Though many of the Crew players and staff will say, "It's only preseason," the Black & Gold will take great pride in playing for hardware in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic Final against the Montreal Impact on Saturday (8:00 p.m. ET/ESPN3.com).
"Anytime there is a trophy on the line, it's competitive and we definitely want to win," goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum said Friday. "The more important thing I think everyone needs to realize that this will be a good test for us ahead of our opening game. Montreal is a very, very good team. Just to get that competitive game in leading up to the season opener is going to be good for us."
The Crew has gone 5-1-0 in preseason play through January and February to outscore opponents 11-5 as it prepares to open the regular season on March 2 in Carson, Calif. against Chivas USA. The Black & Gold battled back to secure three points against Orlando City SC in their last match on February 16. With rebuilding the defense as a priority in the offseason, the Crew backline has taken pride in its success this preseason.
"I think we've been pretty organized," newcomer Tyson Wahl explained. "The group I've played in hadn't given a goal up until the last game. As a defender, that is something I take pride in. Obviously limiting the number of goals your team is conceding is massive for defenders. That has helped me with my confidence and helped out backline's confidence."
"Last game we had two goals scored against us, but we still fought back," Wahl continued. "That was a good learning experience."
Head Coach Robert Warzycha has increased his starters' playing time in each of the Crew's preseason matches, with most of the first unit going the full 90 minutes against Orlando City. Expect Saturday's Final to be played just as a Regular Season match would be played.
"It's just preseason, but I think I've noticed a change in the intensity of the games as the tournament has gone on," Wahl explained. "Our last game [against Orlando City] was our first night game and it definitely felt a little bit more real even though it was against a USL team. They were a quality team and it was a tough match. It felt a little bit more like a professional-level game at a high pace. I expect the Final to be even more competitive and even more realistic. It's a great tune-up opportunity for the season opener."
Saturday's match will provide one final chance to find the right combination on the field for the Columbus coaching staff.
"The coaches kind of controlled the minutes we played early on and you want to build-up to what you believe your starting eleven will be toward the end," Gruenebaum said. "Not everything is solidified and there are still some question marks, but at the same time, we have a good idea of how we want to play and the personnel and the roles that everyone is going to take.
The Crew 'keeper continued: "We've just got to keep molding with each game. Not everything is going to be perfect, especially early on in the season, but we have to battle for each other like we've done over the years and we'll be fine."
A PRODUCTIVE MONTH-AND-A-HALF
Aside from the strong results the Crew has shown in its six preseason matches, the club's two trips two trips to Florida have proven to be productive as nine new additions have begun to gel with returnees.
"With the amount of turnover that we had this year, it's definitely tough for a team to come together with all the new players," Gruenebaum said over the phone. "I think we've done a far superior job than how other teams might have handled it. I think from that standpoint, it's been great. We've been able to manage the results as well. We can use that as a positive and keep going."
Head Coach Robert Warzycha is still working out the kinks, but believes this has been one of the better preseasons in his tenure as the Crew's manager.
"I've liked this preseason more than the previous ones," Warzycha explained. "We've had more games and the competition is good. We've been playing against different teams. The fact is that we've brought in several new players and we're still trying to figure out the best lineup and the best combination. Some days are better than others, but we'll be ready for the season.
"We've got two games this weekend, on Saturday against Montreal and [the Kirk Urso Memorial Match] on Sunday in North Carolina," he finished. "We're going to be ready to play against Chivas."