The Columbus Crew finally returns home on Thursday for the second leg of the Round of 16 CONCACAF Champions League matchup with Real Esteli. The Black & Gold got off to a flying start on the road in Nicaragua with a 4-0 win.
Columbus brings this four goal lead into the second leg match against Esteli. With this lead, Crew head coach Caleb Porter and his staff have a plethora of options in preparation for this match. Let’s take a look at what to expect from Real and what we might see in response from the Black & Gold.
Real Esteli FC at a Glance
Record: 7-3-2, 23 points
League Form: L-W-D-D-W
Leading Scorer: Vitor Faisca (5)
Assist Leader: Henry Garcia, Richard Rodriguez (4)
Player to Watch: Juan Barrera
Crew fans were able to see Barrera’s quality last week as the game went on. The midfielder had what was probably the best Esteli scoring chance early in the second half and was at the heart of most Real attacks.
Barrera features in the central midfield and is as dangerous as they come in the Nicaraguan League. Now in his third stint with the club, Barrera is one of the most prolific attackers to ever feature for Esteli, scoring 43 goals for the club, including three in the last 12 games on top of 16 goals in 18 games last season.
With his technical ability on the ball and clinical nature in front of goal, Barrera is a main feature of his opponents scouting report. However, the midfielder’s ability to find free space in the attacking third is what sets him apart from the rest. If Real is able to mount a comeback, Barrera will likely be at the heart of it.
How Real Esteli play
Thanks to the Black & Gold’s huge first leg advantage, there are a few ways that Esteli may approach the second leg in Columbus. It should be said that the first option is to approach the game exactly the same as the first leg and hope that it works out better the second time around. This is an unlikely approach given the lack of success last week.
It is far more likely that they will take one of two approaches. The first could be categorized as “saving face.” In this scenario, Esteli realizes the scoreline and the fact that the team is now on the road against an opponent with superior talent and try to minimize the overall deficit. This approach would feature a very defensive setup and would likely lead to a very boring match.
The other option for Esteli and 24-year-old head coach Holver Flores is a far more entertaining one. In this approach, Real and Flores realize that there really is not much left to lose and try and go out with a bang. Essentially, the easiest way for Esteli to progress to the next round is to win 5-0. While this is certainly a tough task, REal could very well go for broke upon kickoff.
How the Crew can win
Thanks to Columbus’ performance last week, the Black & Gold are in an incredibly favorable spot to advance. Thanks to the four-goal cushion, the Crew would have to have a monumental collapse to lose this tie. However, stranger things have happened and there are a few things the Columbus can do to further ensure that the team will move on to the quarterfinals.
Firstly, the most important part of this game could be the first 15-25 minutes. If Esteli scores in this time frame, or even gains significant momentum, the match becomes much trickier for the Black & Gold. Thus, the start of this game is of particular importance for the Crew. Not only can Columbus prevent or disrupt any momentum Real could gain in this match, but effectively end the match with a goal or two in that time frame. The last thing that the Black & Gold want to provide Esteli is hope and ability for a comeback.
The Crew was clinical in front of goal last Thursday and will need to continue to be so in this match to ensure victory against Real. As mentioned, even one goal goes a long way towards killing off the game and the tie. Keeping in mind that there is no telling how Esteli will play and the amount of chances Columbus will be presented with, that makes those chances even more valuable for the Black & Gold.
Columbus was particularly dangerous and effective in offensive transition last week. The Crew could be presented with even more chances in offensive transition on Thursday if Esteli go for the win and commit players into the attack. Thus, if the Black & Gold able to put away the chances they likely have, there will be no room for a Real comeback.
The third major component of this game for the Crew could have an impact on both this match and their future matches in this competition. The term “CONCACAF’d” is a phrase often heard in American soccer circles. Late tackles, trash talk, pushing and shoving, spitting, stomping, grabbing, poor or unfair refereeing, all of these and more can be referred to as being “CONCACAF’d.” Fans saw an example of this with the elbow thrown to Aidan Morris’ face in the first leg when retrieving the ball.
With nothing to lose, Esteli may become a bit undisciplined and rash in their tackles and actions. If Real can get a rise out of the Crew, it could help swing the momentum back in the away team’s favor. The Crew will do well to manage these moments and keep cool heads.
Ultimately, the Crew is in cruise control for this fixture and will look to wrap things up as quickly and easily as possible. It is a great chance for players to get on the score sheet, as well as for some players to gain valuable minutes and experience.