National Writer: Charles Boehm

Columbus Crew see Campeones Cup as key to 2021 spark: “We're getting that hunger back”

Life at the top has a tendency to get quite complicated, quite quickly for the reigning champions of MLS and Liga MX, two leagues where the fruits of success can bring perils as well as plaudits.

So the Columbus Crew and Cruz Azul carry some comparable recent experiences into their faceoff at Field on Wednesday night (8 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN), as Ohio’s capital city hosts the third edition of the Campeones Cup between the rival leagues that recently forged new ground with a revamped Leagues Cup that’ll launch in 2023.

“They're, a little bit, off to a slow start in their league, similar to what we've gone through, but it's going to be an exciting game, hopefully, for everyone to watch,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter told reporters in a Tuesday media availability. “And we know what's at stake. ... We're going to throw everything into this game.”

Indeed, La Maquina sit seventh in the Mexican top flight at present, after a middling 3W-2L-5D start to the 2021 Apertura. They’ve yet to truly hit their stride after the euphoric breakthrough of the spring, where they ended a lengthy, painful league championship drought stretching back nearly a quarter of a century, then capped it with a Campeon de Campeones win over Club Leon to book their place in this week’s bout.

Manager Juan Reynoso – who led the Liga MX All-Stars against their MLS counterparts in Los Angeles last month – and his squad topped the regular-season Clausura table, then marched through the liguilla postseason in impressive fashion to overcome their club’s well-established reputation for cruzazuleadas, snarky shorthand for repeated failures in big games.

“There's a reason they won Liga MX last season,” said Porter. “They're a team that plays very vertical. They're a team that will press very high, they're aggressive in transitions. They're flexible tactically, they can change into different shapes. It's a hard team to read from the standpoint of personnel and system because they're very flexible in their formations and they change in-game many times.”

Cruz Azul’s title defense so far has been a breeze compared to Columbus’, though.

Last year’s MLS Cup winners looked like ferocious favorites to kick on when they reinforced their already-solid roster over the winter, then prepared to move into their gorgeous new downtown home. But injuries, a crowded calendar and other stresses have left the Crew well below .500 for much of the season, bottoming out with a brutal 1W-8L-0D stretch from late July to mid-September that included a skid of three straight home losses, leaving them with an autumn hill to climb just to reach the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I'm not sure why it’s so hard. But obviously there’s a history of having a tougher season the following year after a championship,” acknowledged midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who experienced comparable tribulations with his prior Cup-winning sides in Portland and Atlanta.

“I think [Concacaf] Champions League and everything, trying to balance those; at the same time, realizing that you won the previous season because you were hungry. So I think we're getting that hunger back. I think we're realizing that the opponent isn’t going to lay down for us, but the last couple of results have been good for us, and I hope we keep going in the right direction.”

Boosted by three goals from Gyasi Zardes in their last two games, Columbus have stitched together a three-match unbeaten run over the past two weeks, a timely dose of belief ahead of the Cruz Azul test – which the Crew believe can provide inspiration, not distraction, even with a huge league trip to Philadelphia on Sunday (4 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+).

“We're building confidence and momentum. We've won our last three home games. We feel like we're playing better and better,” said Porter. “So this would allow us to develop even more confidence. Beating a team the caliber of Cruz Azul, one of the most talented and dangerous teams in Liga MX, would give us more confidence, give us experience. It also allows us to try a few different things as well and see how guys perform.”

While cautioning that “several players” will be rested to avoid injury risks, Porter pledged “to put out a very strong lineup to win the game” against the Liga MX titans. He may also hark back to the Crew’s CCL quarterfinal series vs. CF Monterrey in the spring, where they fell 5-2 on aggregate but got a taste of the talent and ruthlessness of an elite Mexican outfit.

Columbus’ chances probably hinge on their ability to match La Maquina’s explosiveness in the final third. As’s Joe Lowery wrote this week, the data shows that the Crew attack has been much less dynamic than 2020, with fewer quality chances created along with an increase in turnovers that can prove so costly to a side that prefers to pass and move.

That’s contributed to a recurring dependence on star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan – though it’s serendipitous that the Argentine has Campeones Cup priors, having pulled the strings for Tigres UANL in their win over Toronto FC during the event’s inaugural edition three years ago.

“It is an important game to play against Cruz Azul or to play against any other team from MX. It’s going to be special for me because I played for four years with Tigres, and it is a league that I know very well, and that I have very good memories of,” Zelarayan said on Tuesday, adding that “this rivalry that we’ve had in the last few years helps both leagues to rise, to compete and improve, one with the other.”

El Pirata loves big occasions, and he sounds motivated to step up for this one as well.

“I know my adversaries, I have played against them,” he said, speaking a few hours after revealing his plans to join the national team of Armenia, his family’s ancestral home, starting with next month’s UEFA World Cup qualifiers. “I hope that we can match the circumstances, rise to the challenge, and that this is going to be a very nice match.”