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Game Grades: Crew vs. Real Esteli

How did the Black & Gold perform in their first match since MLS Cup?

Photo courtesy of CONCACAF

The Columbus Crew returned to the field for their first competitive match since the 2020 MLS Cup with a dominant 4-0 win at Nicaragua’s Real Esteli in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. Columbus made the trip to Managua, Nicaragua for the team’s first Champions League match since 2011.

Here’s how each Crew player performed in the first match of the Champions League:


Eloy Room (8) - Back from international duty with Curacao, Room returned to his starting spot in goal and recorded five saves to keep a clean sheet in the away leg. Room was unbothered for much of the first half save a well hit, knuckling free kick by Richard Rodriguez that was easily saved. With more to do in the second half, Room stood firm and kept the home side out of the goal. A nearly flawless game from Columbus’s goalkeeper aside from an awkward but effective sliding clearance early in the second half.

Derrick Etienne (8) - Etienne returned to the starting lineup following his goal-scoring performance in MLS Cup, but playing a new position at right back. Starter Harrison Afful and new-signee Marlon Hairston were both declared medically unable to perform, though head coach Caleb Porter clarified that both should be available for the return leg. Real Esteli picked up on Etienne in the first half and continually attacked his side of the field but he held firm and avoided any major mistakes. Etienne returned to the wing late in the second half but showed that he can be a valuable Swiss-Army Knife for this team a-la Hector Jimenez.

Jonathan Mensah (c) (9.5) - The captain once again showed why he is arguably the best defender in MLS, leading the defense to a shutout and adding a goal from a corner kick that looked like something straight off the training ground. Jonathan did take a yellow card for his defense of Aidan Morris following an elbow to the throat by Richard Rodriguez but that’s a card most Columbus fans are happy to see their captain take.

Josh Williams (8.5) - In the other center back spot, Williams continued to make a claim on the starting spot in the face of Vito Wormgoor’s return. Williams ultimately had a quiet game but that’s exactly what you expect from your center back.

Milton Valenzuela (7.5) - The left back, fresh off an appearance with Argentina’s Under-23 team, put in yet another solid 90 minute shift. Valenzuela did not get forward as much as he has in other matches but did well to break up multiple Esteli attacks.

Aidan Morris (8.5) - Morris’ inclusion over Perry Kitchen was one of the surprises of Thursday’s lineup. MLS saw just how good Morris could be in the MLS Cup Final but most still expected Porter to go with the veteran Kitchen with Artur still recovering from preseason surgery. The young Homegrown player once again looked like a seasoned professional and fit in next to Darlington Nagbe. Morris’ continued good play will make lineup decisions difficult and provide the Black & Gold with a solid stable of midfield options. A yellow card in the 56th minute saw Morris subbed out for Artur which seems like a sign that Morris is preferred to start in the return leg.

Darlington Nagbe (8) - The Cleveland native made his return to the lineup after being medically unable to play in the MLS Cup Final. Nagbe once again controlled possession and broke up multiple Real attacks. An injury forced Nagbe out of the match in the 66th minute, stemming from an awkward play in which the midfielder just got in front of an Esteli shot only to take a kick to the leg and earn a bizarre yellow card.

Luis Diaz (8) - Diaz slotted into the right wing spot once again. The young attacker will face much more competition to start following the acquisition of Kevin Molino and Alexandru Matan, but more matches like Thursday’s will make him hard to keep out of the lineup. It’s easy to forget that Diaz is only 22 years old and has lots of room for growth, and he certainly showed that against Real. In both halves he was able to get in behind the defense and was unluckly not to come away with a goal. Diaz’s assist on Zardes’ second goal of the match was a glimpse at just talented the Costa Rican winger possesses.

Lucas Zelarayan (8) - Last year’s MLS Cup MVP hasn’t lost a step. Zelarayan dribbled circles around the Esteli defense and, most importantly, finished the 90 minute match without picking up an injury. He did display a little bit of rust but still was able to to create multiple scoring opportunities and got assist on Jonathan’s goal.

Pedro Santos (8) - Santos was once again a menace on both sides of the field. Entering his fifth season with the Crew, the Portuguese once again displayed his effort as both an attacker and a defender. His 45th minute penalty kick put the match on ice and he was unlucky not to have another goal in the 68th minute when he hit a near perfect volley off the crossbar. Santos put work in on the defensive half as well with a key clearance early in the second half when Real Esteli were at their most dangerous.

Gyasi Zardes (9.5) - Zardes followed up on his excellent 2020 campaign with a near perfect start to 2021. Part of what makes the current Columbus system so successful is Zardes’ willingness to lead the press as well as drop back into the defensive half. His first goal of the match came directly from his counter-press. Zardes followed up an intercepted Zelarayan pass with immediate pressure, picking off the next pass and hitting a tough shot into the goal. In the 33rd minute, Zardes brought down a hard cross from Diaz and fired it home to secure a brace. A third goal, which nearly came from a shot in the 55th minute, is the only thing keeping Zardes from a perfect 10 performance.


Artur (7.5) - The Brazilian midfielder was a surprise inclusion on the bench in the midst of his return to fitness from offseason surgery. With the game secured, and Morris picking up a yellow card, Artur came onto the field for a 30-minute shift. Fitness did not appear to be an issue as Artur was once again all over the field.

Perry Kitchen (7) - Kitchen made his debut in black and gold in a relatively quiet 24-minute shift. That’s exactly what you want from a defensive midfielder. The Indianapolis native looked comfortable on the ball and providing an imposing physical presence in the midfield. Porter and the Crew faithful will be hopeful that Kitchen is able to find his pre-LA Galaxy form as a substitute and spot starter in a role that he’s more comfortable with.

Bradley Wright-Phillips (7) - MLS’s sixth all-time leading scorer made his debut with Columbus stepping in for Zardes. Wright-Phillips showed his commitment to maintain the high work rate required of Black & Gold strikers by both pressuring the Esteli backline and dropping back to provide a safety valve for the defense. The English attacker was unfortunate not to get off a shot but did put himself in good positions to receive the ball.

Isaiah Parente (6) - Another offseason signing and another debut with Homegrown midfielder Parente subbing in for an injured Santos late in the match. Parente played well in his 13 minutes earning multiple free kicks and looking like a capable depth option in his early career.

Waylon Francis (7) - The longtime Crew veteran stepped into the right back slot rather than his traditional spot on the left as a late-game substitute. Francis earned a yellow card almost immediately after entering the match but otherwise showed that he can be yet another option for right back depth.

Head Coach

Caleb Porter (8.5) - Columbus’ manager had his team mentally and physically ready to take on a Real team that the Black & Gold were favored to beat but could have easily been a tough matchup. Porter’s confidence in Morris and Etienne paid big dividends with both having strong matches. The only real criticism is not getting some players out of the match earlier but it does appear that none of the injuries in this match were significant.


Who Was the Crew’s Man of the Match at Real Esteli?

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    Gyasi Zardes
    (56 votes)
  • 2%
    Lucas Zelarayan
    (2 votes)
  • 9%
    Aidan Morris
    (9 votes)
  • 26%
    Jonathan Mensah
    (24 votes)
  • 1%
    (1 vote)
92 votes total Vote Now