In its final preseason match and final match of the Carolina Challenge Cup, Minnesota United faced a Columbus Crew squad with a chance to take home the championship and defend its title at the CCC. Although both teams looked dangerous at time over the first 30 minutes, Columbus seized the momentum with a pair of goals in the final 15 minutes of the first half and held on to win 2-0 and take the tournament.
Asked about the team’s play overall on the night, Head Coach Adrian Heath assessed it as, “Good in patches. Played against a very well-drilled team who’ve been together a long time. They stretch you out and play their triangles and they’re very good at it. They’ve got some good pieces in their team. I couldn’t fault our guys for their effort this evening. They’ve had three big games in a week and a lot of training as well, but we’ve got a lot of work to do, still. We need to add some quality to the team.”
In the match’s opening minutes, each team got opportunities with neither dominating possession and both getting out on the counterattack after turnovers. Columbus found seams in the Minnesota defense, but the Loons also seemed to manage to cut off the Crew’s final ball time and again. In all there were a lot of quick touches and ball movement on both sides.
Minnesota’s first decent look at the net came in the 15th minute when Christian Ramirez — starting in his first preseason match — fired a shot along the ground that he couldn’t quite get ahold of. Throughout the match, Ramirez seemed a bit cut off from the attacking midfielders, but he did manage to hold up and draw some fouls to give Minnesota some good opportunities at free kicks.
“If there’s one thing that’s disappointed me,” said Heath, “I don’t think we’ve done enough in the final third in all the games. We’ve got to get better in the final third, got to get more men in the box, get more quality in the box as well.”
Possession and opportunities seemed about even through the first 30 minutes of the match, but in the 32nd minute, Crew SC opened the scoring. Midfielder Federico Higuain struck a strong right-footed volley from the right side of the box that goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth got a hand on but couldn’t stop, watching helplessly as it trickled into the goal for a 1-0 Columbus lead.
Five minutes later it was Columbus again when forward Gyasi Zardes got a beauty of a cross directly on his feet from Harrison Afful. Zardes calmly put it into the back of the net and doubled Columbus’ lead to 2-0.
Through the rest of the first half, Minnesota continued to play well overall, but found the final ball wanting and couldn’t lock up their own box well enough to stop Columbus from keeping the pressure up. The Loons couldn’t put anything together, though, and the teams headed into the break with Crew SC on top.
The second half started with the Crew and Gyasi Zardes in particular still confident and able to get good looks from inside the penalty box. Although Minnesota’s individual play was often solid, with players getting off good bits of passing and short strings of possession, the Loons couldn’t seem to muster sufficient energy to look genuinely threatening. Although Ramirez came off for Abu Danladi in the 73rd minute and Collin Martin and Kevin Molino were replaced by Collen Warner and Sam Nicholson in the 83rd, the team couldn’t find a second wind to pull themselves back into the match.
Chalk it up to a demanding training regimen or not adjusting to the somewhat unfamiliar 4-3-3 formation, but it was a reminder that preseason is more about assessment and experimentation than success. With the regular season getting underway in a week, Heath’s focus was more on preparation than the final score.
“We have to be ready,” he said. “I know from personal experience that the one before the season starts is never an easy game. Nobody wants to get injured or jeopardize their place in the team next week. But we’ve got to get better at certain aspects. Some parts of our play, I don’t think we’re on the same page at this moment in time.”
Minnesota United will open the 2018 MLS season on the road against the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium on Saturday, March 3. Kickoff is at 9:30 p.m. CT and the match will be broadcast on Fox Sports North.
Minnesota United FC Starting XI: GK Bobby Shuttleworth; D Tyrone Mears, Michael Boxall, Francisco Calvo, Jerome Thiesson; M Rasmus Schuller, Ibson, Collin Martin (Collen Warner 83’), Ethan Finlay, Kevin Molino (Sam Nicholson 83’); F Christian Ramirez (Danladi 73’)
Columbus Crew SC Starting XI: GK Zack Steffan; D Harrison Afful, Jonathan Mensah, Lalas Abubakar, Milton Valenzuela; M Artur (Ricardo Clark 75’), Wil Trapp, Cristian Martinez, Federico Higuain (Edward Opoku 83’), Pedro Santos (Luis Argudo 75’); F Gyasi Zardes
32’ – Higuain – CLB
38’ – Zardes – CLB
45’ – Martin (YC) – MIN
59’ – Mensah (YC) – CLB
65’ – Boxall (YC) – MIN