Crew View: Club hopes for bangers in second leg of Monterrey CCL match

After a controversial CONCACAF draw and two anemic MLS performances, the Crew will need to summon some championship magic in Mexico on Wednesday night

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew SC defender Milton Valenzuela (19) fires a shot past CF Monterrey defender Sebastián Vegas (20) in the first half of the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals at Crew Stadium in Columbus on Wednesday, April 28, 2021.

Here’s a fun exercise: Load up Twitter (wait, don’t stop reading, I promise this will be good) and type the phrase “mls banger” into the search bar. MLS, as you are likely aware, stands for Major League Soccer. Banger, as you have probably surmised, is a popular slang term among the league’s fans and social media managers referring to a highlight-reel goal. This search will yield footage of some truly incredible goals, goals that legitimately merit the oft-abused “golazo” designation — or, sure, “banger” status.

Ezequiel Barco. Jackson Yueill. João Paulo. Jesús Medina. Caden Clark. Nani. It’s nuts. Players across MLS have been serving up the kind of awe-inspiring heaters that just might convince Euro-snobs and soccer skeptics alike to start paying attention. The league has yielded so many staggering goals in its first three weeks that its social media team has taken to tweeting stuff like “We’re currently on pace for 1,000,000 bangers this season” and “We swear we didn't make it mandatory to only score bangers this year but we are not mad at all.”

Those who have been following the Columbus Crew’s league fixtures might have trouble believing the first statement but can readily confirm the second. Thus far in two MLS outings, the Crew has posted a pair of 0-0 draws — one at home against Philadelphia, one on the road versus Montreal — results that would have the aforementioned soccer skeptics reverting to their old clichés about how The Beautiful Game is actually The Boring Game. The Euro-snobs, though, might understand why the Columbus offense has been so anemic in two MLS outings so far. It’s because they’ve been throwing everything they have into CONCACAF Champions League play, which continues today (Wednesday, May 5) with a road match against Mexican powerhouse C.F. Monterrey (airing at 8 p.m. on FS2).

For those who may not be hardcore Crew fans, or may not know much about soccer in general, here's what you need to know about these side-hustle matches: The CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) is a tournament in which the top teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean compete for regional dominance. Europe has something similar called the UEFA Champions League — not to be confused with the European Super League plan that was going to destroy the sport as we know it until the entire soccer world jeered it out of existence last month.

These regional Champions Leagues are awesome because every year a different slate of teams gets a chance to seek glory on an international stage. The Super League, on the other hand, was 12 of Europe’s wealthiest and most successful clubs trying to form a Champions League they can never be excluded from, to the detriment of everyone else. It was going to have profound ripple effects on not just club soccer, but also international competitions like the World Cup, which I won’t get into here because it is only tangentially related to the Columbus Crew — who, as I was saying, have been pouring their hearts and souls into this spring’s Champions League run.

Before MLS play had even commenced this spring, Columbus got busy proving that last year’s MLS Cup championship was no fluke. In the CCL round of 16, the Crew played a home-and-home with Nicaraguan champions Real Estelí. This was one of those aggregate series where the winner is decided by adding up the score of the two games. The first tiebreaker is road goals. So when the Crew went down to Managua and won 4-0 in the first leg, it was not just a statement win, it essentially rendered the next game meaningless. Despite playing conservatively in the second leg — and losing young homegrown stud Aidan Morris for the season on a non-contact ACL tear — Columbus ultimately secured a 1-0 win back home to prevail 5-0 on aggregate. Maybe these goals were not bangers, per se, but there sure were a lot of them.

The Crew’s decimation of Estelí was part of a wave of MLS success in the tournament this year. Five MLS teams are participating: Columbus (MLS Cup champions), Philadelphia (Supporters Shield champions), Portland (MLS Is Back tournament champions), Atlanta (winners of the most recent U.S. Open Cup in 2019) and Toronto (de facto victors in the Canadian Championship). All five of those squads advanced to the quarterfinals, meaning five of the final eight teams hail from MLS. The other three are elite teams from Mexico’s Liga MX: C.F. Monterrey, Cruz Azul and Club América. This round, then, is a chance for MLS to prove it can hang with its better respected neighbor to the south.

Columbus is in the middle of its quarterfinal series right now. It began last Wednesday with a dramatic and controversial 2-2 draw at Historic Crew Stadium. Monterrey took a 1-0 lead early on when Crew defender (and Westerville North graduate) Aboubacar Keita slipped, allowing Aké Arnaud Loba to slot home a ninth-minute goal. The Crew began putting together some impressive attacking sequences not long after that, but the scoreline remained unchanged until 20 minutes into the second half — at which point Lucas Zelarayán pickpocketed one Monterrey defender at the endline, dribbled nimbly past another while somehow keeping the ball in play, and got off a cross to Milton Valenzuela, who bagged the equalizer.

That’s when the drama and controversy kicked in. Six minutes after Valenzuela’s goal, the Crew’s newly acquired elite veteran striker Bradley Wright-Phillips headed home what appeared to be the go-ahead score, but after VAR (video-assisted review), the officiating crew determined Josh Williams had been offside when he headed the ball to Wright-Phillips. This verdict seemed deeply questionable to many observers, among them Crew head coach Caleb Porter, who stormed out of the postgame press conference without taking questions after delivering a scathing monologue about the refs costing his team a goal.

Columbus did eventually take the lead for real in the 87th minute as Zelarayán swept Harrison Afful’s cross through a nettle of defenders and into the net. That one counted, and the Black and Gold seemed ready to claim the W in leg 1. Instead, they allowed Monterrey’s José Alvarado to power a header past Eloy Room in the third minute of stoppage time, bringing the series to 2-2 and giving the club known as Rayados a second road goal. For the Crew and their fans, it was a deflating finish to an exhilarating game.

Whether you want to focus on the goal allegedly stolen from Columbus or the one they gave away in the end, that 2-2 finish makes things much harder in Mexico today. In order to advance to the CCL semifinals, Columbus will either have to win outright at Monterrey’s Estadio BBVA or force a high-scoring tie — 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, anything that ends with the Crew having more away goals. This will be especially difficult without Zelarayán, who will serve a one-game suspension after picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the first Monterrey match (another officiating move worthy of a quizzical expression).

Columbus, whose players were dragging hard in Saturday’s dour draw with Montreal, will also be playing their third game in eight days — though that’s no excuse considering Monterrey has been playing two matches a week since the beginning of April. Playing a jam-packed schedule is a normal part of elite-level club soccer. The Crew is just going to have to summon some more of that championship magic if they’re going to stay alive in this tournament. It’s going to take everything they have to prevail in these circumstances. And regardless of what happens in Mexico on Wednesday, they’ll have to recover quickly because they have another league match against D.C. United looming this Saturday in Columbus. Consider it a chance to finally show the hometown crowd some of those MLS bangers we’ve been hearing so much about.