Columbus Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter addressed the media Wednesday ahead of his team’s upcoming final preseason leg, the Carolina Challenge Cup.
The South Carolina trip will include matchups with Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC of Major League Soccer as well as the Charleston Battery of the United Soccer League. The games, which will kick off on Saturday, Feb. 17, will test a tweaked Black & Gold team coming off a MLS Cup semifinal last season.
“I feel like we’re further ahead than we were last year when we started in terms of the concepts and the guys understanding how we want to play,” Berhalter said. “I think all those things are positive. In this last couple of weeks, it will be about the final details.”
Those minor details include defense in the penalty box and improvements in offensive output, Berhalter said. The team was exposed last week to unfamiliar tactics in Hawaii against Japanese teams that showed extreme pressing and continual movement. Experience is key for a Crew SC team that has fewer new faces than it did in the preseason of 2017.
However, some familiar faces, such as midfielder Justin Meram and forward Ola Kamara, have exited by way of transaction in the past few months. Newcomers like forward Gyasi Zardes and midfielder Mike Grella along with returners in midfielders Federico Higuain and Pedro Santos will attempt to offset the loss of 31 goals scored last season.
Berhalter toyed with the idea of Santos playing on the left side rather than his usual right during the team’s time in Hawaii. This was an exploration of sorts into the Designated Player’s capabilities on the left with a slew of allocation money available to bring in a new winger via transfer in the near future. Presently, Berhalter has liked the efforts of his attackers.
“Usually the defense is what’s easier to maintain when you’re fatigued and you’re tired through our preseason,” Berhalter said. “But, we’ve been happy with the goals we’ve been scoring. We’ve scored a lot of goals so far in the first four games of preseason, so we’re more comfortable with that. We want to keep on that same note as we enter some MLS competition now.”
Two international newcomers in defender Milton Valenzuela and midfielder Eduardo Sosa have entered the fray for Columbus during the last month. The 19-year-old Valenzuela was acquired on loan out of Argentina and Newell’s Old Boys as a Young Designated Player on Jan. 26.
“He’s doing a good job,” Berhalter said. “He had some irregular travel behind him, coming from Argentina and meeting us in Hawaii. He’s done a good job of adapting to both the time zone and the level of play. For the short period that he’s been here, he’s done great.”
Sosa, of Venezuela, earned high praise from Berhalter following his training and preseason contest performances. While the midfielder plays a role similar to Crew SC’s maestro Higuain, Berhalter and his staff expect action from Sosa this season.
“We expect him to get some game time this year,” Berhalter said. “We know he’s a young player and he has a lot of potential and we’re looking forward to the contribution he can make.”
Coming off major injuries last season, defender Gaston Sauro and Grella still are not yet fully participating in team activities, Berhalter said. Midfielder Niko Hansen is dealing with a minor hamstring injury along with defender Josh Williams, who has “a little bit of Achilles pain.”
Crew SC will take on Atlanta United FC on Saturday at 5 p.m. ET and will open the MLS regular season on March 3 against Toronto FC on the road before a home opener in Columbus on March 10 against the Montreal Impact.