The Columbus Crew finished the 2022 preseason on Friday night with a 3-0 victory against the Charleston Battery. While the Crew did not win another Carolina Challenge Cup title — that went to Inter Miami — the Black & Gold did go unbeaten in the preseason and managed to accomplish a number of goals heading into the start of the year.
The three games in the Carolina Challenge Cup were the only chance to see Columbus in action before the start of the season. While there was much more to the preseason, including practices, scrimmages and other friendlies, and only so much should be taken from preseason games, we can only make our assessments off of what is available to us. So here are three things we learned about the Crew from the team’s final three preseason games.
The offense will take time
There is the old adage in soccer that the offense generally takes longer to click than the defense. That has certainly been the case for the Black & Gold in this preseason. Against two MLS sides in Charleston, Columbus scored one goal and it came late in the first game against Inter Miami.
In the final game of the preseason, the Crew’s offense did come to life, as the Black & Gold found the back of the net three times — four if you count a close offside call that eliminated a goal. That is certainly a positive sign, but this did come against a USL Championship side.
A year ago, Columbus was about the middle of the pack in MLS in goals scored with 46. This offseason, the Crew lost Bradley Wright-Phillips — who only scored one goal for the team but had 117 for his MLS career — and Kevin Molino, last season’s big addition, won’t be back until the middle of the year after tearing his ACL in late August.
Head coach Caleb Porter has already said he doesn’t believe this will be a high-scoring team given the personnel. Gyasi Zardes, while a more than above average starting forward in this league, hasn’t scored more than 13 goals the last three seasons. Third-year pro Miguel Berry will have to battle being a known commodity this season after a breakout 2021.
Outside of the forwards, playmaker Lucas Zelarayan should continue his production of the first two years in MLS, but asking him to score 12 times again is a lot to put on the Argentine. The wingers, who scored just four combined goals from the run of play in 2021, should increase production, but by how much is yet to be determined.
The defense is improved
In 2021, it was the Crew’s defense more than the offense that caused the team to miss the MLS Cup playoffs. Inconsistencies along the backline — both in personnel and performance — allowed for 45 goals against. This offseason, Columbus emphasized the defensive end of the field.
Throughout the preseason, Porter and multiple players have discussed being more difficult to score on. The belief is that, while the Crew may not be scoring juggernauts, if the team can limit the opposition, they will find results more often than not. Porter has worked with the team, not just the backline, to be better defensively in order to help secure more points.
The Black & Gold added a number of players that should help on the defenisve side of the field this offseason. Austrailian international Milos Degenek is likely to contend with center backs Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams for a starting spot. MLS veteran Jalil Anibaba will help provide depth at the center of defense. Both players allow for Columbus to have variation in formation, including the possibility of playing three center backs.
While it was preseason, this new defensive approach appareared to work well, with the Crew conceding just one goal, largely on a midfield mistake, while in Charleston. The bigger tests will come once the MLS games begin but the Black & Gold as a team were more secure defensively and the backline played well in the final three games.
The midfield is a work in progress
On paper, Columbus’ midfield, specifically the central midfield, is pretty straight forward. Darlington Nagbe and Artur are the first-choice players in the center of the park with new signing Yaw Yeboah and likely Derrick Etienne Jr. on the wings. But it’s not that simple.
In the central spots, Nagbe is the only player who Porter would be comfortable playing 90 minutes heading into the season. Artur and Aidan Morris are both coming off injuries that kept them out for all or most of last season and are still working their way back. Season-long loanee James Igbekeme and returner Marlon Hairston continue to work to get 90-minutes fit. Perry Kitchen remains out with an injury. Second-year pro Isaiah Parente is set to feature more for Crew 2.
Ideally heading into a season, the spine of the team would be sorted. The middle of the field is anything but for the Black & Gold. If Artur is ready to play 60-65 minutes againist the Vancouver Whitecaps next weekend to open the season, and Morris is ready to come on to spell him when he needs it, that should work out fine for Columbus. But Porter would obviously rather have his midfield options at 100 percent heading into the year.