The Columbus Crew 2 head on the road for the second week in a row to start the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro season on Sunday to take on the Chicago Fire II. Last year, Columbus finished at the top of the league standings while Chicago was third from the bottom in the Eastern Conference. After just two games, Fire II leads the East with two goals, scoring five goals and allowing only one. Every goal for Chicago has been scored by a different player.
Crew 2 comes off a weekend after equalizing late and earning a penalty kick shootout victory in Week 1. Defender Abdi Mohamed scored a headed goal off a corner kick in the dying seconds of the match to salvage the Black & Gold’s road trip to New York Red Bulls II.
Head coach Laurent Courtois has reiterated that this Crew 2 squad will be much different than last year, as the team looks to integrate a number of Academy players to the MLS NEXT Pro level. Six Academy players made their Crew 2 debut in the last match in midfielders Gio De Libera, Taha Habroune, Cole Mrowka and defenders Ty Nero, and Chris Rogers. Rogers and De Libera both started the match. Each of those Academy players has joined Crew 2 on a season-long amateur loan.
The Academy players went to Florida to participate in the Generation Adidas Cup this week, facing other academies from around the world. Notable, the Crew Under-17 team beat Manchester United’s U-17s. The U-15s made it to the quarterfinals of the tournament, while the U-17s advanced to the semifinal, courtesy of a Habroune goal.
While the Crew Academy is doing well in this tournament, it has left Courtois shorthanded for the matchup with Fire II.
The head coach was pleased with how the Academy players handled the Red Bulls’ style of play in the first match. Courtois thought the ability of his players to stay in position against New York and play his team’s brand of football should enable thme to make good decisions against the other teams.
With the influx of youth and the exportation of players like Mohamed Farsi, Philip Quinton and Jacen Russell-Rowe to the first team full time, Courtois is looking for other players to step up in leadership. Forward Noah Fuson, who was part of last season’s MLS NEXT Pro championship-winning Crew 2 side, has said he wants to take on some of that leadership load as he looks to take the next step in his career.
While they were often with the reserve side and haven’t played much with the first team, midfielders Isaiah Parente and Sean Zawadzki aren’t expected to play much at the MLS NEXT Pro level this season. Courtois said they are viewed as first team players that could start for a lot of teams, they are just stuck behind two of the top midfielders in MLS. Courtois did mention that Parente and Zawadzki will play occasionally for Crew 2 so that they can continue to get gameday experience. Given the Black & Gold are shorthanded against Fire II, it may be a possibility to see some first-team players in this game, although Zawadzki played for the Crew against D.C. United on Saturday.
This match will be an early challenge for Crew 2 with the players missing, but could also showcase the depth of the defending MLS NEXT Pro champions.