The Columbus Crew has a significant history of “firsts.” The original MLS club, the first soccer specific stadium in the United States, the first team to be saved by a fan movement. The Crew will set out to achieve another first in 2021. No MLS team has ever won the current version of the CONCACAF Champions League and the Black & Gold will aim to do so this year.
The Champions League is home to the best teams in CONCACAF and has representatives from every nation in the region. As MLS Cup champions, the Black & Gold return to the competition after a 10-year absence.
In the first round, the Crew will face Nicaraguan champions Real Esteli FC in a two-match, home-and-home series. Columbus travels to Nicaragua in the first leg before returning home for the second leg on April 15. Despite being the favored side, Caleb Porter and company will have their work cut out for them in Nicaragua. Let’s take a look at what the team can expect from Real Esteli in this match.
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
Barrera may not be the leading scorer or assist giver, but there’s no doubt who is pulling the strings for Esteli. 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. Having scored 43 goals for the club, including three in the last 12 games on top of 16 goals in 18 games last season, Barrera is no stranger to finding the back of the net. His technical ability on the ball and clinical nature in front of goal makes him a main feature of his opponent’s scouting report. However, the midfielder’s ability to find free space in the attacking third is what sets him apart from the rest.
The Black & Gold will need to be fully aware of Barrera’s whereabouts come Thursday night if they are to leave Nicaragua with a favorable result.
How Real Esteli play:
This is the million dollar question. It is no secret that Esteli are from a lesser-known league with far less exposure than that of the MLS and Liga MX. On top of that, Esteli’s competition on a week in, week out basis is far from the quality of the MLS. However, there are a couple of key principles to dive into.
Firstlym and perhaps most importantly, to the Real game plan is their high pressing nature. Esteli regularly will apply pressure as far in the opponent’s half as possible in an attempt to win the ball back close to the goal they are attacking. They are known not only for applying this pressure, but regularly winning the ball back in these dangerous attacking areas, similar to the San Jose Earthquakes or the New York Red Bulls.
In addition to their willingness and ability to press and win the ball in their attacking half, Real is equally as dangerous when in possession. There is a real focus from Esteli on maintaining possession of the ball as much as possible. Featuring an expansive possession style, Real is able to stretch its opponents defensively to maintain possession before picking apart their backline.
Esteli are regularly one of the top scoring sides in the Nicaraguan league and their ability to keep possession is a key reason for that. A good MLS comparison for their shape and ability in possession would be a team like Orlando City, New York City FC or the Crew.
That is how Real has set up in league play. In Champions League against the defending MLS Cup champions, Esteli very well could try to defend in a low block (like FC Cincinatti last year) and be less expansive in possession. As mentioned, Real is one of the top sides in the Nicaraguan league currently and often have far superior quality than the opponent. It will be interesting to see how Esteli reacts to being the underdogs and if that affects their game plan at all.
How the Crew can win:
Don’t be fooled by the optics of this game, this will be a tricky matchup for the Black & Gold. On top of the challenges presented in traveling to Nicaragua, the Crew will face a side that is in the middle of its league campaign. As is commonplace in most countries, the Nicaraguan League is in full swing, having already played 12 competitive matches this calendar year. If you mix in the Columbus’ slightly worrying preseason form, you can see how this is a tricky fixture for the Black & Gold. That being said, there are a few things the Crew can do to swing the pendulum fully in their favor.
Firstly, and probably most importantly, Columbus will need to weather the storm, especially early in the game. Being the team’s first competitive match, the Black & Gold may need time to ease into the game. Normally this would be no issue, however it is significantly more difficult on the road in Champions League.
One of the biggest things the Crew can do to help themselves weather the storm is dominate possession early on. If the Black & Gold can establish control of the ball and handle the Esteli pressure, it will calm the game down and allow the Columbus to take a stranglehold on the match.
This is an incredibly obvious piece of analysis but the Crew’s ability to put the ball in the net and be sharp in front of goal will be crucial in this match. The Black & Gold will have the quality to create chances in this match and it is important they take them to establish control of the game and set themselves up well for the return match. Conversely, the longer Columbus goes without putting the ball away, the more confidence Esteli will build and mount pressure on Porter’s men.
Lastly, the Crew needs to shore up the defense. It’s no secret that one of the biggest keys to the Black & Gold’s championship in 2020 was the sturdiness of their backline. Despite the backline returning in its defense and added veteran Marlon Hairston, Columbus gave up a lot of goals in preseason — albeit without multiple key pieces. Porter said more than once in his post-match interviews that some of the goals conceded were “sloppy” and that the team is capable of cleaning those up.
While this is a tricky fixture, the Crew is the heavy favorite in this match. Despite all of the factors making this a more difficult match than it looks on paper, Columbus knows full well what the team needs to do to be successful Thursday night. With all of the expectations surrounding the Crew this upcoming year and the excitement of competing in the Champions League, the Black & Gold have an opportunity with this game to set the tone for the season.