A US side defeating their Mexican counterparts 2-0 on a crisp night in Columbus, Ohio? Perhaps nature really is healing.
It’s been a trying 2021 for the Columbus Crew, but they gave themselves and their fans something to celebrate on Wednesday night. Adopting a pragmatic 5-4-1 shape and calmly soaking up waves of pressure, the reigning MLS Cup holders outwitted a talented Cruz Azul side to win the Campeones Cup at Lower.com Field.
Here are three takeaways from another trophy hoist in Ohio’s capital city.
Most readers will be quite familiar with MLS’ painful history in competitive fixtures against Liga MX opponents, most of which has unfolded in Concacaf Champions League, where the northern half of the rivalry has triumphed just nine times in 51 all-time matchups against Mexican clubs. This year’s CCL featured another frustrating handful of those results, too.
But a number of data points therein offered reasons to believe that the MLSers are slowly, painstakingly, but methodically hauling themselves closer. And now Columbus have posted another, keyed by an effective tactical gambit from coach Caleb Porter, who got the best of his opposite number Juan Reynoso with an approach comparable to the one Gregg Berhalter used in the US men’s national team's wild Concacaf Nations League final win over Mexico a few months ago.
Conceding possession, inviting La Maquina to cross into a penalty box patrolled by three towering center backs, lying in wait on the counterattack and making hay on their set pieces – call it catenaccio if you want, but it worked, and in the cradle of Dos a Cero, no less.
“We knocked off one of North America's best teams,” said Porter postgame. “They’re an extremely good team, extremely talented, when you look at their budget – and they played the best guys. They played all their best guys. Obviously they brought [Santiago] Gimenez and [Jonathan] Rodriguez off the bench, but that's a heck of a team, and I thought defensively we really didn't give them a lot of clear looks the entire game.
“We [defended] a ton of crosses, obviously, but I thought the shape worked really well for the game that we knew we'd have to play. And it's about winning, you know? And I'm so proud of the players, that we were able to put another trophy in the trophy case.”
Just as he was when he entered the league a decade ago, Darlington Nagbe remains one of MLS’ most fascinating figures: incredibly gifted, occasionally unstoppable, but guided by an unassuming, unconventional personality compared to most of his peers. He’s a star with a seemingly limited hunger for the spotlight, a world-class talent happy to be a homebody, a potential USMNT starter who’s chosen family time instead.
Even with three MLS Cup titles under his belt, that combination has often infuriated fans and pundits impatient to see him attain their conception of his potential. It’s left us with some knotty ‘what ifs.’ But when Nagbe is on point and ready to seize the moment? Hang onto your seats.
The graceful central midfielder has lit up his share of big games, including the 2019 Campeones Cup where Atlanta United memorably knocked off Club América, and he was for my money the best player on the pitch by a safe margin Wednesday. His strength, dribbling technique and burst of pace make him absurdly press-resistant, and Cruz Azul’s attempts to slow him down grew increasingly comical as the game played out, giving the Crew a priceless release valve on a night where they had about 25% of possession.
“Look at all the trophies that he's won; we've won a lot together,” said Porter of Nagbe, also his key protagonist in Portland and at the University of Akron. “I love him like a son. I don't think there's a better player in our league. I think he continues to be underrated. You watch him today, the guy can play anywhere in the world.
“He’s a modern midfielder – keeps the ball, defends, covers ground, surges out of midfield. Yeah, he was incredible today, absolutely incredible and it's because he's a winner. He's a winner and he’s quality. It's no coincidence that he's won as many trophies as he has.”
Parity is a founding principle of MLS and that, along with a range of other factors, often adds up to extra weight on the shoulders of the defending MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield champs; Columbus and Philadelphia's 2021 seasons are cases in point.
Injuries, inconsistency and the burden of expectations have made their year a slog for long stretches, even with the boost of a beautiful new stadium. And as sweet as Campeones Cup turned out to be for the Crew, they remain out of the playoff places in the Eastern Conference standings, with five points separating them from that thick line between seventh and eight places.
So they’ve got significant ground to cover over the next few weeks if they're to defend their league title in the postseason. Yet it’s hard to imagine this week going any better for them, considering that they just won their first international trophy in club history, and in an inspiring fashion that allowed them to sub out Nagbe, Zelarayan and striker Miguel Berry before full time, with an eye towards Sunday’s road six-pointer against the Union (4 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), where strike talisman Gyasi Zardes is expected to be available after his sore hamstring was rested in midweek.
Porter spoke of the confidence and belief that should continue to surge into his team’s veins as they add this achievement to their ongoing return to form in the league, and it’s not hard to imagine them becoming an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs dark horse if they can qualify.
“It was a great night for us,” said goalkeeper Evan Bush. “Cruz Azul’s a fantastic team, obviously, the champions of Mexico and it’s a really great league; we have a lot of respect for that league. But we're building something here in Columbus, in this stadium, and it's something that we're proud of.
“To cap it off tonight with the clean sheet and the trophy against one of the top teams in North America, we feel good about ourselves and we'll enjoy tonight, absolutely. And then we’ll get back to work tomorrow.”