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What We Learned: Crew vs. Cruz Azul

Our takeaways from the Crew’s Campeones Cup victory over Cruz Azul.

2021 Campeones Cup - Deportivo Cruz Azul v Columbus Crew Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

For the second time in less than 12 months, the Columbus Crew won a trophy. The Black & Gold defeated Liga MX powerhouse Cruz Azul 2-0 at Field on Wednesday night to win the club’s first international trophy. An early own goal allowed the Crew to sit back and defend for the entirety of the match. Jonathan Mensah’s second half header sealed the deal and the title for the Crew.

Another trophy for the club is a momentous achievement and Wednesday’s contest gave fans an early preview of what future games and seasons could look like for Columbus at the new stadium.

Here are our takeaways from the Campeones Cup win.

The Crew can execute in multiple formations

Head coach Caleb Porter admitted after the victory on Wednesday night that the Crew might have not won the game if not for playing with five defenders at the back. It was a varied look for Porter’s side on Wednesday with the starting lineup consisting of three natural center backs and wing backs that can shift the backline between three and five.

The interchangeable 3-4-3 to 5-4-1 formation was something Porter had his players worked on in preparation for the Cruz Azul game and they executed it very well. The best test of a back five is to defend for as long as possible. Columbus did that after getting the own goal in the fourth minute and was able to hold on for the club’s first clean sheet since July 24 against one of the top club teams in North America.

Outside of the defenders' execution, the formation gave freedom for good transition counters that were led by midfielder Darlington Nagbe and forward Miguel Berry. Both ran into space to create dangerous counters, the exact thing Porter wanted his attack to do when playing deep with five, or sometimes as many as seven, defenders.

Fans have now seen the Crew execute in a 5-4-1, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 formations. Having that versatility in knowing multiple tactics makes a team much more dangerous against any opposition. That will help the Black & Gold in this home stretch to make the MLS Cup playoffs.

Darlington Nagbe continues to be a major talent

Lucas Zelarayan won the Campeones Cup Most Valuable Player award on Wednesday with his free kick leading to the opening own goal. Zelarayan did play well but he wasn’t the best player on the field. That distinction should have gone to Nagbe who put together one of his strongest performances to add another trophy to his cabinet.

Nagbe had more freedom in this game to roam and press into space with Liam Fraser serving as a holding midfielder in front of the back five. In this space, Nagbe forced multiple fouls and made some Cruz Azul defenders look silly. He hasn’t been able to play that way much in MLS with the number of injuries to midfielders putting him in a position to defend more in his role. While the defensive held strong, Nagbe could be let loose in transition.

His performance led Porter to say after the game that there might not be a better player in MLS.

“I think he continues to be underrated,” said Porter. “You watch him today, that guy could play anywhere in the world. He’s a modern midfielder, he keeps the ball, defends, covers ground, surges out of midfield. Yeah, he was incredible today, absolutely incredible, and it’s because he’s a winner.”

Nagbe has now won two Campeones Cups, three MLS Cups, a U.S. Open Cup, a Gold Cup and an NCAA Championship in his remarkable career. His talent is special and he is one of the best players to wear a Crew kit. It was great to see him be able to play and lift a trophy with his Black & Gold teammates after missing last year’s MLS Cup final.

Columbus can be competitive in future Leagues Cup

This season has been a challenging year for the Crew with games in multiple competitions for the first time in a number of years. Outside of MLS contests, the Black & Gold played five matches against other CONCACAF opposition. Their record in those five matches is 3-1-1.

Three of those matches were against Liga MX opposition with the Crew giving Monterrey and Cruz Azul everything they had in Columbus this year. In April, the Black & Gold were seconds away from beating Monterrey. In September, Columbus defeated Cruz Azul to win Campeones Cup. This is far from the end of the Crew’s matches against Liga MX opposition.

Starting in 2023, the Leagues Cup tournament will take place in the middle of the MLS regular season and feature every MLS and Liga MX club in a World Cup-style tournament. That means there will be plenty more games for the Black & Gold against clubs from Liga MX both at Field and in Mexico.

The Crew players will hold their heads high and be one of the few MLS clubs to enter the inaugural Leagues Cup with confidence their team can earn results against Liga MX clubs. Columbus has proven in 2021 the team has the ability and tactical savvy to compete outside of MLS.