The next two weeks are undoubtedly the biggest test of the 2018 season thus far for Columbus Crew SC.
Four games in the span of 12 days await the Black and Gold beginning with Saturday’s game against defending MLS Cup winners Toronto FC. It’s the second meeting of the year between Columbus and their Trillium Cup rivals as the two opened the regular season against one another on March 3. Crew SC emerged victorious in that game by a score of 2-0.
The good thing about the situation is that all four contests take place at MAPFRE Stadium. Nevertheless, each of the club’s four opponents presents unique challenges in and of themselves. After Saturday’s match, Crew SC begins its 2018 U.S. Open Cup campaign this coming Wednesday against their other archrival, the Chicago Fire. Then comes the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United next Saturday and the following Wednesday.
Columbus comes into this weekend’s match with the Reds as one of the inspiring stories of the league in 2018. They’re giving a fanbase who are living with the tangible possibility that this season could be the last for the team in Ohio’s capital city some well-deserved joy. Under fifth-year head coach Gregg Berhalter, the team is treating those hearty fans to some majestic, high-quality soccer that includes newly found defensive stoutness and Gyasi Zardes getting his goal-scoring groove back.
Columbus Crew SC Schedule Gauntlet Commences Saturday
What to Expect Against TFC
But Saturday’s game represents the beginning of a crucible that will inevitably determine how legitimate Crew SC’s title aspirations are. The team won’t be at full strength. Not only will they not have goalkeeper Zack Steffen and defensive midfielder Wil Trapp due to international duty. But winger Pedro Santos remains out due to injury and much-improved center back Jonathan Mensah is questionable.
Columbus received welcome news on Friday when MLS rescinded the red card Federico Higuain received in Sunday’s goalless draw with Sporting KC. But Cristian Martinez, who puzzlingly didn’t see red in the game due to violent conduct against Seth Sinovic, later received a two-match ban for his actions. That means the club’s wide play will have issues with depth.
Expect second-year man Niko Hansen and veteran Mike Grella to start on the wings against Toronto. Ricardo Clark will likely take Trapp’s place and join Artur to comprise the double pivot in defensive midfield. If Mensah can’t go, Lalas Abubakar and Josh Williams will partner up in central defense, both reliable presences on the back four. Finally, Jon Kempin is the probable option in between the sticks with Steffen in Ireland with the USMNT.
The Absence of Two Key Pieces
Both Trapp and Steffen will miss the Open Cup match against Chicago and next week’s tie with the Red Bulls with the US giving France one last tuneup before the World Cup on June 9. Martinez could see the field when Crew SC faces the Fire but will serve the final part of his two-game suspension against RBNY.
But not having Trapp or Steffen looms huge. Trapp is one of 19 players in MLS averaging more than 88 percent pass accuracy and his 72.7 passes per game is third in the league. Steffen’s quality in net is a major reason Crew SC is in the midst of the longest stretch of not conceding a goal in club history. Among MLS keepers who’ve made a minimum of 10 starts, Steffen is the only one with a sub 1.0 goals-against average.
Without those two pillars of the Crew SC starting XI, getting a result against TFC and RBNY won’t be easy. Though Toronto is languishing in ninth place in the East, the fact they’re the two-time defending conference champion and current MLS Cup holders speak to the quality of their roster. Should the Red Bulls win or tie against the New England Revolution on Saturday, they’ll come to Columbus next week unbeaten in six. Like Berhalter, both sides boast two brilliant American soccer minds on the sidelines in TFC’s Greg Vanney and New York’s Jesse Marsch.
To conclude it all will be the current Supporters’ Shield leaders in Atlanta United. The Five Stripes are firing on all cylinders under esteemed manager Tata Martino. Their 27 goals scored is tied with the Houston Dynamo for most in the league. Atlanta is a veritable well-oiled machine whose free-flowing style of play is truly a sight to behold when it’s operating at full effectiveness.
Columbus as a Legit Player in the MLS Cup Race
When all’s said and done with this schedule gauntlet, the Black and Gold will officially be halfway through their 2018 campaign. It’s a part of the season that will likely test their mettle in ways it hasn’t been tested before this year. Between national team call-ups, injuries, and suspension, the club’s depth is in for a challenge. Berhalter will in all likelihood employ squad rotation over this part of the schedule. If they can get through it relatively unscathed, they will remain highly relevant in the playoff race and overall MLS Cup conversation.