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Carolina Challenge Cup 2018 Preview

The Loons will meet the Charleston Battery, Columbus Crew SC, and Atlanta United in the CCC.

Minnesota United will participate in the 14th annual Carolina Challenge Cup February 17–24 in Charleston, South Carolina, with the hosts Charleston Battery, Atlanta United FC, and Columbus Crew SC.

The tournament began in 2004 and features teams from Major League Soccer and the United Soccer League; the hosts have always been the Charleston Battery out of the USL. Since its birth, the tournament has been a round-robin style tournament with each team playing three games in one week. The games will open with Atlanta against Columbus on February 17 at 5:00 PM ET. All games will be played at MUSC Health Stadium, the home of the Battery.

After all six games, the team with the most points, in the classic scoring system (3 points for a win, 1 for a tie, 0 for a loss), will win the cup. Last year’s CCC winner was the Columbus Crew with two wins and one draw.

The Loons begin against Charleston on February 17 (6:30 PM CT), meet up with Atlanta February 21 (6:30 PM CT), and finish the tournament against Columbus February 24 (4:00 CM ET).

Below is the scouting report for MNUFC’s competition in the next week.

Charleston Battery

The Battery began in 1993 as a member of the United States Interregional Soccer League, which eventually evolved into the USL in 1995. The team became the first non-MLS squad to build its own stadium, MUSC Health Stadium, in 1999. Since its inauguration, the team has won championships in the USL A-League (1995, 2000), the USL Second Division (2010), and the USL (2012), as well as many late-round appearances in the U.S. Open Cup.

The Battery ended last season in the USL in second place at 15-8-9 and had the second-highest goal differential in the league (+20). However, the playoffs didn’t last long for the Battery, as they lost in the first round to New York Red Bulls II 4–0.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Charleston Battery at Atlanta United FC Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After some shaking up in the offseason, the Battery have two promising young attackers making their Charleston debuts in the 2018 season. Forward Ian Svantesson previously played for the Tulsa Roughnecks and led his team in scoring in 2017 (11). The 6-foot-six-inch forward is definitely a large target for crosses and corners. Another auspicious attacker for the Battery is Sierra Leonean midfielder Victor Mansaray. Turning just 21 during the tournament’s week, Mansaray has already played with FC Cincinnati, Seattle Sounders II, and Umea FC (Sweden), and has played with the U.S. Men’s National Team on the U18 and U20 teams. He was named the top player in the USL’s “20 Under 20” list in 2016.

The Battery have also just resigned their All-League Second Team keeper Odisnel Cooper for a sixth season. Cooper recorded 10 shutouts in the 2017 season and has 37 shutouts in his 109 appearances with the team.

Atlanta United

Following the Loons preseason match-up against USL side, and hosts, the Charleston Battery, Adrian Heath and co. will go head to head against fellow expansion rivals, Atlanta United. Atlanta United finished the 2017 season in 4th place in the Eastern Conference, while losing out in penalties to Columbus in the playoffs. Their 2017 season was highlighted by Paraguayan phenom Miguel Almiron and their young Venezuelan striker, Josef Martinez. Atlanta United finished the season with a record of 15-10-09 and a +30 goal differential, which led them to 55 points in the Eastern Conference.

Tata Martino and his team have been the highlight of the MLS transfer window this offseason. The team manged to pull off one of the biggest transfers in MLS history, acquiring 18 year old teenage sensation, Ezequiel Barco, from Independiente for an MLS record fee of 15 million dollars. There are high expectations for the young Argentinian, with people comparing the attacking midfielder to the likes of Angel Di Maria of PSG and Paulo Dybala of Juventus. In addition the the coup of Barco, Atlanta added USMNT midfielder Darlington Nagbe for a fee of 1 million(possibility of 1.6 with add-ons), along with acquiring former loon, and most recently Cincinnati FC goalkeeper ,Mitch Hildebrant. In addition to those three players, Atlanta drafted Gordon Wild, Jon Gallagher and Oliver Shannon in the 2018 Superdrafft. A busy offseason leaves the team with high expectations for the 2018 season, and with a boasted attack accompanied by an even stronger midfield, they will be a formidable foe for any team in 2018.

MLS: Preseason Friendly-Nashville SC vs Atlanta United FC Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta has a team full of notable players, possible 2018 MVPs and a probable future Golden Boot winner in Martinez, but all eyes will be on their young DP Ezequiel Barco. The teenage sensation lit up the Primera Division in Argentina during 2017, which drew supposed interest from an unnamed La Liga team along with English side Arsenal. The young DP has a lot of weight on his shoulders to carry into the season, while not only being the most expensive MLS player ever, but also having the expectation to prove his worth to the 70,000 fans in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Barco is still a kid, and he still has a lot to prove, but the young attacking midfielder will need to earn his starting position in Martino`s side, along with the hearts of the Atlanta fans if he wants to succeed in 2018. All eyes will be on Barco, including those of European scouts. Barco has a big season ahead of him, and it should be a joy to watch a player of his caliber in 2018.

Columbus Crew

The Crew and their fans had to endure a tumultuous 2017 season. Last season they found out about Anthony Precourt’s plan to move the Crew to Austin. This spawned a massive outpouring of support from fans across MLS in the form of the #SavetheCrew movement. Over the course of the season they dealt Ethan Finlay to Minnesota and brought in Kekutah Manneh. Both players were crucial for their new teams in the second half of the season. The Finlay-less Crew had a showdown with MLS Golden Boys Atlanta United in the first round of the playoffs. Both teams punished the frame of the goal over the course of 120 minutes, but the heroics of Zack Steffan propelled the Crew past Atlanta into the next round.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After last season’s heartbreaking playoff loss to eventual Champions Toronto FC, the Crew went through an up and down offseason. Gone are Justin Meram and Ola Kamara. Meram took his talents south to Orlando in return for over $1 million in combined allocation money and the Crew traded Kamara for Gyasi Zardes. In addition to these two deals they were also able to sign 21 year-old Brazilian midfielder Artur on a permanent deal. They also added experienced midfielders Ricardo Clark and Mike Grella in the offseason. Even without these additions, this is a team boasting a full compliment of DPs as well as recently capped US internationals Wil Trapp and Zack Steffan. One transaction that has gone under the radar was Columbus securing the services of Young DP Milton Valenzuela. He replaces Jonathan Mensah as their third DP as Mensah’s contract was paid down with allocation money.

The key player to watch for Columbus has to be new kid on the block Gyasi Zardes. Calling him a kid is a bit misleading as he is now 26 years old and can no longer be called “young and promising.” As a player with and MLS Cup medal in his trophy case and 38 senior national team caps, he brings a lot of experience, and a lot of pace, to Columbus. Since he was traded for Kamara, there is an opening in the starting lineup that he could slot right into, if he can prove he belongs. After spending his whole career in southern California, a move out of his comfort zone could be just the thing he needs to jump start his sputtering career and move him back to the top of the expanding US player pool.