For the first time since the 2010-11 season, the Columbus Crew will compete on an international stage this year as part of the CONCACAF Champions League. The Black & Gold earned the right to be a part of this regional tournament last December when the team lifted its second ever MLS Cup trophy thanks to a 3-0 win against the Seattle Sounders.
On Wednesday night, the Crew learned that it will face Nicaraguan side Real Esteli in a two-leg affair in the Round of 16. The first of these legs is scheduled for early April at Estadio Independencia in Esteli with the second leg back in Columbus the week following.
“We’re very excited to have the opportunity to play in this continental tournament that has gained prestige and notoriety more and more over the years,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said on a teleconference following Wednesday’s draw. “Certainly we’re well aware that no MLS team has ever won the CONCACAF Champions League. So that will serve as a great source of motivation.”
When Porter arrived in Columbus in January of 2019, he said he wanted to bring trophies to a club he felt hadn’t achieved as it should over its first 20-plus years. In his second season in charge, he delivered one with the MLS Cup, but Porter and his team aren’t content with that.
The Black & Gold have every intention of competing for multiple trophies in 2021. The Crew has built a team — with additions such as forward Bradley Wright-Phillips, winger Kevin Molino and midfielder Perry Kitchen, as well as the 20 players remaining from the team that lifted MLS Cup just over two months ago — that Porter is confident has the talent and the depth to compete for titles in four different competitions this season.
“Obviously, MLS Cup is always going to be our number one goal, but I would put the CONCACAF Champions League as a close second,” Porter said. “Can we push for the Supporters’ Shield? That’s something certainly that we’d like to do. And then the Open Cup. But I would say MLS Cup, CONCACAF Champions League in that order.”
Winning on one front is hard enough, as last season’s MLS Cup was the club’s first since 2008, but winning trophies in multiple competitions is even more difficult. The Black & Gold have not brought home the U.S. Open Cup since the team’s one win in 2002 and last finished with the most points in the MLS regular season to earn the Supporters’ Shield in 2009.
As Porter noted, no MLS team has ever won the Champions League, with Real Salt Lake (2010-11), Toronto FC (2018) and LAFC (2020) as the only sides from the league to make the final. Much of this has to do with the superiority of Mexico’s Liga MX — a Mexican team has won CONCACAF’s club competition every year dating back to 2006 — but MLS teams have tightened the gap in recent years.
Unfortunately for many MLS teams, it’s not just the level of competition but the travel and environments — sometimes even the officiating — that make this competition that much more difficult than others. Porter, whose Portland Timbers side took part in the Champions League in 2014 and 2016, knows this all too well.
“Certainly facing Esteli, it’s going to be a long trip,” the head coach said. “It won’t be easy to travel, the challenges, and that’s a big part of this competition as you go into places you’ve never been, environments you’ve never been. In many cases, you’re playing opponents you know very little about and you have to have a strong squad and you have to have a group that can go in mentally strong and manage these situations.
“In ‘14 when I was with the Portland Timbers, we were knocked out by Olimpia in the final match of the group stage. It was one of the toughest environments I’ve ever been in, in terms of the crowd, in terms of the challenges. And then in ‘16, we were knocked out by Saprissa, same thing. Going into the Monster’s Cave, it was one of the toughest environments I’ve been in.
“The travel, how you’re going to approach that. Where are you going to stay? Making sure that you’re getting quality accommodations and food. These are things you take for granted in MLS. We know these stadiums. We know the hotels. We know how we’re going to eat. So those are details that for sure we’re going to have to get right.”
In addition, the first leg against Real Esteli will be the Crew’s first competitive match since the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 5. Although originally scheduled to begin on the weekend of April 3, the weekend before the first leg of the Champions League, the MLS regular season’s start date was pushed back to the weekend of April 17, after both legs of the Round of 16.
Esteli, meanwhile, began the Nicaraguan Primera Divisón on Jan. 24 and will have played nine games before welcoming Columbus.
This can be viewed as both an advantage and disadvantage for the Black & Gold. On one hand, the team’s first match of 2021 following preseason will be in Nicaragua in a tournament where they must play their best. On the other hand, the group can solely focus on getting through the quarterfinals of the Champions League, as opposed to having an MLS game in between the two legs.
But, assuming the favored Crew does advance, there will come a time where the team is balancing MLS and Champions League — and possibly Open Cup — competitions all at once.
“What we can’t do is start the regular season the wrong way because we’re throwing so much into this competition,” Porter said. “So we have to attack the league and these games in the right way in both competitions. Fortunately, we have a very good roster that will help, which is why we worked so hard to build that roster.”
The Black & Gold knew what they were getting into when they won MLS Cup to qualify for the Champions League and have planned accordingly. The offseason additions were all made to not only make the team better for another MLS Cup run but to try and bring home as many trophies as possible in 2021.
If winning the Champions League was easy, more MLS teams would do it. Part of the excitement of being involved in it, as Porter mentioned, are the challenges that come with competing — the travel, the tough environments, balancing games in multiple competitions. And, in Porter’s eyes, it’s about time the Crew faced these challenges.
“We’re excited but obviously we’re well aware of the challenges that we’ll face on the road to the final and trying to win this competition,” he said. “It is important to us and we’ll be coaching it seriously, but I know very well, having been in the competition before, that there are a lot of challenges.”