The Columbus Crew finally knows its first opponent of 2021. With the Major League Soccer regular season schedule reveal yet to come and the start of the year pushed back to mid-April, the Black & Gold’s first opponent of 2021 was revealed Wednesday night during the CONCACAF Champions League draw. The 2020 MLS Cup champions will take on Real Esteli in the two-legged Round of 16 stage of the Champions League. The first leg of the series will be played in Nicaragua with the second leg taking place in Columbus.
Real Esteli is in the team’s first Champions League since 2016-17 after a fifth-place finish in the CONCACAF League. The reward is a date with the MLS Cup holders. The Train of the North is the second most successful club in Nicaraguan football with 18 league titles in the country’s top division. In its previous six Champions League appearances, Esteli has never made it past the first round.
The matchup will be the first time the Crew will travel to Nicaragua for this competition. With the MLS regular season starting on April 17, the Black & Gold’s first match of the 2021 season will be the away leg against Real Esteli at their home stadium in Esteli, Nicaragua. It will be a long journey from Columbus to Esteli.
If the Crew defeats Esteli in the two-legged tie, the Black & Gold could face Mexican powerhouse Monterrey in the quarterfinals and potentially fellow MLS side Toronto FC in the semifinals of the Champions League. Columbus cannot face an American MLS team until the final which is set to take place in late October.
Columbus adds Nicaragua with Mexico, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Trinidad & Tobago and Salt Lake City as the away venues the club has traveled to for CONCACAF Champions League matches. Esteli’s venue, Estadio Independencia, has a capacity of 5,000 fans in a city with a population density of around 130,000 people. Nicaragua is located in Central America south of Honduras and north of Costa Rica.
The other American matchups include the Philadelphia Union taking on Saprissa of Costa Rica, Atlanta United against Costa Rican side Alajuelense and the Portland Timbers versus Marathon of Honduras. The matchups for the Union and Atlanta against the Costa Rican sides are currently the toughest in the bracket. But, if Toronto FC defeats Forge FC in the Canadian Championship, a date with Club Leon would be a spectacle.
This year’s trophy will be taken by a new winner with defending champions Tigres not in this tournament. The Mexican club, which is the former home of 2020 MLS Cup MVP Lucas Zelarayan, did not finish in the required positions in Liga MX to qualify for the competition. They are set to play UEFA Champions League winners Bayern Munich Thursday afternoon in Qatar in an attempt to win the FIFA Club World Cup.
Round of 16 Matches
Cruz Azul (Mexico) vs. Arcahaie (Haiti)
Toronto FC/Forge FC (Canada) vs. Club Leon (Mexico)
Monterrey (Mexico) vs. Atletico Pantoja (Dominican Republic)
Columbus Crew (USA) vs. Real Esteli (Nicaragua)
Philadelphia Union (USA) vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica)
Atlanta United (USA) vs. Alajuelense (Costa Rica)
Club America (Mexico) vs. CD Olimpia (Honduras)
Portland Timbers (USA) vs. Marathon (Honduras)