The reigning MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew returned home for its first home competition in the historic Crew Stadium since the 2020 MLS Cup Final, securing a 1-0 victory against Nicaragua’s Real Esteli in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. Following a dominant 4-0 victory in Leg 1, the Crew opted to allow most of the starting lineup to rest their legs for Sunday’s MLS season opener against the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union, and test the depth of its’ impressive roster in Leg 2.
Here is how the players performed in the second leg of the Round of 16.
Eloy Room (7) (c) - Even without the veteran presence of center back Jonathan Mensah, the Columbus backline wasn’t tested much by the outmatched Real Esteli. The couple of times Room was called upon, he was dependable as expected, securing the second clean sheet in as many matches for the Black & Gold. While his footwork looked to be a fraction slower than usual at times, Esteli was not the club that was going to punish the Crew’s keeper.
Harrison Afful (6) - One of the Crew’s constants is recent years returned to action for the first time in 2021 and looked perhaps a step slower than the right back is known for. The Ghanan only took the pitch for the first half but was beat defensively on a couple of occasions that saw his center backs come up big.
Perry Kitchen (6.5) - The defensive midfielder found himself swapping positions to center back in the starting minutes of the match. While this was intriguing, it didn’t last long as an early injury saw Kitchen move higher on the pitch before getting a chance to test his skills as a defender.
In the midfield, Kitchen looked natural, playing well with the veteran Artur and helping Columbus maintain its possession advantage throughout the matchup.
Aboubacar Keita (6.5) - While the inexperience of playing together of the starting defensive lineup for Columbus was there for all to see, Keita particularly found moments to shine. His great recovery run early in the first half was key to keeping Real scoreless and there seemed to be a budding chemistry with Grant Lillard throughout the contest, as the two did well when called upon to play the ball out of the back half.
Waylon Francis (6.5) - Filling in for Milton Valenzuela at left back throughout the first half before shifting to the right side of the pitch following Afful’s substation, Francis showed good versatility in Thursday’s contest. A dangerous giveaway early in the match that led to Esteli’s first shot on goal was the only notable error on the part of the MLS veteran, but it could have been a costly mistake had it not been for Room.
Artur (7) - The Brazilian midfielder has become the anchor of the defensive midfield for the Black & Gold and he continued to carry that banner in Thursday’s matchup. Much of the pressure applied by Columbus in the first half resulted from Artur’s ability to distribute the ball, often to Luis Diaz. While his match ended at halftime as he continues to recover from offseason surgery, Artur’s performance suggests Crew faithful can look forward to continued success.
Aidan Morris (N/A) - A true punch to the gut of any Crew fan, the lauded 19 year old midfielder, who etched his name in Crew history filling in for Darlington Nagbe in the 2020 MLS Cup, only lasted four minutes into the matchup, before an awkward step while challenging for the ball saw his night come to an end with a knee injury.
Luis Diaz (7.5) - Easily the star of the first half for Columbus, virtually every ounce of pressure placed by the offense stemmed from the feet of Diaz. The 22 year old continues to impress with his speed and determination, constantly testing the defensive backline anytime the ball touches his boot. Perhaps his obvious hunger to score his first goal since 2019 lead to a questionable shot or two where a pass would have been better suited, but Diaz continues to make his presence felt anytime he is on the pitch.
Miguel Berry (5) - Making his debut for the Black & Gold, the forward-turned-midfielder struggled to find his place in the matchup despite playing the full 90 minutes. As important as it is for the young player to get competitive minutes, there was little impression made in his first appearance.
Isaiah Parante (6) - Another new signing in 2021 for the Crew, Parente also stayed on the pitch for the full 90 minutes. Taking all of the Columbus set pieces in the first half, Parante was solid, if unspectacular.
On the ball, however, Parante impressed. He appears to have great awareness and fluidity in his game, showing why Columbus head coach Caleb Porter is excited about his future for the Black & Gold.
Bradley Wright Phillips (7.5) - Making his first start for Columbus, an anemic attack in the first half made it difficult for Wright-Phillips to show what he can really do when called upon. He showed great awareness and ability to get into dangerous positions, but the young, inexperienced midfield struggled to provide him service.
In the second half, with more starters on the field, Wright-Phillips found more opportunities, leading to his first goal for the Crew.
Grant Lillard (7.5) - Being called into the match early due to the Morris injury, Lillard was arguably the defensive MVP against Esteli in Leg 2. Seizing the moment and stepping up when called upon as the next man up has been proven to go far in the Porter system, and the defender made the most of this opportunity.
Milton Valenzuela (6) - Surprisingly, Valenzuela’s match was unspectacular. His speed was on display, as always, but the defender struggled to make an impact when moving forward with the attack and gave up a free kick in a dangerous position.
Lucas Zelarayan (7) - Zelarayan’s presence was a difference-maker for Columbus yet again. The second half saw the Argentine provide the service to Wright Phillips the striker didn’t receive in the first half, eventually leading to the only goal of the matchup. The only drawback for Zelarayan was a yellow card for stomping on the boot of a defender, which could be costly in a tournament where yellow cards accumulate.
Josh Williams (6.5) - The Ohio native played for just under a half an hour and wasn’t called upon much in his time on the pitch.
Pedro Santos (7) - The offense really started to mesh well when Santos took the pitch late into the match. His continued his run of excellence for the Black & Gold and he excelled at applying pressure, drawing fouls and even showing a little flare with his footwork.
Caleb Porter (7.5) - The game plan was a simple one for the Crew’s head coach: rest your starting lineup for Sunday’s season opener, let the youth and newer signings get competitive minutes and secure a win by bringing in your offensive firepower late into the match. Thursday’s match played out according to plan, although resulting in the first home match of 2021 for Columbus being a rather uneventful one.