OBETZ – Columbus Crew SC prepared for their return to Major League Soccer play on Tuesday at the EAS Training Center at Obetz fresh off a 1-0 victory in Monday's international friendly against German club Eintracht Frankfurt. With the CONCACAF Gold Cup break over, the Black & Gold will welcome the Philadelphia Union to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday.
The Brazilian connection
The two upcoming matches against Philadelphia may bring up feelings of nostalgia for Crew SC midfielder Artur. The Brazilian has a connection to Union midfielder Ilsinho, who hails from São Paulo, Brazil.
“Yes, I know him,” Artur said via a translator. “When he was playing for São Paulo FC I was younger so I used to watch him on TV. He’s a very good player, so we’ll have to be careful with him on the ball.”
Ilsinho has two goals and one assist this season in the 14 matches he has played. Artur lit up when asked about having the opportunity to play against a man he grew up watching on TV in Brazil.
“Yes, it’s very exciting,” Artur said. “It’s always good to play against people that you grew up watching.”
‘Opportunity comes but once’
Crew SC defender Lalas Abubakar got some run once again for the Black & Gold on Monday night in the friendly against Eintracht Frankfurt. Abubakar’s appearance was his first since making his debut on July 4 against Minnesota United and making a huge impact in the Columbus win over the Loons. The Ghanaian rookie reflected and looked toward the future on Tuesday in Obetz.
“It was awesome,” Abubakar said. “I grew up watching Bundesliga so playing against them was kind of like a dream come true. I’m really happy to see myself on the field playing against them.”
Abubakar’s’ journey from No. 5 overall pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft to Crew SC starter was a long and arduous one. But the defender knows that his fight to succeed in the MLS has just begun.
“It was hard at the beginning of this season,” Abubakar said. “And now I feel like I’ve gotten some confidence going and it’s now the beginning. I have to keep going and keep fighting. Of course, we have a lot of center backs. Anyone can play at any time so I just have to keep my head up and just keep going. Whatever role the coaches give me, I’m going to embrace it and keep going.”
The Ghanaian defender also said that he often found it hard to compare himself to the other draftees that he came up through the ranks with. The success of his peers was occasionally a downfall for him.
“At the beginning of the season, when I’d look back at all the rookies that I went to the combine with, I’d see everyone getting their debut, everyone playing,” Abubakar said. “But, I knew that when my time was going to come, it was going to be special. I just kept patient. I wasn’t really frustrated, but I did feel a bit jealous not playing as the fifth overall pick when someone from the third round was playing every single game.”
Abubakar’s optimism seems to be what has brought him this far with Crew SC.
“I knew eventually it was going to come,” Abubakar said. “I knew it. One thing I told myself was that once it comes, I just have to take it because opportunity comes but once. So, once it comes I have to get it and keep going.”
Monday’s friendly match saw the Black & Gold use a 3-4-2-1 formation for the second time in two games. Having three center backs on the back line while two full backs roam as wingbacks is a change of pace for Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, who has historically has used a 4-2-3-1 lineup.
“When we did it in preseason, guys were just wondering like what is this, how is it going to work, it’s so different than what we’ve been doing,” Berhalter said. “And now, as we’ve been playing it they’ve realized, okay, there are elements that are identical, and there’s elements that are a little bit different, and there’s elements that are a lot different.”
Berhalter elaborated on those similar elements between new lineup and old that his players have become more comfortable with.
“It doesn’t stray from our playing philosophy which is to dominate the ball,” Berhalter said. “We’re still set up in a position to keep the ball. And we’re still getting full backs forward. We’re still able to put crosses in the penalty box. We’re still playing between the lines. So, I think it’s really similar but the most important thing is that the guys believe now and we’ve seen that over the course of this six months working together that it takes time.”
According to Berhalter, keeping opposing attacks off balance is the key to playing successful defense and he and his staff have been preparing with that approach for a while now.
“There are changes, subtle changes, you can make that will make the opponent have to react differently,” Berhalter said. “And we’ve already experimented with them in different games and we’re pretty comfortable with that.”
Crew SC defender Waylon Francis is one of the Black & Gold defenders that has been given more freedom with the switch. Francis, a full back, now has the opportunity to play both more forward and in a more defensive five-in-the-back look as well. Francis has enjoyed the move.
“For me, it’s easier to play with five in the back,” Francis said. “I save more energy. I can go forward and backwards easier. It’s really nice.”
They said it…
On Tuesday night at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Crew SC midfielder Federico Higuain will represent the Black & Gold while throwing out the ceremonial first pitch ahead of the Cincinnati Reds game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Berhalter gave his analysis on Higuain’s big moment:
“He’s going all or nothing on this one. He’s going to either get a prospect contract or they’re going to escort him out of the stadium for injuring a fan.”
►Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter
Crew SC will play a home and home against the Philadelphia Union with the first leg taking place at MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, July 22 at 7:30 p.m. ET. The Black & Gold will then travel to Philadelphia for a match on Wednesday, July 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET. Columbus returns home on Saturday, August 12 to face the Chicago Fire in what will be a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff.