Entering the final preseason match of 2022, the Columbus Crew’s goals were staying healthy and to help simulate a regular season contest. Columbus achieved one of those goals in giving starters substantial minutes in an offense-filled 3-0 Crew victory. Unfortunately, it didn’t end with everyone leaving the field healthy.
From the first kick, USL Championship’s Charleston Battery tried to catch the Crew off guard. Charleston attacked the Crew with speed and had the first attempt on goal, forcing a second minute save by goalkeeper Eloy Room. After withstanding an early rush, the Black & Gold’s talent broke through.
It began with a Columbus corner kick. After Lucas Zelarayan’s delivery into the box deflected back to the Crew, the Black & Gold held their spot in the penalty area, and Artur sent in a cross that landed at the feet of center back Jonathan Mensah. Columbus’ captain slotted the ball to the right of Battery keeper Joe Kuzminsky for an early 1-0 lead, in the ninth minute.
The Battery made the most of their chances, but didn’t have patience in building towards goals. Instead, whenever an attacker received the ball anywhere near the 18-yard-box, they sent in shots. All first half attempts met Room’s careful watch of the goal box.
Columbus’s star of the first half was new winger Yaw Yeboah. The Ghanaian on the right side of the attack first had a chance on goal in the 25th minute. Yeboah shifted the ball from his right to his left, making the Battery defense fall over in the process. Before he could set his curling effort on goal, Charleston deflected the shot away.
Only two minutes later, Yeboah earned what would’ve been a secondary assist in hockey. On a fast break, Yeboah tricked more of the Battery defense and found an open Steven Moreira down the wing. Moreira and to Zelarayan and after one quick move to his right, Zelarayan sent in a ground ball shot that Kuzminsky couldn’t see until it was past the goal line. Columbus went up 2-0 with 20 minutes left in the half.
Following that goal, a foul almost caused a fight on the field for the second straight Crew match of the tournament. After a Charleston corner turned into a Crew fast break, following a potential hand ball review almost gave the Battery a penalty kick, Zelarayan went down hard. Tackling the midfielder was Charleston forward EJ Johnson.
Delivering what could be described as a striker’s tackle, Johnson used a scissor kick motion to take Zelarayan down from behind. After an immediate yellow card, the Crew rushed to his defense, even Room ran to midfield from his penalty area. A tackle that had the potential for a red card stayed a yellow, Zelarayan got up slowly and the match carried on. The scrum of Crew and Battery players didn’t escalate to more than exchanged words between the sides.
Columbus held the first half lead through two more Room saves, entering the second half up 2-0.
Right off the start of the second half, Zelarayan put the Crew in a chance to score. On the counter, Zelarayan sent a searching pass between the Charleston defense to the feet of Derrick Etienne Jr. The winger made a move to get around Battery fullback Benji Etienne and charged into the penalty box, and was fouled in the process for a Crew penalty. Santos stepped up to the spot and scored the spot kick past Battery goalkeeper trialist, and 2022 MLS SuperDraft pick by FC Dallas, Alec Smir.
Before Columbus made changes on the field, they almost added a fourth. Zelarayan found possession in the box but Smir made a point-blank save to keep the gap at three. Forward Miguel Berry had a chance too, but the Charleston defense stood on the goal line and cleared the shot away.
Even with the Crew up three goals, the match wasn’t all positive. In the 67th minute, center back Josh Williams went down to the ground, stopping play. Williams received treatment for a lower body injury that wasn’t sustained from any tackle by Charleston. During the first half, Williams was seen favoring the area. In his place entered new signing Miloš Degenek for the remaining 20 minutes.
Joining Williams on the bench was Berry, Artur, Yeboah, Etienne Jr. and Darlington Nagbe. In their place entered Gyasi Zardes, Aidan Morris, Alexandru Matan, Luis Diaz and newcomer James Igbekeme.
In the 76th minute, the Crew almost added a fourth. Zelarayan took possession and found Diaz running down the sideline. Unfortunately, a VAR check brought the eventual Matan finish back, since Diaz stepped over the midfield line one step before the Zelarayan pass, it was called back for an offside pass.
Head coach Caleb Porter ended his substitutions at the 78th minute with Marlon Hairston and Jalil Anibaba giving expected starters Mensah and Moreira at least some rest before the return home to Columbus. The Black & Gold didn’t just cruise their way to a victory.
In the 90th minute, Zardes went in to add a fourth for the Crew. Smir came in hard on the forward and stopped a goal, but Zelarayan had the chance from close range, but his boot hit the field and sent the ball flying. Although there were chances for more, the Crew took a 3-0 win away from their final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup.
Throughout the Carolina Challenge Cup, Porter’s focused on getting more vertical. By that, he means he wants the Crew’s offense to push forward. Fullbacks Moreira and Santos did just that on Friday evening. The overlapping play of Moreira on Yeboah turned into one of the three goals on the night.
On the left side of the field, it was Etienne getting past the Charleston defense that allowed the penalty and third goal. Overall, the Crew should be happy with adding a big three goal performance to put the preseason on ice. Although it was against a team from a lower division, finding the back of the net gives Columbus confidence that it’ll follow into the start of the games that matter.
It’s been said frequently that winning this tournament is not the goal. Columbus wanted to leave Charleston and go into the regular season healthy. With the Crew’s victory, there is still have a chance to claim their fifth tournament trophy. Since Columbus won by at least two, an Inter Miami CF draw, or Charlotte FC victory in Saturday’s tournament finale gives the honor to the Crew.
Even if they do win, the Black & Gold won’t be there for any sort of trophy ceremony. The Crew travel back to Columbus on Saturday morning.
The Black & Gold are done with their five-match preseason. Columbus won three and earned two draws in the process, but most importantly put their roster into a position to be ready for the MLS regular season.
On Feb. 26, the Vancouver Whitecaps travel to Lower.Com Field for the first match of the 34-match season. Kick off is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET.