There was a great deal of fanfare leading up to the kickoff of the 2021 Campeones Cup. Supporters of Liga MX champions Cruz Azul traveled in full force to Lower.com Field to support but all their cheering couldn’t will the Liga MX champions to score a goal. The Columbus Crew left the game with a 2-0 win, a new trophy and a lot of excitement for the MLS Cup playoff push.
Coming into Wednesday evening, head coach Caleb Porter said that it wouldn’t be a match that the team looked past, even with Columbus fighting for a spot in the postseason. This was supported by Porter’s starting lineup with defender Jonathan Mensah, midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos getting the start and even Steven Moreira making his debut at fullback.
Another big name in the starting 11 was midfielder Lucas Zelarayan, and he made an impact almost immediately.
In the third minute, defender Julio Domínguez landed on top of the new member of the Armenian national team, giving Columbus a free kick just 10 yards outside of the penalty box. Zelarayan sent in a curling free kick that forward Brayan Angulo headed into his own net, giving the Black & Gold the early lead.
After that goal, Cruz Azul dominated possession, ending the first half with a staggering 73.9 percent of the ball. With that possession came an abundance of crosses and balls into the 18-yard box but nothing to show for it.
When Cruz Azul did send in shots on goal, they were often from long range. The Crew’s defense had most of the 16 crosses made by Azul cleared, ending the half with 20 total by all positions, as the Black & Gold loaded the defensive area to make things difficult for the Liga MX champions.
That doesn’t mean that the Crew didn’t have its chances on offense. Columbus made the best of any lucky bounces or errant Cruz Azul passes to go on the break. In the 20th minute, forward Miguel Berry led the Crew counter, but his pass to Derrick Etienne Jr. sent the winger too wide to make an impact with the ball.
Just two minutes later, another break, this time led by Nagbe, ended the same way, with a pass to Etienne that sent him out of position to shoot.
A theme of the evening, like is usually the case when sides from the U.S. and Mexico battle on the field, is the referee. Jamaican referee Oshane Nation wasn’t quick to stop the game for player requested calls.
In the 22nd and 30th minutes, Crew defender Jonathan went up for leaping headers, with Angulo going down on both attempts calling for a penalty. The fouls weren’t whistled, but in the 31st minute, a call led to a scrum between the two sides.
Cruz Azul defender Pablo Aguilar charged Berry from behind and made contact with the back of his head in an attempt to clear a ball. Aguilar received a yellow in the process, which aggravated the visitors who were still fighting to equalize.
That card and frustration led to a skirmish between Williams and two Cruz Azul players, with young center back Aboubacar Keita running to his defense. No other cards were brandished in extracurriculars, but the chirpiness of the match remained.
Before the end of the half, a scary moment in the defensive penalty box for goalkeeper Evan Bush. Coming out to catch a cross, the veteran Bush lost the ball through his gloves, landing to the feet of Cruz Azul. Luckily for the Crew’s defense, it ended in Cruz Azul trying to find space in the penalty box and turned into a goal kick for the Black & Gold.
Columbus’ Berry had another break off lost possession by the Mexican side, but midfielder Rafael Baca brought down the striker, earning a yellow card. The subsequent Zelarayan free kick didn’t challenge the keeper and Columbus entered halftime with a 1-0 lead.
The second half almost saw Cruz Azul level the score. In the 47th minute, forward Jonathan Rodriguez took a shot he wishes he could have back. Receiving a pass at point-blank range, the striker shot the ball over the net from five yards from the goal line.
For all the calls for a penalty in the first half, one almost came to fruition in the 48th minute. A pinballing cross into the penalty box went off Nagbe’s knee and then arm. Cruz Azul shouted for a penalty, and shortly after the referee stopped the match to check the VAR monitor. No hand ball was called, much to the delight of half the Lower.com Field crowd.
Like in the first half, Cruz Azul had their chances, but the Crew defense and poor shooting from the Liga MX side made Bush work, but not resulting in a goal.
At the 57th minute, Moreira was substituted after impressing in his first match in black and gold. Moreira had strong defensive pressure on the right side of the field, and in the second half began to make more offensive movements, covering space for Columbus. Fullbacks Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful came in for Moreira and Etienne, and made an impact.
The veteran Afful slowed the Cruz Azul attack, intercepting or forcing the visitors to lose possession frequently. Valenzuela did Afful one better in the 74th minute.
Zelarayan had a free kick after getting pulled down just outside of the penalty box. The free kick shot ricocheted off the Cruz Azul defense and to the feet of Valenzuela. The Argentinian sent a cross into the penalty box that was finished off by Jonathan’s head. The Crew’s captain was pummeled by everyone in a Columbus jersey in what was probably the largest dogpile on a player in Crew history.
For the remaining 26 minutes, Columbus held on through a constant flow of Cruz Azul pressure. As supporters chanted “Dos a Cero,” the Crew ended the night with a new piece of Black & Gold history.
Wednesday’s 2-0 Columbus victory is their first international trophy in the club’s 26-year history. A match that featured an improbable own goal start and even more improbable second goal, when the Crew clawed for any possession they could get throughout the match, makes the victory even more memorable.
While the trophy may be new, just established in 2018, its three years of being awarded has gone to two MLS teams and just one Liga MX side.
Nagbe and Zelarayan each add a second Campeones Cup to their resumes. Zelarayan won with Tigres in 2018, and Nagbe helped Atlanta United secure the first for an MLS team in 2019.
Something missing throughout the 2021 season showed up in a big way. With all the Cruz Azul possession, the Crew didn’t waver and it wasn’t only the defense. Everyone on the field for Columbus did their part in keeping the clean sheet.
The Crew had over 40 clearances in the match, coming from the three starting center backs, but also offensive-minded players like Berry, Etienne Jr. and Zelarayan.
Continue the Momentum
This victory comes with a trophy and bragging rights for an entire league, but for Columbus, it comes with even more – momentum to make the playoffs.
The Crew’s two wins in the last three, and a three-match unbeaten streak, have built the confidence in Porter’s side as they fight to get back into the playoff picture. The Black & Gold don’t have to wait long to see if the emotion carries over. On Sunday, Columbus travels to face Philadelphia Union.