The 2020 season has ended for the Columbus Crew as MLS Cup champions. A 3-0 win against the Seattle Sounders at MAPFRE Stadium was what the Crew needed to show the team’s intention to be a contender for years to come. An MLS Cup in just the second year under head coach Caleb Porter is the kickstart the Black & Gold showcases what this team plans to do in the future to be one of the best teams in Major League Soccer.
Outside of defending the MLS Cup in 2021, the Crew will play in the CONCACAF Champions League, an international tournament that crowns the best club team in the North America region, for the third time in club history. Columbus last played in this competition in 2010-11 when the team lost to Real Salt Lake in the quarterfinals. The season prior to that, the Crew appeared in its first CCL, making it to the quarterfinals and falling to Toluca 5-4 on aggregate.
For the 2021 competition, Columbus will be one of four American teams in the CCL. Joining the MLS Cup champions will be the Philadelphia Union as the Supporters’ Shield winners, the Portland Timbers as the MLS is Back Tournament victors and Atlanta United who is the current U.S. Open Cup holders from 2019. Atlanta received the spot as a result of the 2020 Open Cup’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Columbus and Porter, this is a huge opportunity to expand the club’s success from MLS to the entire region of CONCACAF.
“We are excited about the Champions League. That’s awesome” Porter said on Sunday. “It’s the first time in a while this club has been in the Champions League so to manage that, manage Open Cup, manage the season, it’s gonna be really important because of the quick turnaround from how long the season was to have a deep squad.”
Porter coached the Portland Timbers during two Champions League runs where both times, the Timbers didn’t make it past the group stage in the old format. President and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko also has experience with the tournament from his days in a similar role at Toronto FC. The two understand what it takes to have success in the CCL and will need to continue to build the team to make a push in three different competitions.
“I’ve been through it before, Tim has been through it before,” Porter said. “I learned a lot from the first time I went through it so I feel like I’m much better prepared to turn around and obviously compete again.”
Alongside these four American teams will be four Mexican teams in Monterrey, Cruz Azul, Club America and Leon. Other teams include Atletico Pantoja of the Dominican Republic, Olimpia and Marathon of Honduras, Saprissa and Alajuelenese of Costa Rica, Arcahaie of Haiti and Real Esteli of Nicaragua. Either Toronto or Forge FC will qualify as the Canadian Championship winners.
The format is simple. The 16 teams will be drawn into a bracket with two-legged ties leading to the two-legged Champions League Final. The winner of that match will earn a place in the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup in Japan alongside the Champions League winners from Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, South America’s Copa Libertadores and the Japanese league champions.
The CONCACAF Champions League is likely to begin mid-to-late February of 2021 with the Round of 16 and conclude sometime in May with the final. An MLS team has never won this trophy. The Montreal Impact, New York City FC, Atlanta and Los Angeles Football Club are still competing for the 2020 CCL title that was put on hold due to the pandemic.
Columbus made history in 2020 and now 2021 will be a massive year with the assumption we’ll have a normal schedule with an MLS season and the U.S. Open Cup returning. Add that to the 16-team Champions League and you’ve got a season where the Black & Gold can contend for more than just MLS Cup. Who knows, maybe next winter we see the Crew play Bayern Munich or Liverpool in Japan for a FIFA trophy.