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The Columbus Crew didn’t have to be the best team. Like last season’s run to an MLS Cup title, they just had to be good enough.
That, they were.
The Crew defeated Liga MX champion Cruz Azul, 2-0, on Wednesday night at Lower.com Field to claim the Campeones Cup — the annual game between the reigning champions of America’s and Mexico’s top professional leagues.
The Crew were anchored by a pesty defense that spent much of the game defending close to goal after Cruz Azul gifted the Crew an own goal in the opening minutes.
On a free kick by attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan in the fourth minute, Cruz Azul forward Bryan Angulo headed the ball behind him past goalkeeper Jesus Corona to give the Crew their dream start.
Then it was the captain who slammed the door.
In the 74th minute, left back Milton Valenzuela delivered a cross to the back post where center back Jonathan Mensah was waiting. His header from inside the 6-yard box hit the hand of Corona, who couldn’t keep it out of the net.
The Crew wanted another trophy to showcase. But on a grander scale, Sunday’s game at Philadelphia Union remained the more important match. The midweek game against one of the top clubs in Mexico, however, gave the Crew a chance to only build on the momentum they had begun to accumulate with three straight wins at Lower.com Field entering the night.
"A trophy's a trophy. Anytime you can win one, you got to win it," Crew coach Caleb Porter said. "When you have a chance to knock off a team like that, Liga MX champion last year, it's just a great win. And it'll help us with confidence, belief."
Having to defend for roughly 75% of the match, the Crew handled Cruz Azul and found a decisive goal to capture a moment that will go into club history and perhaps another notch in the belt as to why the Crew believe they will earn a playoff spot with seven league games remaining.
With an announced crowd of 18,026 that was more than half Cruz Azul fans, the atmosphere felt like a cup final rather than a glorified friendly that was only in its third year of play. Crew fans countered with “Columbus!” chants any time the visiting fans deafened the downtown night with chants of “Azul!”
After Angulo’s error gave the Crew the early lead, the new 3-4-3 formation Porter deployed with a back line of Mensah, Josh Williams and Aboubacar Keita was tested. Right back Steven Moreira made his Crew debut as well.
Cruz Azul threatened around the Crew’s penalty area but never really challenged goalkeeper Evan Bush, who ended the match with three saves.
Cruz Azul’s top attacking player Jonathan Rodriguez had a chance to tie the game in the 47th minute directly in front of goal but shot it over the bar. Right back Juan Escobar put a tight-angle shot off the post in the 52nd minute.
Though Cruz Azul didn’t play its top group for the full game, their attacking depth would be among the best — if not the best — in MLS, and the Crew held firm like they did last season close to goal. The Crew had 40 clearances in the match, withstanding 34 crosses.
"That's a heck of a team, and I thought defensively we didn't really give a lot of clear looks the entire game," Porter said. "They had a ton of crosses obviously but I thought the shape worked really well for the game we knew we had to play."
After the final whistle, Crew players swarmed each other in front of the Nordecke supporters’ section. There hadn’t been much to cheer about through a grueling summer of eight losses in nine games.
Wednesday night was another moment when the Crew could feel like they are building something.
"We can sense that we're getting back to our old form, which is being the best in the league," Mensah said. "We're not going to stop here."
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Campeones Cup: Columbus Crew shuts out Liga MX's Cruz Azul