There have been a lot of firsts for Columbus Crew 2 in the team’s initial year of existence. Crew 2 played its first game in the new MLS NEXT Pro, had its first goal, got its first win and plenty more. On Saturday, there could be another first.
The Black & Gold can clinch a spot in MLS NEXT Pro playoffs with a win in regulation against Orlando City B on Saturday at Osceola Heritage Park. Columbus will have to do this without head coach Laurent Courtois after he received a red card last week in Crew 2’s penalty kick shoot out loss to FC Cincinnati 2. The Capybaras will be led by assistant coach Kobie Johnson for the second time this year, after Courtois missed a game previously due to health and safety protocols.
"He's calm. He transmits a lot of calmness as well and he is well respected," said Crew 2 captain Marco Micaletto of Johnson this week. "I'm sure the team is going to follow him blindly just like we do Laurent."
Johnson was previously a head coach for the New York Red Bulls Academy and has experience playing in Germany for Karlsruhe SC and SV Kuppenheim.
"He is really well-rounded in terms of verbalizing all the why's, said Courtois. “Typically I go with ‘Let's do it,’ and he has a really good way of explaining why and making the player understand the reason behind it. I'm not concerned at all. If anything, it's going to be a better understanding for the guys. It's an upgrade."
The Black & Gold were stunned in the shootout loss to Cincinnati last week as they came into the match as the second-place team in MLS NEXT Pro and lost to the last-placed team in the Eastern Conference. Columbus looked in control of the game in the first half, leading 2-0 at the break. However, a Crew 2 defense that had only allowed three goals since the middle of June conceded three goals in 45 minutes plus stoppage time before losing on penalties.
It was the third game the Black & Gold have gone to penalty kicks and the third loss in this fashion.
"We haven't really focused on it, to be completely honest with you, and when it comes to it, we try to keep it relatively calm and relaxed and it hasn't really worked out for us," said Micaltteo. "We have been really hammering down the penalties this week."
Orlando City B is on a two-game winning streak with a goal difference of 05 this year. The Lions will claw tooth and nail for one of the final playoff spots, currently sitting on 23 points, seven shy of the last spot in the East. Orlando still has a shot to reach the postseason but will need to continue to play well against one of the best teams in MLS NEXT Pro.
These two clubs are quite familiar with each other, having played twice already this year. Crew 2 was the victor in both matchups, winning by a combined score of 8-1. Both these teams contain MLS NEXT Pro Golden Boot contenders in the Black & Gold’s Jacen Russell-Rowe and the Lions’ Jack Lynn, both with 15 goals.
It is evident how important Russell-Rowe is for Columbus, who is 13-1 when Russell-Rowe, who earned a first-team contract earlier this year, plays and 0-3-1 when the striker does not. "When he's on the field, he gives us a bit of a boost of confidence that we're going to get a goal,” Micaletto said. “Jacen is somewhere there, he's gonna tap it in there.”
Added Courtois: “Jacen has a special talent, and because of everything that he gives to the team, his teammates recognize him easily on the field, and he's been found in good spots.”
A win and Crew 2 will become the first team in MLS NEXT Pro history to clinch a playoff spot. This match kicks off at 7 p.m. ET from Orlando.