Following their third consecutive loss in Liga MX this past Saturday in the Estadio Universitario to the hands of their nemesis Tigres, and with one must-win regular season game remaining this weekend to clinch a top-4 spot in the league table, Rayados now turn their attention to their CONCACAF Champions League duties. Up next in the QF round, the current MLS champions; Columbus Crew.
So, how do both teams arrive to this point? The home team, Columbus Crew, began their tournament by facing Nicaraguan club Real Estelí, who managed to make their first CCL QF appearance in last year’s edition. This year, however, Crew managed to dispose of them quite easily, after blasting them away in the first leg with a 4-0 road victory, followed up by a 1-0 home victory to win 5-0 on aggregate. Rayados had a similar Round of 16; they drew Dominican Republic’s Atlético Pantoja, and after all but securing the series after a 3-0 first leg road victory, came back home to almost repeat the same score, this time winning by 3-1, and a 6-1 score on aggregate. In summary, both had relatively simple opening tournament series.
What can we expect in this first match? If both teams were playing to their full potentials, I would expect Rayados to win this series. Definitely not by a blowout to any stretch of the imagination, but I wouldn’t expect Crew to pose as much of a threat, despite them having won the MLS title a few months ago. We all know the quality of Rogelio Funes Mori, Dorlan Pabón, and other Rayados players when they bring their A-game. They have the firepower to bring down any defense and vastly dominate a game. They’ve proven it over and over when they set their minds and efforts to it.
With that being said, given the current state of Javier Aguirre’s club, the low level of play and energy from many of these players, and the fact Aguirre has chosen to save three key players for Saturday’s key matchup against Mazatlán, I expect more than a dogfight, not only tonight, but during this entire series. Rayados will be without Dutch striker Vincent Janssen, as well as midfielders Maxi Meza and Ponchito González. Meza has arguably been Rayados’ best player in recent weeks. Now, Monterrey can still create opportunities and be dangerous if they want to be, but that’s the real question; will they? Or would they rather sit back and guard that clean sheet they’ve been so keen on obtaining on a weekly basis? That is definitely a viable option “El Vasco” could go with, given the speed he has in both Avilés Hurtado and Aké Loba, seeking offense through counter-attacks. But the fact Layún, Montes, Charly Rodríguez, and even Funes Mori are going through such a bad stretch of play, it leaves a bunch of unknowns hanging up in the air.
Regarding what to expect from Columbus Crew, we spoke to The Columbus Dispatch reporter Jacob Myers. “Crew have arguably the best midfield trio in the entire MLS in Darlington Nagbe, Zelarayan, and Artur.” Myers went on to mention that Crew like to win the ball high in transition, and we all know the kind of trouble that can bring for Rayados’ low intensity periods. So, if Columbus do indeed bring the pressure and play with intensity, that should complicate thing mightily for the blue and white. Apart from that, if we add the fact that Costa Rican LW Luis Díaz, who as Myers states, “is possibly the fastest player in MLS,” as well as a facilitator for his teammates, coupled up front with ever dangerous and also speedy Gyasi Zardes, they could also present major issues for César Montes, Stefan Medina, and company who lack speed more than anything. Only Layún could have the speed to keep up with this tandem. Myers also praised Jonathan Mensah on the defensive end of the ball, highlighting his physical and gritty approach to the game, and it’ll be up to him to keep Funes Mori honest.
In conclusion, Rayados have much to prove tonight in Historic Crew Stadium. The fact they’re missing three key starters and going through a rough patch of results, as well as going up against a team who likes to play physical, intense football, could present many obstacles for Javier Aguirre’s club. Rayados’ must-win game on Saturday if they wish to have that first week bye in the Liga MX playoffs has affected their lineup tonight, which is why tonight is when the Crew must jump on them, seize control of the action, and strike first. However, any lack of focus could prove costly for Columbus, as Rayados still hold one of the most (if not the most) dangerous offenses not only in Mexico, but the entire CONCACAF, and can strike on any given night.