When the Columbus Crew received the team’s CONCACAF Champions League draw, Wednesday’s potential matchup loomed large. It ended with Columbus needing to make up ground next week in Mexico after a 2-2 draw and Monterrey owning the tiebreaker with two away goals. Before a ball was kicked however, Rayados had the looming advantage of being four-time winners of the tournament. On the other side, Columbus is on the hunt for its first continental trophy.
While there’s still work for Columbus to do to move on in the Champions League, here’s what we learned about the Crew from this game.
Jonathan Mensah isn’t easily replaced
When Wednesday’s starting lineup came out, the absence of captain Jonathan Mensah surprised everyone. Mensah didn’t miss a minute in 2020 and only missed one match so far this year when the Crew had a 4-0 lead in the first round of the Champions League. He was out this game with a tight hamstring. In his place was the duo of Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita.
Both center backs had substantial first-team minutes in 2020 but never playing alongside one another on a stage this big. Missed was Mensah’s calm demeanor in organizing the team defense, especially in the first and last minutes of the match. In the ninth minute, Monterrey scored an all-important away goal following Keita’s slip on the rain-soaked surface. He tried recovering but didn’t have his bearings when Ake Loba sent in the first goal of the match. In the 94th minute, a Monterrey cross found Jose Alvarado for an unchallenged headed equalizer. Rayados caught the Black & Gold watching the one-goal lead vanish.
Playing “what if” doesn’t change a result, but Mensah being available has a strong chance of avoiding that outcome. Not only for his reaction on the field, but if he were available, head coach Caleb Porter could have gone with a third center back substitute. Vito Wormgoor was available but hasn’t played a competitive minute since July of 2020.
Patience changes the Crew for the better
All of the prematch talk about Monterrey playing at a higher level was true in the first 15 minutes of Leg 1. Monterrey pressed the Black & Gold and Columbus looked disheveled. It could be because Rayados had the lead, that the Crew took a deep breath or a combination of both, but when the Black & Gold stopped forcing passes, the game changed.
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe had a task ahead of him to help break down a talented Monterrey backline. He responded with a Nagbe-esque match of high percentage passing and bringing calm to the midfield. After the 0-0 draw against the Philadelphia Union, where Nagbe wasn’t available, Porter stressed that possession gives Columbus the chance to make their moves. Out of 55 passes, Nagbe connected on 54.
At the 65th minute, another moment of patience, combined with playing to the whistle, gave the Crew the game-tying goal. As a ball was destined for a Monterrey goal kick, midfielder Lucas Zelarayan didn’t give up on the ball. After a number of stepovers, his cross landed at the feet of fullback Milton Valenzuela, who finished what Zelarayan started.
Zelarayan could have been frustrated after a night where the referee gave him a yellow card on a soft tackle or being down after controlling over an hour of the match, but he kept his focus.
Columbus doesn’t play for the referees
Monterrey has vast experience at the Champions League level. With that experience comes taking advantage of any competitive edge. From kickoff, controlling the narrative of the officials seemed to be a priority. Two early challenges from Keita turned into Oscar-worthy performances from Rayados.
Keita didn’t see a yellow for the tackle, but the multiple fouls against the Black & Gold may have gone into consideration of Zelarayan receiving a 12th minute yellow card. Moving outside of the penalty area, Zelarayan dribbled past a Monterrey defender and his cleat caught his toes. It was a peculiarly soft yellow. This trend flipped into the referee not giving any cards for harder tackles in the remaining 82 minutes of match time.
The Crew didn’t play to it though. Outside of a scuffle between Zardes and defender Adrián Mora, which resulted in both receiving yellow cards, Columbus didn’t react to decisions not going the team’s way. The credit goes to match prep. Monterrey isn’t the first soccer team to try to control the decision-making narrative of referees.
Advancing in the Champions League is possible
Even though the game didn’t end as well as the team would have liked, the Black & Gold comes out of this match knowing that they can go toe-to-toe with a big club in Liga MX. It’ll be tough without Zelarayan, but Pedro Santos had his best run of matches last season when he occupied the No. 10 role. Wingers like Luis Diaz and Derrick Etienne Jr. know Santos and the three have chemistry.
If the Crew stays patient, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility to see Columbus keep in contention for the CONCACAF Champions League title.