Columbus Crew SC's month of May promises a series of unique situations. With six matches and 540 minutes of action laying ahead in a span of 25 days — including a back-to-back-to-back gauntlet against the New England Revolution this Saturday at MAPFRE Stadium, Toronto FC next Wednesday at MAPFRE Stadium and the Montreal Impact next Saturday in Montreal.
For Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, the challenges of a packed fixture list and a buzzsaw of Eastern Conference opponents — five of May's six opponents are Eastern Conference clubs — is nothing new in Major League Soccer. After nine weeks of play, his Black & Gold sit with 13 points, just five behind the conference-leading Orlando City SC.
“For us, it’s just getting back on track with training," Berhalter said following Tuesday's session at the EAS Training Center at Obetz. "We are focused on playing our game, playing a full game. We want to win games. We’ve had a good start, but we want to be better and every game is vital. Every game is difficult. We’ve had some tough opponents, but we have more coming up — against Eastern Conference opponents. It’s been tough, but we’ve done well so far and will look to continue doing well through a tough month of May.”
Saturday's 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff against the New England Revolution will initiate a five-match stretch that sees Crew SC face both New England and Toronto twice in quick succession. Berhalter likened that type of turnaround against the same teams to a miniature home-and-away playoff series.
“The league schedules opponents sometimes in very short succession," he said. "It’s weird. We play New England and Toronto four times in the next five games. It almost turns into a little playoff series where you are very familiar with a team in a short amount of time. After this, we won’t see Toronto or New England again until the playoffs, potentially. Its strange, but its something you just deal with. We’ve had Chicago and NYCFC like that in the last few years, so it happens.”
The series against Toronto will close the 2017 Trillium Cup competition officially at Toronto on May 26, but — after winning the first match of the year 2-1 on April 15 — Crew SC can claim the Trillium Cup for the seventh time out of the 10 times its been contest with a win at MAPFRE Stadium on May 10.
“I think its nice for the fans, for our rivalry," Berhalter said of the early chance to win a trophy. "I think its exciting. Anytime a trophy is on the line, you want to try to win it and that’s what we are looking to do.”
Keeping it young
Crew SC and New England have ushered in a new generation of American goalkeepers with U.S. Soccer experience at the Under-23, Under-20 and senior levels. Columbus' Zack Steffen and New England's Cody Cropper share a similar professional trajectory that's seen them develop within the national team setup, club careers in Europe and eventually led to the pair returning stateside and joining their respective MLS clubs within a month of each other in 2016.
“Goalkeepers are definitely in an exclusive fraternity, compared to other positions on the team," Steffen said following Tuesday's training session. "I mean, we go off and do our own drills and things in training. But I know Cody Cropper; I know him pretty well from our experiences with the national team and we have a good relationship. We’ve been talking back and forth and keeping up, and we are both happy for each other — having come back to the U.S. after some time abroad and now being able to get meaningful minutes and to start for our MLS teams. I know he’s working hard and I like to see it. It’s really good to see these younger goalkeepers out there getting their own successes. I watch them and take notice of their great saves or movements. I keep it all in the back of my head.”
Week 10's goalkeeping matchup pits Columbus' 22-year-old against the Revolution's 24-year-old. Through 19 starts combined in 2017, the pair have 46 saves and have claimed 23 out of a possible 44 points when starting for their respective clubs.
Through nine matches in the 2017 MLS season, Steffen has MLS's fourth-highest saves total (28) with two clean sheets to his name. The 22-year-old is the youngest goalkeeper in the League this season to have faced at least 100 shots, have faced at least 20 shots on target and have made at least 15 saves.
“Its definitely an amazing feeling to have your coaches and teammates support you and to have confidence in you at such a young age in such an important place on the field," Steffen said. "It’s tough to be in a position that you know you will make mistakes and to know that you have to get past those quickly. It’s really good for my career and development, to get these minutes at such a young age. It’s not something I think anyone takes for granted.”
They said it 💬
“Any team you play in MLS is tough. New England is not a bad team — they are good and have a lot of strength. We will have to continue to prepare with video and our training and make sure we keep the game the way we like it. Dealing with a player like Kei Kamara is tough, we know his skills and strengths. The entire team will have to be prepared and we will have to match up against him to limit his chances.”
► Columbus Crew SC defender Jonathan Mensah