Andrew Erickson The Columbus Dispatch
Details, Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said earlier this week, tend to come together later in a preseason. So does more consistent defending and a better understanding of how a team presses.
Guided by a center back pairing of Jonathan Mensah and Lalas Abubakar on Saturday at MUSC Health Stadium in Charleston, South Carolina, the Crew SC defense kept Atlanta United out of the net for 89 minutes in a 3-1 victory to begin the Carolina Challenge Cup.
The Crew rarely allowed Atlanta chances to evolve into something greater, marking a significant improvement over the team’s two games at the Pacific Rim Cup in Hawaii, in which it allowed six goals.
The game was Crew SC’s first against Atlanta United since an Oct. 26 knockout round playoff game in Atlanta. In that game, both teams registered shot after shot over 120 scoreless minutes before the Crew prevailed 3-1 in a penalty shootout.
Saturday’s preseason wasn’t quite as intense. Or close.
Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen made a career-high eight saves – not including the penalty shootout – in that playoff game, standing on his head to extend Crew SC’s season in front of more than 65,000.
On Saturday, in a lower-stakes, lower-attendance setting, he didn’t need to be quite as good.
Steffen’s lone save in the first half came on a Miguel Almiron free kick launched directly at him in the 33rd minute. The free kick, taken from just a few feet outside the box, came after Abubakar came in high with his spikes and connected with Josef Martinez’s head.
Less than a minute later, the Crew had its second goal. Artur received a rolled ball from Steffen and turned upfield, taking two touches before sliding a ball between two Atlanta players and ahead to Cristian Martinez, Crew SC’s starter on the right wing for the second straight preseason game. Seeing Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan well off his line, Martinez lobbed a shot over Guzan’s head and into the back of the net to give the Crew a 2-0 lead.
Another defensive midfielder got Crew SC into the final third on its first score. Wil Trapp passed ahead to Martinez in the 13th minute. Martinez attempted to find forward Gyasi Zardes in space but his pass was blocked, after which the Crew maintained possession.
Seconds later, Federico Higuain waited a moment with the ball above the 18-yard box, just long enough to allow a charging Pedro Santos to make a run into the box and use his left foot to push a shot past Guzan for the opening goal.
Santos again played on the left side instead of his regular right wing position. Asked about the change earlier this week, Berhalter called it a “variation” as the Crew looks to assess what Santos can do on the left side and perhaps add another winger in the coming weeks to account for the loss of Justin Meram.
Atlanta’s best chance came in the 54th minute, when Trapp fell between two Atlanta defenders as he received a pass from Steffen just outside the box. Almiron quickly collected the ball, but sailed his shot well over the crossbar.
A third and final Crew goal came with a little help from Atlanta. Santos curled a 71st-minute corner kick into the box, where Josef Martinez attempted to swing his head to clear the ball but instead redirected it into the net to extend Crew SC’s lead.
Almiron again had the ball at his feet on the edge of the box in the 74th, but Milton Valenzuela, the Crew’s recently-signed 19-year-old left back, positioned himself nicely and poked it away.
Crew SC continued to use extended spells of possession to work the clock in the final 20 minutes and only twice faced dangerous moments on defense. Atlanta’s Andrew Carleton hit the post from a tough angle in the 86th minute, and Almiron sprinted past Abubakar in the 90th minute to finish off Atlanta’s lone goal.
The Crew plays again Wednesday at 5 p.m. against the USL’s Charleston Battery.