By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 1, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Columbus Crew are champions. Certainly of MLS. The Crew still hold the MLS Cup after last December’s win over the Seattle Sounders. Now, they’re also the champions of of… Mexico and the United States?
It’s tough to pin down exactly what honor the Campeones Cup bestows upon the team that claims it. Following a 2-0 victory at Lower.com Field in Ohio on Wednesday night, the Crew and its fans are basking in the glow of a trophy. Still, no one would argue the win makes the MLS teams champions of North America, if such a concept could exist alongside the Concacaf Champions League. That title will go to a Liga MX club for yet another year, so it’s not clear how best to frame the Crew’s noteable achievement.
“It’s about winning,” Crew head coach Caleb 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.”
Columbus isn’t the first MLS team to win the Campeones Cup. In its brief history, MLS clubs have won all three editions against the Liga MX “champion of champions.” Due to Mexico’s split season format, their Campeones Cup participant requries a playoff game between the winners of the Apertura and Clausura seasons. Toronto took the title in 2018. Atlanta makes everything bigger, drawing over 40k to see them beat Club America in 2019. United’s win had fans and observers seeing it as evidence that the gap between the two leagues was closing.
Subsequent Champions League tournaments have shown that idea to be largely false. In the games that count the most and with matches in Mexico, MLS continues to come up short. LAFC’s loss in the Champions League final at a neutral venue in Orlando is the closest MLS has come to beating Liga MX in a meaningful championship match.
None of that takes away from the Crew’s win over Cruz Azul. It just gives it an appropriate context. The Crew’s approach belied the advantages La Maquina brought with them to Ohio. Columbus boss Caleb Porter opted to play a defense-first setup, eschewing possession for stability in the back. Although a departure from the Crew’s usual approach, it did help the club keep Cruz Azul off the board and earned the Crew the trophy.
That said, it’s debatable just how much the MLS victory means to the “closing gap” discussion. Porter’s pragmatism could easily look like a capitulation. Sitting deep and inviting pressure is rarely the action of the more talented team. It’s not exactly right that the Crew got lucky, but it’s not exactly wrong to say that the better team didn’t win on the night.
Possession is an admittedly flawed statistic, mostly because it relies on passes completed rather than time on the ball. Regardless, the imbalance from Wednesday night is illustrative. Cruz Azul ended the match with 75% possession to the Crew’s 25%. That disparity reflects the desire of the MLS team to limit space, sacrificing its attacking efforts in the process.
The Crew benefited from an early goal. Lucas Zelarayan’s 4th-minute free-kick enticed Cruz Azul’s Brayan Angulo to jump in an attempt to head it clear. Instead, Angulo changed the ball’s trajectory enough to send it past his keeper. With a goal in hand and no need to chase the game, the Crew only redoubled their efforts to stymie their Mexican opponents. Columbus’s quality was on display, particularly in the form of midfielder Darlington Nagbe, playing a style antithetical to their usual approach.
Does the Crew deserve plaudits for doing what was necessary to win? Or does conceding so much of the ball raise questions? That’s probably not going to bother the Crew support one way or the other. 2021 has been a trying year, and the afterglow of last year’s championship is fading quickly.
Questions about the importance of the Campeones Cup, both for the league as a whole and its champion, exist in a world of competing narratives. Every chance that MLS gets to face off against a Liga MX opponent provides another measuring stick, regardless of the stakes. The Champions League is the ultimate mountain, making everything else is a hill to be climbed along the way.
The Crew doubled its lead and ultimately put Cruz Azul away with a Jonathan Mensah headed goal in the 74th minute. As ESPN’s Jon Champion declared on the broadcast, the goal came “very much against the run of play,” pointing out that up until that moment, Cruz Azul looked more likely to score.
If the point is to win the game with a trophy on the line, a win is a win is a win. The Crew now turns their focus fully to making the playoffs, but they do it after winning a trophy.
This one won’t count in the standings, but it could boost the club’s confidence. Columbus needs all the help it can get. Some of the team’s misfortunes this year are inexplicable. In 2020 the Crew rode career-best performances from several players to win a championship. In 2021 many of those players have regressed or suffered through disappointing seasons.
For so many bad breaks to come in one campaign strains belief. It looked at times during the season like Porter wanted to throw up his hands in frustration. A stretch of six consecutive losses from July 30 through August 21 bogged the team down in the standings. They enter October five points out of 7th-place and the final playoff spot.
“We knocked off one of North America’s best teams,” said Porter postgame. That sounds like a message, telling his team it should use the win over Cruz Azul as a launching pad to make the Eastern Conference playoff field. Once in the playoffs, the Crew will have a legitimate chance to defend its MLS Cup title.
There might also be some magic in the Crew getting the job done against Cruz Azul at home in Columbus. The Campeones Cup is the first in the club’s history at its new stadium. When establishing a history of winning in a building without much history to speak of, every trophy counts.
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Logo courtesy of the Campeones Cup