Preview: The Crew face Mexican champions Cruz Azul in tonight’s Campeones Cup

A battle between the champions of MLS and Liga MX comes to Field

Chris DeVille
Lucas Zelarayan and the Crew face Liga MX champs Cruz Azul in the Campeones Cup. Before coming to the Crew, Zelarayan played for Liga MX club Tigres.

Because the Columbus Crew is fighting for their playoff lives — with a pivotal road contest at Philadelphia looming this Sunday — it can be easy to forget they won MLS Cup last year. The triumph over Seattle last December earned Columbus entry into multiple prestigious international competitions, starting with the CONCACAF Champions League this past spring. The next of those is a one-off contest going down tonight (Wednesday, Sept. 29) at Field: the Campeones Cup against Deportivo Cruz Azul, reigning champions of Mexico’s Liga MX. Things kick off at 8 p.m., with TV coverage on ESPN2, Univision and TUDN.

The Crew is coming into the match with some momentum, having rebounded from their late-summer swoon. They’re undefeated in their last three MLS matches, with 2-1 wins over fellow Eastern Conference bubble teams New York Red Bulls and CF Montréal sandwiching a road draw against league-leading New England. Those are quality results, and they seem to have reinstituted some of the swagger Columbus lost during a club-record six-game losing streak. Gyasi Zardes, in particular, is in the zone, with two spectacular goals last weekend that earned him MLS Player of the Week honors.

He and the Crew will be facing off against Cruz Azul, reigning champions of Liga MX for the first time since 1997. Liga MX plays two seasons per calendar year, Apertura or “Opening” (which runs from July to December) and Clausura or “Closing” (from January through May). This past season those competitions were renamed Guardianes 2020 (Apertura) and Guardianes 2021 (Clausura) in honor of healthcare workers. Under the leadership of manager Juan Reynoso, who captained Cruz Azul during his playing days, the Mexico City club won Guardianes 2021 and then defeated Guardianes 2020 champions León in July’s Campeon de Campeones match — think of it as the Super Bowl of Mexican soccer.

Cruz Azul are nicknamed Los Cementeros, which translates to “The Cement Makers” — so there’s some overlap with the Crew’s own iconography, namely the three construction workers from the original Columbus logo. That’s not all these teams have in common. Although Cruz Azul’s triumph was much more recent than the Crew’s MLS Cup victory, they’ve gotten off to a deeply average start in the current Liga MX season, posting a 3-2-5 record so far.

Still, these Cementeros are stacked. Cruz Azul supplied five of the 25 players on the Liga MX all-star team that faced off against the MLS all-stars back in August: striker Jonathan “Cabecita” Rodríguez, midfielder Luis Romo, defenders Pablo Aguilar and Juan Marcelo Escobar and goalkeeper José de Jesús Corona. Columbus may have the home-field advantage, but nothing about this game will come easy.

MLS and Liga MX have really been cozying up lately, and they’re about to get a lot cozier. In addition to the Campeones Cup and the All-Star Game, four clubs from each league faced off this summer in Leagues Cup, an annual tournament started in 2019. (León beat the Seattle Sounders in last weekend’s final.) That tournament is about to become a much bigger deal.

Last week, MLS and Liga MX jointly announced that starting in 2023, Leagues Cup will be expanding into a month-long World Cup-style tournament featuring all teams from both leagues. MLS will pause its schedule midway through the season so teams can put all their energy into the tournament. This is huge news. On a business level, a partnership between North America’s two most prominent men’s soccer leagues promises to grow the audience for MLS and Liga MX in both countries. On an entertainment level, this has the potential to surpass last year’s fantastic MLS Is Back tournament. That was just MLS teams in a bubble in Orlando; this would be every team from both leagues throwing down all over the continent for a month, vying for North American supremacy.

Until then, North American supremacy will have to be settled by tonight’s Crew/Cruz showdown at the Dot. If you buy into the front office’s talk about becoming a global powerhouse — or even if you want to know whether the Black and Gold really have their swagger back — this match is a must-watch.