CHARLESTON, S.C. — For the first time in nearly four months, Columbus Crew SC faced another Major League Soccer opponent — in this case, MLS-expansion side Atlanta United FC. The preseason match opened the 2017 Carolina Challenge Cup at MUSC Health Stadium, seeing Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter's Black & Gold come from behind en route to a, 2-1, victory.
"I think we started a little slow — we were hesitant at first — and I think you could see the rust a little bit," Berhalter said. "But as we got into gear, I was especially pleased with our ball movement and it was a physical performance. We looked strong up until the last minute."
Returning Designated Player Federico Higuain launched an offensive with a 5-minute brace after Crew SC fell behind in the 6th minute. Higuain equalized the match off via veteran savvy in the 57th minute, rushing onto Atlanta goalkeeper Alec Kann's attempted long ball. Pipa propelled Columbus ahead in the 62nd minute, nodding a Justin Meram cross into the back of the net.
Crew SC fell behind just six minutes into the action when Atlanta Designated Player Josef Martinez's diving header off a Tito Villalba low through ball.
Chasing the match and an equalizer, Crew SC peppered Kann with shot after shot but no breakthrough. Chances came from Ethan Finlay, Adam Jahn, Higuain and team captain Meram before halftime, while starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen was limited to just one save in the opening half.
Neither team made any substitutions entering the second half, and more Black & Gold chances on goal continued. Just two minutes in, Meram chipped an inch-perfect ball to Jahn, but an alert Kann made the save. Four minutes later, Jahn had another look — this time off his head — but Kann again made the squeeze.
Steffen sprang into action in the 52nd minute, pawing away a swerving and strong shot by Atlanta's Miguel Almiron.
The match opened up when unsigned SuperDraft pick Connor Maloney — starting at right back — saw his shot soar wide in the 56th minute.
Just a minute later, Higuain singlehandedly produced a magic moment by deflecting Kann's clearance into his own net. The magic continued in the 62nd minute when Meram laced a left-sided ball across the goalmouth, where the diving Higuain powered in the winning goal.
Higuain was substituted for Crew SC Homegrown rookie defender Alex Crognale in the 73rd minute, and the more defensive-minded Black & Gold closed out their first victory of 2017.
Crew SC will next face tournament-host Charleston Battery on Wednesday (5 p.m. ET) before closing the Carolina Challenge Cup against the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET). 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.