While most of the other 18 MLS clubs have already played multiple preseason matches, the Crew is set for just its second tune-up of 2014 against rival Toronto FC on Wednesday in Orlando. The focus on training sessions rather than matches on the first preseason trip to Bradenton, Fla. and one week of work indoors in Columbus has helped the Black & Gold build fitness while acclimating to new Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter's philosophies.
"Just concentrating on the training, I think that's what has been important for us the first couple of weeks," said Berhalter. "You can accomplish a lot in games in terms of learning, but I think a lot of work is done on the training field. We've been able to accomplish a lot so far."
Added veteran defender Eric Gehrig: "With a new coach, some new players and a whole new staff, I think it's been beneficial spending time together. [Berhalter] is employing the ideas he wants to come across the team. Obviously, his ideas are different from the past regime, so that's going to take time. He wanted us to get used to playing each other before we head into a game environment."
"It's progressing," Gehrig continued. "There are new ideas and new playing styles being integrated compared to what some of us are used to, and we also have some new faces integrating as well."
It's been nearly two weeks since the Black & Gold's sole preseason match, a 1-0 victory over Swedish champion Malmö FF in Bradenton on February 5. The time elapsed has left players chomping at the bit to face opposition in a match scenario.
"We have a job to do and we have ideas, things we've been working on and things we want to instill in the game," Gehrig explained. "Everyone's going to be excited to get out there and get back into a game environment."
Players can only do so much in training sessions. Providing Berhalter with a sample of play against MLS competition will help the Crew boss mold his starting lineup ahead of his team's first regular-season match on March 8 at D.C. United.
"It's another opportunity for game fitness, that's mostly what we're looking at," Berhalter said. "There are a couple of players we're still looking at, a couple players we want to evaluate in terms of whether or not they're going to be on the team moving forward. It's an evaluation period, but I think it's also a chance to get match fitness in."
"In training, you might show well, you might not show well," Gehrig echoed. "At the end of the day, it's all about what you can do in the game and translating the ideas we're working on into games.
"That's what going to spur competition for spots and make everyone better."
Wednesday's match will also give the Crew and its fans their first taste of a chapter in the Trillium Cup rivalry. Toronto FC made waves this offseason with Designated Player signings of England International Jermain Defoe, U.S. Men's National Team star midfielder Michael Bradley and talented young Brazilian striker Gilberto. In addition, the Reds have also brought in Brazilian National Team goalkeeper Julio Cesar, former San Jose Earthquakes stalwart Justin Morrow and one of Major League Soccer's all-time top scorers, Dwayne De Rosario.
Though the Crew has historically dominated the rivalry, compiling a 10-2-7 all-time record against Toronto and claiming the Trillium Cup in five out of six seasons, the new additions to the Reds' roster adds motivation for the Black & Gold.
"The rivalry means a lot to the fans and it means a lot to the club, therefore it means a lot to us players," Gehrig said. "You hear things, see things on Twitter and in the stadium from fans about the Trillium Cup, it's extra incentive for us to bring home the Trillium Cup to the fans. It'd mean so much for the city [to retain the Trillium Cup], especially with the offseason [Toronto] had, they kind of stole the headlines as far as signings go.
"At the same time, we're excited about what we're doing here."