that’s as close to the starting 11 as they have seen in the past two matches. That means a return to close to 90 minutes for healthy and fit players. Center back Jonathan Mensah, midfielder Darlington Nagbe and the duo of fullbacks in Steven Moreira and Pedro Santos all expect to highlight a strong lineup to end the preseason.

When looking back at how the preseason has gone, the fact that the Crew has stayed healthy, and starting-caliber players have the chance to mirror two weeks of a season, Porter is a happy coach. Elsewhere, it’s not as clear cut and Porter outlined multiple position battles that will last into the 2022 season.

The central midfield is an area where there are still questions. Midfielders Aidan Morris, Artur, Marlon Hairston and newcomer James Igbekeme are all not yet 90-minute fit. Artur is the clear first choice alongside Nagbe when healthy, according to Porter. The Crew’s coach sees Artur as one of the best in the league when he can go at 100 percent. If Artur and the supporting cast of midfielders reach their full strength, that flexibility Porter hopes for becomes a reality.

Elsewhere on the field, the seemingly eternal competition continues at the winger position. Santos’ move to fullback from the wing and the signing of Yaw Yeboah caused shifts in the position. Derrick Etienne Jr., Luis Diaz and Alexandru Matan are all in the conversation, but a matchup-based starting rotation may suit Columbus, and make it more difficult for opponents to game plan.

Center back also gives Porter some decision-making practice. New signing Milos Degenek is probably the most fit on the team right now after playing four straight 90-minute matches between his time with Red Star Belgrade, while on international duty with Australia and his preseason debut for the Black & Gold this week. However, Columbus’ pairing of Mensah and league veteran Josh Williams are both healthy.

An argument can be made that even with Degenek’s experience, Williams would make the most sense to start, at least early in the year, alongside Mensah. After all, Degenek just joined the team just on Saturday. That didn’t seem to matter, however on Tuesday when Degenek made a goal-stopping tackle in the closing minutes of regulation in the Crew’s 0-0 draw with Charlotte FC.

The most interesting battle heading into 2020 is on the other side of the field.

“We have two very capable strikers, but that’s going to be a week-to-week decision,” said Porter. “It’s a good problem.”

Porter is talking about Gyasi Zardes and Miguel Berry. Since Zardes joined the Black & Gold in 2018, he’s scored 53 goals and established himself in the forward role. Berry came out of nowhere in 2021, scoring eight goals in 18 matches. Now, instead of seeing Berry come in as a game-changing super substitute, supporters can expect his name in the starting 11 more often.

How often will be determined by how each player performs and what the opponent calls for.

Although match results in the preseason don’t matter, one thing that does is the play of certain members of the Black & Gold. It’s safe to say that one big performance in a preseason game won’t change the trajectory of a player’s season, but when a team has as much depth as the Crew has going into 2022, players competing for spots don’t have the luxury of taking a chance.