When Jonathan Mensah’s head met the cross from Milton Valenzuela and placed the ball in the back of the net for a 2-0 Columbus Crew lead in the Campeones Cup Wednesday night, the scenes at Lower.com Field were remarkable. The only negative of the situation was that the dogpile of Black & Gold players that ensued behind the goal happened in front of the south stands mostly filled with Cruz Azul fans and not the Nordecke at the other end of the pitch.
Soon enough, however, the Columbus players got their chance to celebrate in front of their most fervent supporters. After five minutes of stoppage time and three piercing whistles from referee Oshane Nation, it was time to celebrate the fitting Dos a Cero victory in Columbus against a Mexican side.
The Crew was Campeones Cup winners, the second MLS side to win the one-off competition between the defending MLS Cup champions and the winner of Liga MX’s Campeón de Campeones that began in 2018. It was the second trophy captured by head coach Caleb Porter and his staff in just over nine months.
“It’s about winning,” Porter said after the game. “And I’m so proud of the players that we’re able to put another trophy in the trophy case. A trophy is a trophy. Anytime you can win one, you’ve got to win it. None of those players, none of the coaches, we never want to lose a cup final. And when you have a chance to knock off a team like that, Liga MX champion last year, it’s just a great win.”
The celebrations that ensued after the game was that of a team that had just done something significant. In 26 years of the club’s existence, this is just the seventh major trophy won by the Crew and needed to be celebrated with players singing and dancing in front of the Nordecke.
Despite being only a few months old, Lower.com Field deserved to have a trophy raised by the home team that benefitted from an early own goal by Cruz Azul after a well-placed free kick from Lucas Zelarayan and defended well for 86 minutes plus stoppage time. It was exciting again to see the Black & Gold step up on a stage and lift a trophy over the team’s head in front of the home supporters as fireworks and confetti sprayed into the air.
It was also a reminder of what work is still to be done in the 2021 MLS season because winning the Campeones Cup wasn’t the team’s ultimate goal coming into the year.
The scenes at Lower.com Field were very reminiscent of those that took place at historic Crew Stadium last December following the 3-0 MLS Cup Final win against the Seattle Sounders. The celebrations then marked the end of a difficult year and the culmination of hard work to bring home a second-ever league championship.
A title defense, as expected, has not come easy for Columbus. After a rash of injuries that started in the preseason and have refused to let up, the Black & Gold sit below the MLS Cup playoffs line, five points behind Orlando City SC with seven games remaining. After six straight losses in mid-summer, Columbus has points in four of the last six matches and is unbeaten in three straight in MLS.
While Wednesday night’s win against Cruz Azul did mean that the 2021 season will not end trophy-less, it needs to be a continued sign of progress and not that of contentment by the Crew.
“Winning a game like this against a good opponent gives us a lot of confidence going into our next game,” Jonathan, the team’s captain, said after the victory. “We know it’s a league game now, so we’re going to take all the momentum into that game and we’re going to keep fighting until the end of the regular season. Then, hopefully, we can continue that run in the playoffs.”
The opportunity is there for the Black & Gold. Of the four teams sitting on 39 points — Columbus currently has 34 — the Crew faces two of them over the next month-plus. That begins on Sunday in a crucial game at the Philadelphia Union. There are also three matches against teams lower than the Black & Gold in the Eastern Conference standings, all of which come at Lower.com Field, and represent a good chance, on paper, to get much-needed wins.
Having put themselves in this position with disappointing results earlier in the year, the defending MLS Cup champions must now find a way to climb up the table and return to the postseason. The last few matches, as the team finally has most of its key players available and playing, were a reassuring sign that this can be accomplished.
“I think we’ve found something the last couple of weeks here with the hunger,” goalkeeper Evan Bush said. “Games that you know mean something. Early in the season, it’s easy to get into a mentality that you have time, especially within the league. We put ourselves in a hole. These last couple of weeks, where there’s real tension and real stress against us, fighting against us to get up above the line again, you see what our team is made of. You see that there are winners on this team. You see that there are guys that are made for these types of games.
“We’re confident, not with where we are, but where we intend to go. We’re going to push as hard as we can to get to where we need to be and get into the playoffs.”
While a win against a Mexican powerhouse is great and winning a trophy is always a positive, the celebrations that went long into the night at Lower.com Field will mean very little if the result against Cruz Azul isn’t a stepping stone toward the Crew’s bigger goal of returning to the MLS Cup playoffs and at least having a chance to repeat as champions.