It has been 3,691 days since the crew last played in the CONCACAF Champions League, an opportunity reserved for top clubs in North America, Central America and the Caribbean to expand their global presence.
Crew chairman and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Caleb Porter have been clear on their goals: The MLS Cup is in first place and the Champions League is a close second, with hopes of becoming the first team. from Major League Soccer to advance to the FIFA Club World Cup by winning the Champions League.
It might just be lip service, but Porter and Bezbatchenko won a title in their sophomore year with the club and may have had the strongest offseason of any team in MLS. Who says it’s impossible?
Winning the CONCACAF Champions League is not an expectation. However, there is no doubt that Thursday night’s game in Managua, Nicaragua, against Real Esteli FC at 8 p.m. on FS1, is nothing more than the start of a tournament that could accelerate the position of the crew in the world match.
“It’s really important for our club because everyone knows us in MLS,” said goaltender Eloy Room, “but other than that I don’t think a lot of leagues know us.”
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Crew players have CONCACAF Champions League experience
The second leg of the round of 16 will be played on April 15 at Crew Stadium. Teams advance in the tournament in aggregate or win the tiebreaker with more away goals.
On paper, the Crew are the most talented team. The total market value of the list according to Transfermarkt is $ 41.33 million, compared to $ 1.49 million for Real Esteli. That said, this game is the crew’s first official game of the 2021 season as Real Esteli have played 12 league games.
The crew also have starting midfielder Artur and center-back Vito Wormgoor not quite ready for the competition, and Porter has barely had time with his full squad in the preseason. Porter said he approaches this first round as the final tune-ups ahead of the MLS opening game on April 18 against Philadelphia Union, but he is well aware that these games matter more than a preseason game. and has a respectable 5-2-1 record in both Champions League. appearances.
“We have to be good enough to get results in this, but I understand it’s still a process,” Porter said. “I like where we are at. I like what I saw.”
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It could be the first Champions League appearance in a decade for the crew, but 11 players on this list, in addition to Porter and Bezbatchenko, have already played in the tournament, with some having come a long way.
As general manager in Toronto, Bezbatchenko lost on penalties in the 2018 final. Goalkeeper Evan Bush lost in the final with the Montreal Impact in 2014-2015. The crew’s best playmaker, Lucas Zelarayan, has lost three times in the final to Tigres UANL in La Liga MX.
For players who have been through tough times for this franchise – Pedro Santos, Artur, Harrison Afful and Jonathan Mensah – this is their first foray into a competition that can give the crew rare international recognition.
“For me it’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to play this competition,” said Santos. “I will do anything to be the first MLS team to win this competition and make Columbus history.
There is usually chaos in the CONCACAF Champions League that you can’t prepare for until a player has experienced it. Playing in front of an intense fan base in Mexico or a Central American country that lives for football and could launch projectiles on the pitch at players will not be a reality during the pandemic. What the crew will have to deal with, Bush said, is playing the way the game demands.
“A lot of teams are going to try to do things that are going to get under your skin, ruffle your feathers, make the game choppy, bait you, attack you dirty. … You can’t let that affect you,” Bush said. declared. “Going into this first round with a Nicaraguan team doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy because it’s not a Mexican team. In a way, it might make things more difficult because of the intensity, will, drive or desire. to prove that they belong to the top of CONCACAF. ”
The crew must ‘recognize that it will not be an easy game’
If the crew advance far in the tournament, it’s no secret that Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe have to be the driving force. This first leg against Real Esteli will be the first game since Zelarayan’s legendary performance in the MLS Cup, when he showed why star players have to perform like stars in back-to-back matches.
Porter and Bezbatchenko added talents that should narrow the gap between the Crew and Liga MX teams that have dominated the tournament.
But even against Real Esteli, a team that has never won a Champions League game, there is no guarantee of playing an unknown team in an unknown country and stadium.
The crew just need to find a way.
“I think the important thing is that the first game is away and those games are always more difficult when you go to the CONCACAF countries and enter their stadium,” said Nagbe. “I think we need to know that and recognize that it won’t be an easy game or a walk in the park.”
Crew vs. Real Esteli FC
When: 8 p.m. Thursday