The Columbus Crew continued their pre-season preparation in the team’s second game of the Carolina Challenge Cup against Major League Soccer expansion team Charlotte FC. The Black & Gold’s pre-season goal was to stay healthy as the MLS regular season approaches. What happened was an unexpected friendly that ended with four yellow cards from Charlotte and a shoved fight that made a 0-0 score that much more dramatic.
Team head coach Caleb Porter has opted for a different formation than fans are likely to see for the February 26 season opener against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Instead, Porter pushed to increase the number of new players and depth plays and give Black & Gold’s new additions time to gel.
The backline included four new members, including new signings Milos Degenek and Jalil Anibaba at centre-back and two college full-backs in Will Sands and 2021 MLS SuperDraft pick Justin Malou.
In midfield, former Crew Academy teammates Aidan Morris and Sean Zawadzki started, the latter the only Black & Gold player to start both games of the Carolina Challenge Cup. Morris showed flashes Black & Gold supporters hadn’t seen since 2020. Morris interrupted passing lanes and halted several Charlotte advances in attack.
On the attacking side of the field, it was a familiar quartet with a twist. Derrick Etienne Jr. and Luis Diaz started on the wings, with Gyasi Zardes up front. Alexandru Matan was No. 10.
With the influx of new names, Porter opted for the tried and true 4-2-3-1 formation. The result was a first half with little offensive pressure. Instead, the starting 11 failed to connect on any dangerous pass, with players learning the movement of their teammates. The Crew’s best chances came from Charlotte’s defensive errors.
In the sixth minute, a poor back pass allowed Zardes to gain possession with Charlotte FC goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina out of position. Unfortunately for Zardes, the angle was too difficult to convert.
Columbus’ best first-half chance came in the 19and minute when Diaz intercepted an ill-placed Charlotte pass just inside the Crew’s attacking midfield. The Costa Rican reunited with Zardes, who spotted a charging Etienne. Charlotte’s defense recovered and blocked the final shot, keeping the score at zero.
Charlotte set the tone for physicality from the first minute. Defender Chris Hegardt hit Diaz with an elbow, earning what is usually a rare booking for a friendly. Charlotte added three more yellow cards, and one started a skirmish on the pitch. Charlotte striker Yordy Reyna knocked down Matan in what wasn’t close to a bang-bang game. Reyna was given the yellow but Diaz got close to the striker which escalated.
Minus the fault on Matan, Charlotte’s rough plays turning into warnings didn’t seem to be malevolent. Charlotte looked like a team of a lot of players earning a spot or trying to learn with a whole new roster up and down. The game died down in the second half, suggesting most of the fouls were based on growing pains.
In the second half, Columbus’ substitutions gave the Crew better attacking movement. Midfielders Lucas Zelarayan and Artur entered, along with a first appearance in the tournament for Marlon Hairston.
Two of the new names in Black & Gold entered the field in Yaw Yeboah and James Igbekeme. On the Charlotte side, the most notable change was fullback Harrison Afful. The Crew legend played all 45 seconds in his first game against the Crew after seven seasons in Columbus.
Although the match ended scoreless, each team had a strong chance of breaking this draw. In the 64and minute, Igbekeme intercepted a stray pass from Charlotte in midfield and immediately returned it to the pitch. He found a charging Zardes, who missed the final shot, just to the right of the post. The striker had two defenders to his left and the goalkeeper standing near the post. The waterproof window could not be threaded.
Charlotte found multiple chances of her own in the final minutes of regulation and stoppage. Charlotte Kahlina goalkeeper sent a goal kick to midfield which caught Anibaba too far down the pitch. Luckily, Degenek pulled off a well-timed sliding tackle inside the penalty area that sent the shot over the crossbar.
In the second minute of the stoppage, Anibaba made two clearances directly on the goal line. Charlotte sent passes around the penalty area, with a few missed shot attempts and a few turning into a bouncing ball around goalkeeper Evan Bush. As the ball seemed to be racing down the line, Anibaba threw it clear. Charlotte’s second chance at goal had more speed, but the veteran stayed strong on the line, saving the Crew from a loss.
New names and big moments
The Crew has accomplished its mission by building up player fitness and bringing together new names. Degenek and Anibaba played their first match together in their full-time professional histories. Apart from Charlotte’s late chance, which Anibaba more than made up for, the expansion team didn’t have strong opportunities to sideline the crew.
On the sidelines, Malou and Sands performed well. Sands showed speed and good decision-making. There was some hesitation at times and opted for the back pass instead of pushing the attack forward, but it was a night of positives for the former New York FC Academy player.
A draw as a victory
Porter shared ahead of this tournament that the first two games were all about keeping the team healthy. This mission has been accomplished. While some players received blows, such as Hairston who needed treatment in the final minutes of the match, no one was injured.
Additionally, there was some doubt around striker Miguel Berry, who limped off the pitch after being on the wrong end of a tough Inter Miami tackle on Saturday. Berry, however, came into the game in the second half and looked good. Moreover, Morris played well in the second half and Artur played another 30 minutes.
The crew wraps up the Carolina Challenge Cup Friday at 8 p.m. ET. Porter alluded to the game looking more like a dress rehearsal for the regular season opener on Feb. 26. Look for more of a starting lineup fans can expect in league play when the Crew takes on the Charleston Battery.