The Columbus Crew came into the 2021 season with a clearly stated goal: the Black & Gold wanted to win every competition in which the team was a part. Six games into the campaign, part of that goal is no longer possible. But that’s what happens sometimes in knockout competitions.
Columbus fell 3-0 to CF Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals on Wednesday night. Following a 2-2 draw in Central Ohio the week prior, the disappointing result in Mexico saw the team exit the competition after a 5-2 aggregate score over two legs. Without star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, who once played for Monterrey’s primary rival, Tigres, because of yellow card accumulation and missing some other pieces, the Crew did not have enough to keep up with Rayados on their home field.
The Black & Gold’s focus will now shift squarely on Major League Soccer play going forward. But before we turn back to the league, let’s take a look at what we learned from this second leg wake-up call for Columbus.
There was no Room for mistakes
As mentioned above, the Crew came into the second leg shorthanded without a number of guys who could have made a difference in this match. Even some of the players who did take the field from the start — Gyasi Zardes, Artur, Darlington Nagbe — all did so knowing they couldn’t play a full 90 minutes. This meant Columbus needed a good start and had to make Monterrey work for any success the home team found in the match.
That all went out the door within the opening three minutes. A throw-in deep in Rayados’ attacking territory led to a low cross that initially showed no signs of danger.
But goalkeeper Eloy Room dove and pushed the ball out into the middle of the six-yard box and center back Josh Williams and left back Waylon Francis wre caught ball-watching instead of marking their man, leading to an easy tap in for Maxi Meza.
An experienced goalkeeper like Room knows he has to do better here, either collecting the ball with two hands, pushing the ball away from goal so there isn’t an easy finish or, if there’s communication that there’s no threat on the back side from his defenders, letting the ball go through. Williams and Francis have to be aware of where Monterrey’s attackers are as the ball comes across the six-yard box, even if they think Room has the situation handled.
Even after conceding a poor opening goal, the Black & Gold had a chance to bounce right back. Two minutes after the home side took the lead, Zardes had a free header in the penalty box that the American striker didn’t even put on frame. An equalizer so quickly would have given back some of the momentum to the visitors and made this a game.
These are just two examples of the mistakes the Crew made, some punished and some not. While no game is mistake-free, Columbus had little room for error in this contest after drawing the first leg and missing certain players. Instead of making Monterrey earn what the team got, the Black & Gold handed the home side an opening goal and never responded.
In MLS play, a team as talented as the Crew can get away with mistakes at the back or not finishing chances at the other end. Maybe it means a draw instead of a win or having to fight back from an early deficit. Against a team like Rayados, these mistakes are killer and that is why Columbus isn’t moving on in the Champions League.
Most people who follow MLS know that American teams in this competition are playing at a disadvantage from the offing. No, this is not about the officiating — although something needs to be done about that as well — but rather the gap in finances between clubs.
To be fair, this is an issue around the world when clubs play in international competitions. There’s a reason Chelsea and Manchester City are in the UEFA Champions League Final and Ajax isn’t; those clubs have more financial resources which make it easier to consistently compete at the highest level.
The difference is MLS is playing under the rules of most American sports where these teams are constrained by a salary cap. While rules have become more flexible with Designated Players and more money being spent by some clubs — typically the ones that win — there is still only so much a team can do and still fit inside these salary restrictions. Meanwhile, Liga MX clubs, the ones winning the Champions League on a regular basis, have no such regulations and can spend as much as they want.
To put this into perspective, according to Transfermarkt.com, Monterrey’s total market value, the value of the players on the roster, is $77.22 million. The Crew’s is $44.17 million with four more players on the roster. While these numbers may not be completely accurate, it paints a pretty clear picture.
Another way to look at it came in the match itself. Columbus’ five substitutes were Bradley Wright-Phillips, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Alexandru Matan, Isaiah Parente and Miguel Berry. That’s one quality striker who, at 36, is past his prime, a defender who just arrived at the club, a 21-year-old midfielder and two young players who have a combined eight professional games between them. Monterrey meanwhile brought on the likes of Rogelio Funes Mori, Aké Loba, Dorlan Pabón, all players that, as head coach Caleb Porter put it, would start for any MLS team.
The rules in MLS aren’t going to change — and competitive balance on some level remains important for what is a still relatively young league — but it just goes to show what the Crew was up against. Liga MX teams have a clear advantage in the competition and the Black & Gold found that out the hard way in the team’s first Champions League in a decade.
There’s a gap in physical and mental toughness between MLS and Liga MX
In addition to the financial differences between MLS and Liga MX, the style of play is not the same in the two leagues. The Mexican league plays tougher, both physically and mentally, and the Crew was not ready for that challenge. This is something the U.S. Men’s National Team had to learn in the era prior to Dos a Cero and it took some tough losses to do it.
Two examples of this stood out, while there are others that could be mentioned. In the first leg in Columbus, right back Harrison Afful was fouled in the first half of the game, setting up a good free kick opportunity. The Monterrey player stood over Afful, 90s NBA style, for a few seconds. This intimidation tactic not often seen in MLS. What was alarming is that no teammate came to Afful’s defense and let the defender know, “That won’t be tolerated.”
In Liga MX, players are constantly barking at each other, bumping each other, playing mind games in order to get an advantage. It’s something that only a handful of players do in MLS and most of the Crew team wasn’t prepared for it because they haven’t dealt with it before.
Additionally, Monterrey was clearly the more physical team throughout the series. The second goal in Leg 2 is a prime example. Say what you will about Williams getting fouled by Vincent Janssen — the Crew defender had both arms wrapped around the Rayados forward while the ball was in the air — but the striker was just more physical with the defender because that’s how he plays every game. Williams doesn’t often have to deal with a forward that’s able to just knock him off the ball in MLS and it cost Columbus a goal.
At this level, the physical nature — physical, not dirty — is often allowed and the Black & Gold were too soft at times.
Players after the game mentioned, in some form or fashion, that this series was a learning experience. Being more mentally strong to stand up to a team like Monterrey and not backing down from the physical challenge will be things that the Crew should learn when the team returns to the Champions League in the future.