For one, midfielder Darlington Nagbe believes the decade-plus wait for international competition will be well worth it – not just for Columbus, but the league as a whole. Four different MLS clubs have made the CCL final from 2011-20, but a trophy-clinching final remains elusive.
“[It's] an opportunity to put the team on the global map through this competition an MLS team hasn’t won before,” Nagbe said ahead of their Round of 16 first-leg game. “In my opinion, we have the team to do it. We have the staff to do it, with our coaches and everyone, ownership is taking us in a good direction. We’re looking forward to it and hopefully it’s a good game for us.”
Columbus earned a CCL spot as 2020 MLS Cup champions, continuing their transformation after the #SaveTheCrew movement gave way to new ownership group, Caleb Porter taking over as head coach when Gregg Berhalter left for the US men’s national team and Tim Bezbatchenko assuming the dual president/general manager role.
The 2021 season will involve further milestones – namely, New Crew Stadium is opening July 3 against the New England Revolution – but first comes this CCL challenge against the Liga Primera de Nicaragua’s preeminent side. The Crew’s draw was comparatively friendlier than, say, what came Atlanta United (Costa Rica’s Alajuelense) and Toronto FC’s (Liga MX’s Club Leon) way, but these international trips are never easy.
Attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan knows how important this competition can be for Columbus’ aspirations, too. The Argentine star played in 17 CCL games during his Tigres UANL days, though never booked the subsequent FIFA Club World Cup ticket.
“Competing with other teams from other leagues – from other countries – is what makes this tournament so attractive,” Zelarayan said. “We know that the club hasn’t played in it in a long time, so we’re excited about getting Columbus back into the Concacaf Champions League. We will try to give a good performance and raise the name of Columbus as high as possible."
Porter stressed that Columbus aren’t looking past Real Esteli, but there’s also assurance in playing the second leg at home April 15. They’re also the odds-on favorite Thursday, with Esteli earning a spot after beating Honduran side FC Motagua in the play-in round of the 2020 Concacaf League.
The Crew’s lineup likely won’t be at full strength, both due to injuries and players returning to preseason from international duty. They're also integrating key offseason signings Kevin Molino and Bradley Wright-Phillips, two free agents, and young Romanian midfielder Alexandru Matan. From there, Porter strikes a balance as the Crew chase lofty CCL dreams.
“We’ve seen that they’ve scored some good goals and if you’re not sharp, we’ve seen that they can press very well,” Porter said. “And we’ve seen that if you don’t defend in a compact, organized way they can break you down. Our goal is to come out and execute, be sharp, get off to a good start. But we know it’s the first half of a two-leg series and we know we’re back at home as well. We don’t need to chase this game, but we do certainly want to get off to a good start in the match.”