The Columbus Crew’s Carolina Challenge Cup run is over. In the first match, a lineup of mostly starting-level players fought back from a deficit to earn a 1-1 draw against Inter Miami. Charlotte FC held, and tackled, their way to a 0-0 draw before the Crew’s offense came alive in a 3-0 win against the Charleston Battery.
While winning is always fun, head coach Caleb Porter wasn’t overly concerned about adding a fifth Carolina Challenge Cup trophy to the case. The preseason focus was on staying healthy and preparing for the Major League Soccer regular season.
In that preparation, youth was on display. The spotlight shined the strongest on midfielder Sean Zawadzki.
Zawadzki’s started both of the first two matches in Charleston. Against Miami, the new Homegrown Player signing started alongside midfielders Artur and Darlington Nagbe. Zawadzki controlled a lot of midfield space in the Crew’s press and even went up against the best Miami had to offer in Gonzalo Higuain. Defensive stops showed a growing confidence for a player new to the league and level of play.
Against Charlotte, Zawadzki teamed up with fellow Crew Academy midfielder Aidan Morris in stifling the expansion team’s play in a defensive midfielder role. Zawadzki’s played 61 and 74 minutes respectively in the matches, the most of an player on the Black & Gold’s roster.
It’s easy to discount Zawadzki’s performances. On one hand, it’s happening in the preseason when teams aren’t at their peak fitness. On the other hand, you can look at Zawadzki’s minutes and think it only gives more experienced players like Nagbe time off before the season.
Even though the Crew won’t play three central midfielders early in the year as enough players aren’t fit for that, the skill shown by the Georgetown product could be featured at Lower.com Field during the 2022 season. After all, getting younger is the hot topic not only in supporter circles but coming out of the mouth of Porter.
“We’re getting younger because it’s important to building a team,” said Porter on the players like Zawadzki joining the Crew straight out of college. “Young guys will have some ups and downs, but they cover ground and they’re hungry. The way we play, we need to cover ground. We need guys that can run and work and fight.”
Zawadzki is leaving an impression on the coaching staff by doing just that. It was clear on the field at the Carolina Challenge Cup. The turnstile of the midfield is also giving Zawadzki more space to catch people’s attention.
While Nagbe comes into the season healthy, other midfielders are working back to 100 percent. Marlon Hairston, who filled in next to Nagbe for a lot of 2021, is nursing an injury that’s only allowed the MLS veteran to play 29 minutes. Morris and Artur each missed most of 2021 with injuries requiring both to get back to match shape. Also, Morris went through a week of missing team practices in the COVID-19 protocol, which pushed back his recovery schedule.
Not only do injuries and fitness leave a space on the roster up for conversation, but the Crew’s formation may not look like it has in the past. Porter wants flexibility with his team this season and with a healthy roster can, at times, play three central midfielders over the usual two in recent years. These substantial minutes, and the on-field performance to back them up, is part of the Crew’s equation in 2021.
“We’re not going to hand out minutes or lower our goals or our standards,” said Porter about integrating youth into the existing roster. “We’re going to pick guys that are ready to play. This is professional sports. This is the first-team level. You need to get wins. No one cares if you’re getting young and losing.”
Before the Crew’s final preseason match, Porter shared that due to Morris and Artur injuries, this system won’t be immediate. Instead, supporters are more likely to see two central midfielders for now. Even then, Zawadzki is getting to that point of being ready to play for the first team.
When the midfielder spoke with the media before the Challenge Cup, that transition to the professional level was his focus. Areas like the increased speed and physicality of MLS soccer are on his mind. Since it’s Zawadzki’s first season with the full support of the senior coaching staff, he’s taking in every piece of feedback to elevate his game.
There’s also another piece that’s helping him feel comfortable in this new space: his teammates.
“Growing up with Aidan in the Academy, grew really close with him, senior year especially,” said Zawadzki. “And spending three years at Georgetown with Will (Sands), him being here with me makes it a smoother transition.”
So, when a question comes up in training, he has familiar faces in his vicinity. Also, the off-field items, like adapting to being a professional in all aspects of MLS, Morris, who enters his third season with the Crew, is there. Managing life on and off the field is easier for a young player when they’re surrounded by friends.
There’s excitement surrounding Zawadzki, as Black & Gold fans got to see in Columbus’ final three warmup matches before the start of the season. It’s excitement that’s warranted after Zawadzski displayed consistency and maturity unexpected from someone new to the league.
Just don’t get too excited quite yet.
“We need to all calm down a little bit on him and pump him up a bit too much,” said Porter after sharing a list of strengths he’s seen so far in Zawadzki. “If you guys don’t hype him up too much, he can have a really good season.”
Well, it might be too late for that.