Three Questions Ahead of Columbus Crew SC U.S. Open Cup Clash With FC Cincinnati

Major League Soccer’s 19 American sides begin their 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup campaign this week. Of the 16 fourth round ties, few are garnering as much intrigue and excitement as Columbus Crew SC vs. FC Cincinnati. The established MLS side from Ohio’s capital city will travel southwest on I-71 to take on the second-year upstart club at Nippert Stadium on Wednesday night.

There is plenty of passion from supporters of both teams over this looming clash. The few interesting nicknames already describing this budding rivalry reflect that. From the “Hell Is Real Derby” to the “Ohio Cup,” the potential is certainly there for an annual Columbus-Cincinnati soccer rivalry to take fold over time.

For the club from the Queen City, this in-state showdown is a huge showcase for their MLS ambitions. The team tried to further bolster their chances of joining the league earlier in the week when they revealed detailed renderings for a new stadium. Ownership is hoping for a public-private partnership to help fund the proposed $200 million facility.

And they continue to enjoy success at the gate, with FC Cincy averaging 19,415 fans per game in 2017. That attendance number leads USL and is higher than 11 MLS clubs, including Crew SC. According to the club, over 20,000 tickets have already been sold for Wednesday’s game.

All that aside, the visiting Black and Gold wants nothing more than a win out of this game. What are the biggest questions that need answering if the club is to achieve that goal?

Three Questions Ahead of Columbus Crew SC U.S. Open Cup Clash With FC Cincinnati

Will Gregg Berhalter Break Out Three at the Back?

During his tenure as Crew SC manager, Gregg Berhalter has tended to use the U.S. Open Cup to tinker with the formation a bit. The incorporation of a three-man back line is among the more noteworthy hallmarks of such experimentation. In 2017, though, Berhalter has trotted out three at the back a few times during the regular season. Its debut came in a 2-0 win over D.C. United and returned last time out at Colorado. And things were going well against the Rapids until the final ten minutes of the match.

If a formation that incorporates three center backs returns Wednesday, what will it look like? Expect the 3-4-3 shape (or 3-6-1, or 3-4-2-1 depending on how you look at it) from previous matches this year. The two fullbacks will play slightly more advanced than they do in a back four but need to track back and provide width in defense. Two holding midfielders will sit in front of the three centerbacks, while a tandem of playmaking mids are stationed underneath a lone striker.

The composition of the starting XI on the field for Wednesday’s game is a separate topic altogether. This is especially true considering the lineup will include quite a few players who’ve seen minimal game time this season.

Do the Rookies See an Expanded Role?

Crew SC’s 2017 rookie class includes a few players who’ve already seen quite a bit of action. The most prominent of them is Alex Crognale. The club’s latest Homegrown signing already has seven starts to his name this year, contributing an assist during that time. And it’s highly likely he’s a part of proceedings in central defense on Wednesday.

What remains to be seen is whether or not Lalas Abubakar will join him on the back line. The fifth overall pick of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft saw some playing time during the preseason. But since then, he has yet to see a single minute of action. With Berhalter likely to sit Jonathan Mensah and other players returning from international duty, Abubakar may get his first shot to contribute in Cincy.

Niko Hansen is another first year pro who’s a likely candidate for a starting role Wednesday. Like Abubakar, Crew SC picked Hansen in the first round of this year’s draft. But the Sacramento native has made his presence felt early on his career, making three starts and appearing in 12 of 16 games. He already has a game-winning goal and assist on the year.

Connor Maloney may also have a role to play in this game. The rookie out of Penn State has only seen the field for 45 minutes (he came on as a halftime sub at Houston). But the converted fullback is certainly an option if Harrison Afful gets rested.

Do Crew SC Players Value This as a Rivalry Yet?

The narrative surrounding this inaugural meeting between Crew SC and FC Cincy is that of a rivalry in the making. There are a variety of factors at play to fan the flames of such sentiment. Both teams supporters certainly want to view it as such. But what do the players who will inevitably don the Black and Gold shirts on Wednesday think?

The fact remains that until or unless MLS fulfills Cincinnati’s dreams of joining the league, the teams will meet on an annual basis, at most, once. And that’s only if FC Cincinnati advances to the stage of the U.S. Open Cup when the MLS teams join the competition. The tournament organizers certainly seem keen to facilitate the matchup. Even last year, the two teams would’ve met had Cincy defeated the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the previous round.

But at the current time, they play in separate leagues and have concerns related to their respective status vis a vis playoff contention. Crew SC is fifth in the Eastern Conference but they’ve dropped three of their last four. FC Cincy’s 16 points in USL play is tied with four other teams but they find themselves a spot out of the playoffs due to tiebreakers. And both are in league action three days later.

Berhalter himself echoed this notion.

“Whatever rivalry there is or isn’t, we’re playing in MLS and they’re playing in USL,” he told Massive Report after training this week. “So it is a different level of competition that we’re playing in. I don’t know how there’s a rivalry established when you don’t get to play each other. Normally rivalries happen when you get to compete against each other.”

Wednesday night is their first chance to do so. In front of what’s expected to be a record crowd for this round of the U.S. Open Cup, the two Ohio-based clubs will write the opening chapter in a new book associated with American soccer lore. Rivalries are the lifeblood of sport, and with time these two sides may indeed kindle one.

Photo credit: Columbus Crew SC Communications