Much to the chagrin of those of us braving the fury of Winter Storm Mateo, Columbus Crew SC spent the previous week in the tropical clime of Hawai’i. They took part in the inaugural Pacific Rim Cup along with fellow MLS club Vancouver Whitecaps and two teams from Japan, Hokkaido Consodale Sapporo and Iwaki FC. The Black and Gold faced both Japanese clubs, falling 3-2 to Sapporo on Thursday followed by a 5-3 win over Iwaki two days later.
With the tournament in the books, what are the biggest takeaways? Though it’s hard to come to any concrete conclusions during the preseason about what to expect when the games matter, there are noteworthy moments nonetheless. Here are a few which stood out.
Columbus Crew SC Pacific Rim Cup Roundup
Gyasi Zardes Impresses Mightily
Needless to say, the past few seasons have been less than ideal for Gyasi Zardes. The newly minted Crew SC center forward has battled injury and poor form, resulting in him managing just 15 goals since 2015. A year earlier, he knocked in 17 when you include regular season and playoffs. That was good enough for second on the team behind Robbie Keane as the LA Galaxy cruised to its fifth MLS Cup title.
His drop-off in play is a major reason why Columbus acquired him on the cheap when they dealt Ola Kamara to LA. But if he can replicate what he accomplished down on the islands, Crew SC fans have a lot to be excited about. Zardes registered three tallies in Hawai’i including a first-half brace in the loss to Sapporo. He showcased good pace, solid movement in the final third, exceptional hold-up play and an ability to find pockets of space around the goal.
— Columbus Crew SC (@ColumbusCrewSC) February 11, 2018
Manager Gregg Berhalter has certainly got the most out of his center forwards during his tenure as Crew SC manager. Kei Kamara had a career year in 2015 while the aforementioned Kamara found the net 35 times during his two seasons in Columbus. That bodes well for Zardes as he attempts to revive his career and rekindle his status as a USMNT regular.
Back Line Has Some Kinks To Work Out
It’s become a frustratingly familiar refrain. The Crew SC back line has been a continued source of angst among fans of the Black and Gold. Though the unit was much improved down the stretch last year, its performance in Hawai’i left a lot to be desired. That’s certainly evident considering the team let in a total of five goals over their two games.
But in preseason, it’s probably best not to overreact, whether good or bad. In this case, there’s certainly plenty of time for the Black and Gold to re-establish the defensive solidity that helped them come within a series win of MLS Cup. The next step in that process takes place in Charleston, SC with the Carolina Challenge Cup. Columbus will be looking to defend their title after winning the tournament last year.
Is Cristian Martinez the Answer at Left Wing?
The departure of Justin Meram left a void on the left-hand side of the Crew SC attacking midfield three. Though they certainly have plenty of targeted allocation money to play around with in searching for a replacement, there are a few players on the existing roster who are viable options.
Niko Hansen is entering his second year as a pro and showed flashes of brilliance as a winger in 2017. New signing Eduardo Sosa’s versatile enough to play both wide and centrally. But an intriguing possibility is Cristian Martinez finally becoming a regular in the starting XI deployed in that role.
The 21-year-old has only appeared in 13 games over the past two seasons since Columbus acquired him from Chorillo FC in his native Panama. Part of it stemmed from the fact that Meram, Federico Higuain, Ethan Finlay and later Pedro Santos proved difficult to unseat as regular starters. But now that Meram’s in Orlando, it opens up an opportunity for someone to step up and claim his spot on the left-hand side of the attack.
Martinez started both games in Hawai’i in that left wing role. Though Zardes largely overshadowed him offensively with his trifecta of goals, Martinez had his moments. The big question moving forward surrounds whether Crew SC isn’t done acquiring players via the transfer market. They were linked with Ghanaian winger Issah Abass and if he joins the team, Berhalter will likely insert him into that spot. But until then, it may be Martinez’s spot to lose.