In perhaps the most condensed season in MLS history, all 27 clubs are preparing for midweek fixtures on Wednesday.
One game is unlike the others, though, and a trophy will be on the line. The Columbus Crew are hosting Liga MX champions Cruz Azul in the 2021 Campeones Cup (8 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN), the third iteration of the winner-takes-all spectacle.
The competition is in its nascent stages after launching in 2018, a game that now-Crew president and GM Tim Bezbatchenko was involved in during his time at Toronto FC. TFC fell to Tigres that year but Bezbatchenko hopes his club can win it this time around.
“We’re very excited at the chance to get another trophy," Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com. "This club is still in a transition in the sense that we had new ownership take over a little over two years ago, we’ve built a stadium, we’ve built a training ground and we overturned a lot of our staff – all during a pandemic. Then we threw a championship into the mix just to make it a little more exciting. It’s been an incredible two and a half years. It hasn’t been easy, but to have moments like this where you’re playing for trophies makes it all worth it.”
Columbus won MLS Cup in 2020 over the Seattle Sounders, while Cruz Azul won Campeones de Campeones this year over Club León to set this year's Campeones Cup.
“It’s clearly an exciting event, putting champions of two very important leagues around the world together in a competitive setting," Bezbatchenko. "That’s where you see your stars shine, you see some of the best football being played when you create an environment with something on the line. A trophy is on the line. That’s what’s so neat about Campeones Cup, it’s extremely difficult to be here. To win MLS Cup last year, the year of the pandemic with everything that was thrown at this team over the last few years, it’s remarkable."
There can be ancillary benefits to the competition as well.
The increased synergy between MLS and Liga MX – between this competition, Concacaf Championship League, the soon-expanding Leagues Cup and MLS All-Star Game presented by Target – provides on-field opportunities.
"The future of these two leagues are intertwined in various ways, including Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup," Bezbatchenko said. "It’s a catalyst for both leagues. … Why not celebrate the special players our leagues have and the level of play together through competition? We’re very excited, clearly, to have the opportunity to play in the championship and the chance to play a top, historic Liga MX side. Each time we step onto the field, our players are looking to prove themselves against the other top players in the region.”
It's a break from the Crew's last-gasp push for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. While the rest of the league plays a regular-season match Wednesday for a full mid-week fixture list, the Crew shift attention to Cruz Azul.
Columbus have seven regular-season games left and are three points below the playoff line. The match against Cruz Azul is sandwiched between two crucial games against MLS opponents. They beat CF Montréal last weekend, to climb within three points of the Canadian club, and then play the Philadelphia Union on Sunday (4 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).
It's not an easy balancing act.
Both Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter acknowledged the difficulties of tackling another three-match week. The Crew, like all other teams in MLS, have been impacted by injuries, international absences and squad rotation – confronting a congested 2021 season that's still framed by lingering COVID-19 pandemic effects.
But the Crew, defending league champions and a preseason favorite to challenge for the Supporters' Shield, have spent most of their time below the playoff line.
“Few things in football or MLS ever go according to plan," Bezbatchenko said. "That’s how Caleb, myself, our staff approach every season. I don’t think anyone thought last year was going to go the way it did, either. We have to adjust and adapt, that’s the key thing we’re learning this year, how deeply we had to go into our bench. Some players stepped up, some have not.”
Columbus retained the overwhelming majority of their championship-winning squad and added the likes of Kevin Molino, Alexandru Matan and Bradley Wright-Phillips this season, but haven't enjoyed a consistent stretch where they've been at full strength. They won't get it, either, with Molino out for the season, Aidan Morris suffering a season-ending injury before the domestic campaign got underway and Artur being limited to just five starts.
“It’s certainly frustrating when you have a plan but are never able to see the fruits of the labor and what this team could be on paper," Bezbatchenko said. "But that’s football. That’s our league. It’s certainly frustrating for everyone, certainly for Caleb too. We’ll try again. It doesn’t mean we’re going to pack it in and say, ‘Hey, this year just wasn’t in the cards.’ We still have seven games to fight. In terms of our goals for the year, qualifying for the playoffs and making a run, it’s still there. We can’t let certain things define us.”
“I would never just chalk it up to injuries," he added. "That’s been significant, but we need to look internally how to play better and more together, I think you’ve seen that over the last few weeks. Beyond the injuries, it’s been [fixture] congestion. It requires rotation that’s never been seen before in MLS. It’s been challenging, but we’re not going to have any excuses.”
Despite all the early frustrations that have come from 2021, the season is far from over.
Last weekend's win against Montréal effectively saved their playoff hopes after a run of bad results against teams below them like the New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire FC and Inter Miami CF. Still just three points adrift – pending Wednesday's results as surrounding clubs have a game in hand – they can control their own destiny over their last seven matches.
Picking up a trophy on Wednesday night wouldn't be a bad source of momentum.
“I don’t think [it’s a distraction from the playoff push]," Bezbatchenko said. "I look at it the other way, and I think Caleb does too: It’s an opportunity to test yourself, to build confidence and momentum in the playoff push.
"The biggest trophy in this league is MLS Cup. We all know if you can hit the playoffs with momentum, you have an opportunity to win it all. That’s what this trophy on the line Wednesday could be. It’s another way to put silverware in the case and continue to build that winning mentality at Lower.com Field. We’re looking at this as an opportunity rather than anything that would distract from our push for the playoffs.”