Jonathan Rodriguez Cruz Azul

For several years within the Mexican soccer world, Cruz Azul were widely recognized as a cursed team.

Once known for their lack of a Liga MX title since the 1990s, and for their tendency to shoot themselves in the foot through catastrophic collapses along the way, many did truly begin to wonder if Cruz Azul had some sort of hex that lingered above them.

This went beyond what happened on the pitch as well.

Even just the sight of their jersey or logo at events – whether they were related to soccer or not – were often pointed out as being the reason for bad luck or failures.

Bayern Munich losing in the UEFA Champions League? Probably because of this Cruz Azul fan in attendance. Odell Beckham Jr. and the NY Giants losing an NFL playoff game? Maybe he shouldn’t have put on that Cruz Azul luchador mask beforehand.

It was a tough time for Cruz Azul, but things have finally turned in their favor this year.

With new manager/former captain Juan Reynoso taking charge, Los Cementeros charged their way to Liga MX’s 2021 Guardianes championship. After earning their league trophy, they then booked their place in this week’s Campeones Cup through a 2-1 win over Leon during July’s Campeon de Campeones match.

Cruz Azul’s revival has begun.

On Wednesday night at Lower.com Field (8 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN), can they add another title to their collection when they take on the Columbus Crew? Or, will they regress back to their old ways and stumble in dramatic fashion?

Cruz Azul’s form

Due to Liga MX going through two tournaments per year, it isn’t out of the ordinary for the trophy holders to need a bit of time to work through their championship hangover.

That certainly applies to Cruz Azul in the 2021 Apertura. With a 3W-2L-5D record, they're yet to look as dominant as they were during the winter and spring. Injuries haven’t helped, while they've also had to balance having plenty of their players on international duty in September’s World Cup qualifiers.

This has led to a fairly average start to the season for Reynoso and his men. Unsurprisingly, it has been difficult for them to string together consistent wins or good performances.

Cruz Azul’s tactics

Perhaps emboldened by what’s likely going to be a season in which he’ll be allowed to make mistakes, Reynoso has tinkered with his approach.

The manager initially preferred more of a four-man backline in early 2021, but he’s gradually started to work in more of a three-man or five-man defense.

Through this setup, wingbacks and fullbacks such as Ignacio Rivero, Adrian Aldrete and Juan Escobar provide width on the flanks. In recent games, they like to make overlapping runs that can carve out room for crosses into the 18-yard box.

But, as mentioned earlier, Reynoso has continued to alter his strategy, and it wouldn’t be much of a shock if he were to start with or revert to a four-man defense.

Whether he sticks with his buildup style of play remains up in the air as well. Cruz Azul can at times look pensive with their long list of lateral passes, but in other instances, they’ve also suddenly appeared more direct when proactive figures like Orbelin Pineda, Jonathan “Cabecita” Rodriguez and Luis Romo have the ball at their feet.

Cruz Azul’s key players

At time of writing, we’ll have to wait and see about Rodriguez's status. The forward recently returned from injury and stepped onto the pitch for Cruz Azul in the second half of last week’s 1-1 draw with Puebla. If fully fit, he’ll be a menace with his aggression and pace in Cruz Azul’s frontline.

Pineda is also worth noting and provides a much-needed source of creativity. Whether he’s on the wing or in a more central role in midfield, the crafty 25-year-old Mexican international will surely add clever passes and dynamic runs into the final third.

We’ll see who starts as the striker, but Cruz Azul fans should be happy with either Bryan Angulo or Santiago Gimenez.

Angulo is amid an interesting run of form with two goals in his last two appearances, and in the past, the Ecuadorian has stepped up by scoring in key moments. Gimenez is also an exciting young Mexican forward who boasts an excellent work rate and a high ceiling.

Elsewhere, Romo is undoubtedly a key player who can start in the backline or in the midfield, and all signs point to Jesus “Chuy” Corona getting the nod at goalkeeper. After suffering an injury earlier in the summer, the 40-year-old Cruz Azul icon returned to his spot for the first time this season in the draw against Puebla.

Cruz Azul’s motivation

Following their semifinal exit to CF Monterrey in this year's Concacaf Champions League, the Campeones Cup now represents Cruz Azul’s last opportunity in 2021 to win an international trophy.

In the ongoing restoration of their image, another championship would garner more headlines and notoriety for a club that was once the laughingstock of Mexico’s top flight. A victory over Columbus would be another step forward in the right direction, and it could also help provide a spark for their Liga MX season that has so far been underwhelming.

Keep in mind, there are also North American soccer bragging rights to uphold. Two years on from their 2019 Leagues Cup title, Cruz Azul could once again make a claim as being one of the top dogs in a new era for Liga MX and MLS.