Exactly 17 weeks have separated Columbus Crew SC's matches against Major League Soccer competition. That lull ends Saturday at 4:30 p.m. ET in Charleston, S.C., at the Carolina Challenge Cup — albeit in a matchup against an opponent the Black & Gold have never seen before.
MLS-expansion side Atlanta United — led by manager Tata Martino (of FC Barcelona and Argentina National Team fame) — will face Crew SC in a preview of Eastern Conference competition. The match will be streamed live on ColumbusCrewSC.com.
Crew SC has already completed a two week preseason camp in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a three-day camp at SuperKick in Powell, Ohio. Already in Charleston before Saturday's match, an opportunity to face MLS competition has the team excited.
"I think we're ready to get back," Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter said after training at SuperKick on Wednesday. "I think we're ready to get back to competing, to playing. We had a good rhythm in Brazil — competing every few days — and its been good here, but I think everyone is looking forward to playing. And I would add that its been a while since we played a domestic opponent, so that will be fun as well."
With three matches in seven days in Charleston — against Atlanta, the hosting Charleston Battery of the USL (Feb. 22) and the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders (Feb. 25) — the focus from Berhalter is to be fully prepared for the MLS regular-season Opening Match against the Chicago Fire on March 4 at MAPFRE Stadium, presented by MAPFRE Insurance.
"Our focus is not to win the Charleston tournament," Berhalter said. "It's much more of having the guys ready to win against Chicago (on March 4). We have a clean slate and are starting fresh. I think that's exciting for a lot of our guys ... It's nice to now start fresh and to see where we can go."
United played their first preseason match just one week ago, defeating fourth-division NPSL-side Chattanooga FC, 4-0, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Martino made nine substitutions in the 90-minute affair, playing 20 different players in a primarily 4-2-3-1 formation.
Atlanta shares some similarities with Crew SC entering Saturday's showdown: Atlanta features an all-new roster without a settled starting XI, similar to Columbus' nine players added in the offseason; and this will be both sides' first match against MLS opponents in 2017. For Berhalter, the #CCC17 is a time for continued evaluation before beginning the 2017 MLS regular season.
"I think we'll mix it up a little," Berhalter said. "We'll get a bunch of different looks in this camp, and hopefully by the end — the week before opening the season against Chicago — we'll have a good idea of where we're at and who's going to start. I think, as a player, you want to know who's going to play in a game and where. So we'll come to a conclusion after this Charleston trip."
The 2017 Major League Soccer opens on March 4 against the Chicago Fire at MAPFRE Stadium, presented by MAPFRE Insurance. The full Crew SC preseason and regular schedule can be downloaded and synced on iOS and Android devices.