Columbus Crew make Champions Cup history vs. Tigres: "We believe in ourselves"

24-CCC_Thumb_CLB at Tigres

The weight of history loomed over the Columbus Crew.

In the Concacaf Champions Cup, an MLS team had never advanced past a Liga MX opponent after hosting and not winning the first leg of their series. 

So after last week at Field, when Columbus drew 1-1 with Tigres UANL in Leg 1 of their quarterfinal series, a familiar fate seemed inevitable in a continental competition that’s often seen MLS clubs go tantalizingly close, only to suffer heartbreak against Liga MX opponents.

But, as head coach Wilfried Nancy said last December after their MLS Cup 2023 triumph, impossible is an opinion – a perspective that resurfaced Tuesday night for Leg 2 at Estadio Universitario. That’s where Columbus pulled off the spectacular, winning 4-3 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 aggregate deadlock forced extra time. 

Still in contention for regional glory and qualification for the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, the Crew will contest a CCC semifinal series in late April. They’ll learn Wednesday evening who awaits, either Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF or Mexican powerhouse CF Monterrey. 

“We spoke about it: We wanted to show why we are the champions of MLS,” star striker Cucho Hernández said post-game. “We faced a team who have top players. We are very proud of what we did in this stage in both matches. Very happy.”

Added wingback Yaw Yeboah: “We know they are a big club with good players and we respect them as a team, but we came in the way we also know. We’re confident. We are also a good team. We believe in ourselves. For us, there’s nothing new that’s going to get in the way of us. We are used to winning, we do our best and we believe in ourselves.”

There's even more context, though.

Columbus played without All-Star midfielder Aidan Morris, their homegrown standout who was red-carded in Leg 1. Cucho recently served a two-game, team-imposed suspension after violating team policy, an absence that included Leg 1 vs. Tigres. Veteran forward Christian Ramirez and utility man Sean Zawadzki were missing due to injury, and Columbus entered winless in four matches (0W-1L-3D) across all competitions. That's all wrapped up in the usual challenges MLS clubs encounter in Mexico, the on-field rivalry between these leagues, how Tigres won CCC in 2020, and how Tigres had already eliminated two MLS teams this year – Vancouver Whitecaps FC and Orlando City SC.

Then, just three minutes into Tuesday’s pressure-packed matchup at El Volcán, Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte mishandled a harmless back-pass. Legendary French striker André-Pierre Gignac pounced and put Tigres ahead 1-0 on the night (2-1 on aggregate) with an away goal in tow. Early in the second half, when a penalty kicked wasn’t awarded after Yeboah was seemingly fouled in the box, the odds seemed truly stacked against Columbus.  

But the Crew fought back through Diego Rossi, who equalized in the 59th minute with his second goal of the series. A combination of bend-don’t-break defense, missed opportunities by Tigres and purposeful possession helped Columbus force extra time. The on-field tensions were palpable.

And then onto PKs, which Cucho likened to playing the “lottery.” But everything came up Black & Gold from 12 yards out, particularly for Schulte. The US youth international seized his redemption opportunity, denying Gignac and then Guido Pizarro from his spot. Max Arfsten scored a fifth-round winner and Tigres were left stunned. History was made; self-belief and the collective persevered.

“The most important thing here is the group, the fact that we were able to go through to the next round,” Rossi said. “The group deserved it because we stayed strong. We started the match losing, but we were able to go through to the next round, which is very important for us.”

Added Nancy: “I’m really – not lucky because this is the day-to-day work – so proud of my players. We were missing a few players, but again, it’s all about the team and this is the ‘We Not Me,’ the values that we have, and today we showed that. We showed that and we deserved to go through.”

Only one MLS team has won CCC in the modern-day iteration: Seattle Sounders FC in 2022. Might the Crew, after this historic night, be next in line?

“It’s very hard to play here in Mexico, so I think it’s really a good representation of the league that we came here, got a victory and go to the next round,” Arfsten said. “Hopefully, we can keep going to the final and just keep representing the league.”