After the celebrations of winning the 2020 MLS Cup 123 days prior, the Columbus Crew played its first competitive game of the new season on Thursday night. And like that special game at historic Crew Stadium when the Black & Gold defeated the Seattle Sounders 3-0 for the team’s second league championship last December, the Crew looked convincing in a 4-0 victory in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 tie against Nicaraguan side Real Esteli.
Columbus got goals from forward Gyasi Zardes (twice), center back Jonathan Mensah and winger Pedro Santos at Estadio Nacional de Futbol to seal the win. All four of those strikes came in the first half and the Crew managed the second half effectively, with goalkeeper Eloy Room and the backline earning their first shutout of the year.
It was our first look at this season’s make up of the Black & Gold, so there was plenty to take away. Let’s take a look at what we learned from the debut.
Knocking the rust off
There was concern coming into the match about how the Crew would cope with this first game of the year. Unlike most seasons, there weren’t 33 more games to come after this opener as a poor performance could set Columbus back for a second leg in a week’s time and potentially derail Champions League hopes early. Keep in mind, Esteli was playing the team’s 13th game of the year while this was the first for the Crew coming off a winless preseason.
Those concerns were quickly put to bed with the play of the Black & Gold. Columbus smothered Real in the first half, creating chances and not allowing the home side to get any real momentum. By the time it looked like Esteli finally settled into the match, the game was over... and that was only halftime.
Zardes off the mark
It’s always important to get attacking players going early and the Crew did that in this one. Gyasi Zardes netted a brace in his first game of 2021 after scoring 12 times in 21 games in MLS regular season play last season. The American striker pounced on a bad touch in the penalty area by Oscar Acevedo in the 19th minute and managed a tidy finish to get the Black & Gold on the board. His second goal came 14 minutes later when he collected a pass from winger Luis Diaz and calmly dispatched the ball into the net.
The American striker doesn’t get enough credit for what he does when he doesn’t have the ball — and that was evident with his pressing and movement again in this game — but when he’s finishing like this, Zardes is hard to stop. Crew fans will be hopeful that this is a sign of things to come from Zardes now in his fourth year with the Black & Gold.
Keeping it clean
While the Columbus attack was busy scoring away goal after away goal in this contest, the defense made sure not to allow anything silly and give Esteli a lifeline back into this two-legged affair.
Room and his defenders had little to do in the first half, so much so that Jonathan elected to get in on the scoring action. Early in the second half, Esteli forward Juan Barrera got free for a header but the Crew goalkeeper was up to the challenge and made a save. There was another poor back pass in the middle of the second half that required Room to awkwardly come off his line to deny an attempt. Other than those two chances, it was a pretty easy night for the Black & Gold defense.
That all comes without a true right back with both Harrison Afful and newcomer Marlon Hairston out with injuries. In stepped winger Derrick Etienne Jr. as a fullback and he played well enough in the unfamiliar position. After the game, head coach Caleb Porter said both injured defenders should be back next week, but also that, in a pinch, Etienne can play this spot for Columbus.
The evolution of Diaz
When Luis Diaz arrived to the Crew in the middle of the 2019 season, he was a speedy, young winger with a lot of promise. At times last season, Diaz showed the beginning of his evolution, playing smart and not just using his pace to be dangerous. The hope was that this growth and learning would continue for the 22 year old in 2021.
That seemed to be the case on Thursday night. Diaz consistently popped up in good positions, looking to get in behind the backline as he is instructed to do, but also combining with his teammates. He had a couple of efforts on goal early but the play that really stood out was his composure on Zardes’ second goal. Instead of forcing a shot or playing a blind cross, Diaz got his head up and found the Columbus striker in the center of the box for a relatively easy finish.
More plays like this in the coming months will not only reward Diaz but also the Black & Gold.
As nice as a 4-0 win feels to open the season, it’s a little early to draw many conclusions from this game. Not only is the sample size small, but the opponent was not what the Crew will see on a weekly basis in MLS, not to mention as the team advances in Champions League. Esteli had no answers for Columbus and, as I said on our postgame Instagram Live video, one of the older Black & Gold Academy teams likely gets a win in this one.
With that said, the Crew had a job to do in Nicaragua and did it and then some. Now Columbus returns home for the second leg in a week’s time knowing the team has a comfortable advantage. This means Porter does not need to deploy his top lineup — especially after injuries to Etienne and Darlington Nagbe — and can have a fresher team ready for the MLS opener against the Philadelphia Union three days later.