HARRISON, N.J. – With nothing to play for this season, the final matches of the 2016 campaign will serve as an audition for Columbus Crew SC and their roster.
And on Sunday night, they saw some reasons to be hopeful.
Mixing and matching veteran players with several fringe contributors, the Crew still managed to put a scare into the Eastern Conference-leading Red Bulls, cutting down their 3-0 lead to a single goal advantage late in the second half en route to a 3-2 defeat.
It's the beginning of an evaluation process by Crew SC coach Gregg Berhalter for the 2017 season – and despite the result, he saw several reasons to be hopeful.
"Some guys we will have to make a decision on, [so] it is nice to see them in these games and get opportunities," Berhalter said following the match. "And for the entire squad, it’s about who is mentally strong enough to keep fighting – even though we are out of it.
"There are different layers to it but we are certainly able to evaluate."
Brad Stuver saw his first professional minutes in this match – and his nerves showed. Just five minutes into the encounter, a questionable challenge on Alex Muyl drew a penalty call from referee Edvin Jurisevic. Facing one of the hottest players in MLS, Sacha Kljestan, Stuver was able to cover up his blushes with a save on the US national team midfielder.
"I told Brad, 'I haven't seen in my career a guy who wants to get into the game so he causes a penalty, so he can save it,'" joked Berhalter. "I think he did a great job. It's not easy to be the number two goalie for three years straight and not get any real MLS games. He got that and did a great job."
Another player who earned praise from Berhalter was Panamanian midfielder, Cristian Martinez.
"I think Cristian Martinez, 19 years old, to play in an atmosphere like this played quite well," Berhalter said. "You can see he ran out of gas but certainly a player with potential and a good mindset. He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t back down. It was nice to see that.
"When you look at a guy like Christian, you see a guy put into this environment and he rose to the challenge," he continued. "I think he did quite well."
The evaluation process continues next week as Columbus close out their season with an encounter against New York City FC in Yankee Stadium.