Houston Dynamo vs. Columbus Crew: Champions Cup R16 First Leg Match Preview

The Columbus Crew launch their CONCACAF Champions Cup campaign after securing a bye to the round of 16. They will kick off their journey by traveling to Texas for the first leg against the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night.
Aug 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Columbus Crew SC forward Cucho Hernandez (9) attempts to head the
Aug 30, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Columbus Crew SC forward Cucho Hernandez (9) attempts to head the / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We've got a showdown between the reigning U.S. Open Cup champion and the reigning MLS Cup champion and things are getting serious. On Wednesday night, the two will face off in the first leg of the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup Round of 16. The Houston Dynamo will host the Columbus Crew at Shell Energy Stadium in Houston, Texas. On the flip side, the Black and Gold will host the Dynamo at Lower.com Field on the 12th of March for the second leg to decide who will advance to the quarterfinals.

In their most recent encounter just last season, Houston secured a victory over Columbus with a 2-0 win on a hot and humid evening in Texas.

What is this tournament?

The CONCACAF Champions Cup consists of top clubs in North America through a tournament format that brings together teams from across North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Running from February to June 2nd, this competition runs parallel to domestic league campaigns, mirroring the structure of the UEFA Champions League in Europe and South America's Copa Libertadores.

MLS legend Darlington Nagbe is set for his fifth Champions Cup appearance, his second with Columbus, while attacking midfielder Diego Rossi returns to the tournament for the first time since 2020. During that campaign, Rossi played a key role for Los Angeles FC, scoring two goals in five matches, including one in the Final against Tigres.

How did the pair get here?

The Crew qualified for the competition before winning MLS Cup. However, due to their cup victory, Columbus received a bye to the next round, while the other MLS teams had to prove themselves in the previous round. This marks their fifth appearance in the Champions Cup, with their last one occurring in the 2021 edition, where they reached the quarterfinals.

The hosts, however, had to get their hands dirty to advance to this stage. Houston had to overcome another MLS opponent, St. Louis City SC, in the previous round to reach this stage of the tournament. Despite suffering a 2-1 defeat in the first leg in St. Louis, a 1-0 win at home in the second leg, courtesy of a goal from Erik Sviatchenko, resulted in a 2-2 draw on aggregate. Houston secured the series victory via the away goal tiebreaker.

A look at the hosts

Kowalczyk netted the opening goal for Dynamo in St. Louis and managed 87 successful passes, along with two ball recoveries across both legs. Meanwhile, Clark showcased his prowess in goal, maintaining a clean sheet in the second leg and making five saves overall. This triumph marked Houston's fifth home victory in six Champions Cup matches, and they aim to build on this success, relying on players like Sviatchenko, Sebastian Kowalczyk, and Steve Clark on Wednesday night.

Houston Head Coach Ben Olsen faces a strategic dilemma in assembling the team for the upcoming fixture. In the previous match against The Red Bulls, he opted for a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation and would eventually lose at home soil. Despite the outcome falling short of expectations, the team didn't suffer a complete defeat on the field. Substitutions, including those of Brooklyn Raines, Sebastian Kowalczyk, and Tate Schmitt, were made during the game. Whether these changes were tactical or intended to provide rest ahead of the CONCACAF game remains uncertain. Nonetheless, Ben Olsen hopes to rectify the team's performance in the forthcoming match.

Injury news

For the Crew, it looks more or less the same as last time out, with Mo Farsi the only uncertainty. However, we've got some positive injury news with Will Sands making an appearance on the bench for the first time since his injury in the draw against Minnesota over the weekend. It's good to see him back, and he will be slowly eased back in to avoid aggravating the injury.

As for the hosts, Houston continues to face a significant setback as their captain, Hector Herrera, remains sidelined due to injury. With both teams keen on ball possession, Herrera's absence could prove pivotal in determining who maintains control. Adding to the challenge, the Crew's standout forward, Cucho Hernandez, has already notched two goals in the opening two games of the MLS season.

What to expect

It will be fascinating to see how each team lines up, considering the fixture congestion. The Crew undoubtedly aim to avoid defeat, especially in a two-legged contest where conceding heavily early on could be detrimental. While a draw would suffice, securing a win would significantly ease their task, allowing them to assert control and defend their lead at home, though it's easier said than done. On the flip side, Houston is aware of the visitors' struggles on the road, which should motivate them to make life challenging for the Crew. It'll be more or less the same story as the match against Minnesota, where we saw the home side pressing relentlessly to disrupt Columbus's build-up from the back, as well as hurting them on the counter. Minnesota should have capitalized on this, especially in the first half. Both teams also had injuries to important players such as Emanuel Reynoso of Minnesota and Hector Herrera of Houston.

Once again, the first leg promises to be a tightly contested affair, ensuring an excited tie as we’ll have another full 90 minutes of action in the second leg.