Arace: Crew vs. Monterrey in semifinals of Champions Cup has continental significance

Last season, the Crew had a new coach, a new system and an evolving roster. When everything synched, they became an offensive machine. In the playoffs, they mounted comeback victories on the road against two higher seeds and then knocked off the defending champion, the Los Angeles Football Club, in the MLS Cup title game. And Columbus got a third star above the Crew jersey logo.

Heading into this season, it was natural to think that the Crew would pick up right where they left off in December. They got off to a 3-0-1 start before they slipped a gear. They suffered some key injuries. They dealt with the two-game suspension of their star striker, Cucho Hernandez, for violating team policy (read: yelling at coaches). Then, upon his return, Hernandez was hit with a red-card suspension for violent conduct. It was unbecoming.

In league play, the Crew (3-1-5) have not been the offensive juggernaut they were at the end of last season. They’ve scored 12 goals in nine games, or 10 fewer than Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami CF squad (henceforth referred to as Messiami) has scored in 10 games.

The killer instinct appears blunted. Columbus is 0-1-4 in its past five MLS games. To use American football parlance, is video catching up to the Crew?

“To be honest with you, the last 10 games last year has been the high level, and this year, I expect every (opponent) to come here and to try to play their game,” coach Wilfried Nancy said. “I’m not so concerned because we still have chances. I’m going to be concerned when we are going to concede a lot of chances and we will not have chances. For the moment, I’m OK with that. This is the dynamic of the moment.”

Saturday, the Crew twice came from behind and tied Portland 2-2 in the new Crew stadium. Hernandez came close to netting two more points, but he hit a post on a free kick on the last action of the night. The skinny on that game: sub-par first half, solid second half and another draw. Afterward, coach Nancy was asked for his big-picture evaluation.

“I feel good” he said. “I feel good with my team. Yes, in terms of results, we did many ties, but in terms of what we want to do in terms of performance, we are here. After that, we are missing maybe to attack the box and to have more chances. Defensively, we conceded two goals today, but we are pretty OK for the moment. We are on the right path. This is more about the results.”

Early season schedule congestion, brought about by the Crew’s inclusion in CONCACAF Champions Cup play, is skewing the big picture. Since the beginning of March, the Crew have been going through cycles of three games in eight days and five in 15. That’s a hard go. Nancy has used heavy rotations amid short turnarounds for league games.

The Crew are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, four points behind first-place Messiami. They’ve had some fine outings – a season-opening, 1-0 victory over Atlanta, a 3-0 romp at home over the New York Red Bulls on short rest and a 0-0 tie at Real Salt Lake are a few that spring to mind. All in all, not bad under the circumstances. And Nancy is all about the process. He’s testing out his new depth, expanding the roles of younger players and finding, or even inventing, new positions for Sean Zawadzki. It’s April.

Although Nancy has a strong desire to win the Supporters’ Shield, his focus right now is the Champions Cup (formerly known as Champions League). It provides hemispherical cachet. Liga MX has been around for 81 years, and its teams have dominated the continental championship. In 2022, the Seattle Sounders became the first MLS team to win the tournament. It was a watershed moment.

Club America, Guadalajara, Leon, Toluca … These clubs have been around decades and decades longer than MLS’s first chartered team. The Crew’s CCC quarterfinal victory over UANL Tigres – the Crew won on kicks on Tigres’ home turf, and Tigres almost never lose on their home turf – was a stunner.

The Crew’s opponent in the CCC semifinal round is Monterrey, another Mexican beast. Like the Crew, Monterrey is not showing its finest form in league play (they’re 1-3-1 in their last five Liga MX games) because, like the Crew, Monterrey is more focused right now on the CCC.

The Crew and Monterrey meet at Field Wednesday night in the first leg of a two-legged, aggregate goal series. The second leg is a week later in Monterrey. The winner will move on to the one-game final.

For the Crew, these are the highest-profile games in franchise history, and for Monterrey, it’s all about keeping face.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Liga MX power Monterrey look to maintain power as MLS Crew eye upset

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