Columbus Crew SC boast one of the deepest rosters in MLS, and head coach Caleb Porter will look down the line when hosting Real Esteli for Leg 2 of their Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 series on Thursday evening (8 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).
The 2020 MLS Cup champions are also planning for a Sunday league opener against the Philadelphia Union (5:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), starting their title defense against the reigning Supporters' Shield winners.
The three-day turnaround will prompt squad rotation, Porter said earlier this week. But don’t expect Columbus to look too far ahead, even with a 4-0 aggregate lead from their previous game in Nicaragua.
“We never overlook any game,” Porter said. “Our process is a winning process. We prepare and train to win games. It doesn't matter what game we play, we approach those games to win. So the mindset we're going to have is to win the game. We know if we score one goal they need five. If we score two they need six. We're going to play and we're going to play to win.”
Columbus are also dealing with injuries, including a nagging hamstring problem for prized offseason signing Kevin Molino. Then Porter noted midweek that midfielder Darlington Nagbe underwent an MRI and is “doubtful” to face Real Esteli, though should return for their May 1 league match against CF Montréal.
The biggest question mark could be at right back, with Harrison Afful and Marlon Hairston both missing their Leg 1 match through injury. Add in how attacking midfielder Alexandru Matan, an offseason signing from Romania, isn’t yet available and the coaching staff could get creative.
The balancing act – calculating how to capitalize on their four-goal cushion against Real Esteli, process absences and be prepared to quickly tackle Philadelphia on the weekend – is an unenviable one. Yet the Crew are confident in whoever steps up.
“It's tricky, 100 percent it's tricky,” midfielder Aidan Morris said. “It's just weighing things and it's the fine details this week, I think, in terms of preparing our group enough to maintain but dominate the game tomorrow and also preserve some legs for the upcoming game Sunday, which is massively important.”
Should Columbus navigate past Real Esteli, they’d complete a perfect 5-for-5 MLS sweep this week in CCL. Philadelphia, Toronto FC, Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers are already into the quarterfinals, so there’s league-wide momentum in Crew SC’s sails.
And if Porter’s team reaches the next stage, a matchup with Liga MX’s CF Monterrey or the Dominican Republic’s Atletico Pantoja awaits. In Leg 1 of their matchup, Monterrey won 3-0 – providing breathing room just like Columbus have.
“With the injuries and short games in between, it's always good to get the result earlier whenever we can so we can rest players that need to rest, we can try to be safe,” Artur said. “Of course this game is also another one we have a good advantage. We didn't win the game yet, but we have a good advantage and we've got to be smart about it and got to play the right way to be safe with the players and to secure the result.”