By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 2, 2023) US Soccer Players – The 2023 League Cup, the first edition of the tournament by that name to include every Major League Soccer and Liga MX team in a massive World Cup-style format, has reached the knockout phase. It took 45 games played over two weeks, but the field is now 15 clubs smaller than when it began. Accounting for the two clubs that received byes into the first knockout round, LAFC of MLS and Pachuca of Mexico, there are now 32 teams left in the competition. At this stage, the stakes are clear: win, or go home.
With round of 32 games beginning on Wednesday night, there are plenty of intriguing stories to follow. Despite the forgiving nature of the group phase, with two out of three teams emerging from the 15 groups, the tournament has delivered some surprises. The Columbus Crew in Central 1 and FC Cincinnati in Central 3 emerged as the top teams in their groups after going undefeated in two games, with the pair sending a message via emphatic victories over two of Liga MX’s biggest clubs.
Columbus finished its group-winning pair of matches with a 4-1 victory over Club America on Tuesday night in Columbus. The Crew fell behind via an early Club America set-piece goal but quickly bounced back. Hernandez scored twice on the night, with forward and USMNT player Christian Ramirez and defender Steven Moreira getting a goal each.
Columbus’s performance came just hours after the club announced the transfer of creative powerhouse Lucas Zelarayan to Al Fateh of the Saudi Pro League. Zelarayan was the key player in Columbus’s run to the MLS Cup title in 2020 and looked to be a crucial part of what Nancy was building in Ohio. He didn’t take part in the Leagues Cup group finale, instead attending the game to say goodbye to the fans.
Just ahead of the close of the secondary transfer window, the Crew has been active. The club acquired US international Julian Gressell from Vancouver on July 21, a player that should be a perfect fit in Nancy’s 3-5-2 system. Rumors abound that a direct replacement for Zelerayan is also in the works.
Of course, Tuesday’s performance and the Crew’s Leagues Cup showing couldn’t have happened without players already established in the team. Behind Hernandez and Ramirez, US internationals Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris paired to control the middle of the field against America, combining for 15 recoveries-plus-interceptions over 90 minutes on the field together. Nagbe misplaced just two passes of the more than 50 he attempted, while Morris connected with his teammates at a 91% clip. While the Crew’s forward and wide players get more of the glory, especially when the team drops four goals on a continental power, it’s Nagbe and Morris that keep the team balanced.
The Crew’s win earned the club a home match with Minnesota in the first knockout round on Friday night. A deep run in the tournament seems entirely possible for Columbus, though the path won’t be easy. There’s a possible rematch with Club America in the quarterfinal round, as well as a potential clash with the club’s in-state rival FC Cincinnati.
FC Cincinnati has plenty of reason to be excited about the potential of its League Cup future following a tiebreaker win and a regulation victory in the group phase of the tournament. Cincinnati entered the MLS season pause for the Leagues Cup as the best team in the competition, sitting eight points clear of the field with 11 games to play.
Coach Pat Noonan’s team also has a home US Open Cup semifinal set for August 23 against Inter Miami, putting the club in contention for four trophies as the calendar turns to August.
Cincinnati opened up the Leagues Cup with a match against Sporting Kansas City that ended with the score tied 3-3 after 90 minutes. FCC needed a late penalty kick from Luciano Acosta to draw the game level, then prevailed in the ensuing penalty shootout to claim the extra point. It was a point that proved to be the difference between finishing first or second in the group.
In the club’s second group stage match, Cincinnati lived up to its best in MLS status with a dominant 3-1 win over Chivas de Guadalajara. Chivas entered the Leagues Cup phase undefeated in three games to open their Liga MX Apertura schedule.
US international Brandon Vazquez made sure that the top team in MLS took down the top team in Liga MX with a hattrick spread across two days. With Vazquez at the front and fellow US international and 2023 Gold Cup teammate Matt Miazga manning the back line, FC Cincinnati jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first nine minutes of the match. A weather delay forced the completion of the game the following day, with Vazquez scoring his third goal in the 73rd minute.
FC Cincinnati moves on to a match against Nashville SC on Friday night. Despite their relative positions in MLS and Nashville’s bumpier group play showing in the Leagues Cup, the clash will be a test for Cincinnati. Should Noonan’s group advance from that round of 32 match, it will face the winner of Chicago vs Club America and could get a chance to face the Crew in a Leagues Cup version of their derby.
The Leagues Cup brought some drama to the group stage. It also delivered a few surprises. One big Liga MX club is out of the tournament while another has something to prove after their loss to Columbus.
The pair of Ohio MLS entrants did their part in two games to reach the knockout rounds. After what they accomplished against two of Liga MX’s most famous outfits, there’s every reason to believe that each could snag the first trophy on offer in 2023.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Andrew Katsampes – ISIPhotos.com