It was a picture perfect start and then some for the Columbus Crew to start the 2021 season and its journey in the CONCACAF Champions League. The MLS Cup champions dominated Nicaraguan powerhouse Real Esteli in a 4-0 road win to earn the team’s first true road win in more than a year and virtually seal a spot in the CCL quarterfinals. Columbus scored all of its goals in the first half with Gyasi Zardes netting twice, Pedro Santos scoring a penalty and Jonathan Mensah finishing a rare goal.
The Crew lineup was nearly at full strength with the most notable eye catcher being Derrick Etienne Jr.’s start at right back. First-choice right back Harrison Afful and backup Marlon Hairston were not available as substitutes, leaving Etienne as the choice by head coach Caleb Porter. Young midfielder Aidan Morris once again was selected to start on the big stage with a similar front four (Luis Diaz, Lucas Zelarayan, Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes) that played throughout last season.
A handful of spectators in Managua saw very quick action as Morris had a chance to score less than 60 seconds in from a corner kick. Morris got on the end of the cross from Zelarayan and had his shot saved by Alvaro Rezzano. Diaz had a rebound chance only to be saved again by Rezzano at the near post.
Columbus enjoyed a good spell of possession for the first 10 minutes of the match with the right side being utilized a lot. Diaz was able to get early chances to sprint down the right wing early in the wind and humidity of Managua. Real Esteli was able to keep a lot of the ball during the second portion of the first half but didn’t find many openings to get a shot on Eloy Room’s net.
The 18th minute was the breakthrough for the Crew as Gyasi Zardes was able to tap in the away goal. Zelarayan sent a through ball on the ground for Diaz that was slightly under hit. The Esteli defender covering Diaz had a poor touch towards the middle towards the onrushing Zardes. The American forward pounced and slotted home his first goal of 2021.
Columbus got another one quickly after the first in the 26th minute from an unlikely source and outcome. Zelarayan sent a corner to the near post where captain Mensah ran and was unmarked and got a slight tap-in that floated into the net for the second goal. Shortly after, Mensah received a yellow card after a minor altercation with a Real player.
The Crew sealed the deal in the 33rd minute after another Esteli turnover led to the third goal. Diaz received a pass and quickly trapped the ball to set up a goal line cross to Zardes. The U.S. forward had all the time to get an open shot to score the third for the Black & Gold and his second of the night.
Columbus made it a rout with a late Santos penalty kick to make it 4-0. Zelarayan had a free kick in the 44th minute that he sent to Mensah at the far post. The center back headed the ball across goal and was met by a blatant handball by an Esteli defender. Santos stepped up and kicked his penalty to the right and got the fourth road goal to end the first half.
The second half started very physical with Room going down from a collision and Morris receiving the second yellow of the game for a Black & Gold player in the 55th minute. Nagbe also received a booking in the 61st minute.
Nagbe quickly fell to the grass with an apparent knee injury three minutes after receiving his yellow card. The midfielder was quickly subbed off by Porter for Perry Kitchen, a former Akron collegiate teammate of Nagbe’s. Kitchen was one of two new Crew signings to get his debut with Bradley Wright-Phillips also checking into the match in the 66th minute for Zardes.
Santos also picked up a knock late in the second half and was subbed off from young Homegrown Isaiah Parente in the 77th minute. Veteran defender Waylon Francis also stepped in and just seconds after coming on, received a yellow card. The Crew suffered another late injury with Derrick Etienne Jr. going down in the 85th minute after a hard challenge, limping off the field after being checked by medical personal.
A first half statement
The champs looked like the champs and all the expectations building up for this team were satisfied in that first 45 minutes. The team’s defense was strong and positioned excellently with Derrick Etienne Jr. putting in a competent shift at right back. Lucas Zelarayan dribbled seamlessly around Esteli players while Aidan Morris tenaciously chased after every loose ball. Gyasi Zardes returned to typical goal scoring form, scoring two easy goals while pressing the Esteli defense.
Columbus is here and will be a force.
A quarterfinal spot is 99 percent secured
The Crew has a lead going into the second leg that is close to insurmountable for Real Esteli. A 4-0 win keeps the aggregate score far from reach for Esteli but to add insult to injury, all four of those goals are away goals.
The Nicaraguan side needs at least five goals for a chance to eliminate Columbus and mark a monumental comeback. Next week’s match back home for the Black & Gold could see a ton of rotation.
The Crew return home for next week’s second leg against Real Esteli at historic Crew Stadium on April 15 at 8 p.m. ET. The Black & Gold look likely to face either Monterrey or Atletico Pantoja in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League after Thursday night’s win in Nicaragua.
Three days after the Esteli match, the Crew is set to begin its 2021 MLS season with a home match against Supporters’ Shield winners, the Philadelphia Union, on April 18 at 5:30 p.m. ET.