The Columbus Crew are officially heading back to the postseason.
Wilfried Nancy's side clinched an Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs spot in emphatic fashion by storming past Chicago Fire FC, 3-0, at Lower.com Field Wednesday evening. The result ends a two-year drought following the club's MLS Cup title in 2020.
“Listen, I don’t take that for granted, to make the playoffs. It’s been two years now that we didn’t do it in Columbus,” Nancy told reporters post-game. “When I sat with the team at the beginning of the year, we said that our first objective was to reach between 13, 14 wins and to make the playoffs. And after that? It was to be limitless, and this is what we’re going to try and do.”
The first-year Crew manager, who joined this past offseason from CF Montréal, has helped Columbus (14W-9L-6D, 48 points) punch their ticket by quickly instilling “confidence and humility” within the group and getting his team to really buy into his style of play.
“For me, this is really important,” Nancy told MLS 360 after the match. “We want to be limitless and I believe a lot about the players, but also the person. … But I want to be really demanding with the players and also with the vision that we have and the fact that I am in Columbus now. They wanted me for that, and that's why the chemistry's good.”
Nancy added: “We try to play the way we want to play knowing that this is not easy. I know that I ask a lot [of] my players to be able to attack, to be able to rescue the ball, to be able to do the counter-pressing. This is a lot, but that's why I'm really pleased because they chose that, and then are able to do it on the pitch and enjoy themselves, so this is good for us for the moment."
Cucho for MVP?
Results this season indicate the players have received Nancy’s messaging loud and clear – in turn elevating the team's overall play and helping individual players reach new heights.
On that note, it was fitting the Matchday 33 win was propelled by a Cucho Hernández hat trick – his second in his last three matches. The 24-year-old Colombian striker, who was named the MLS Player of the Matchday presented by Continental Tire back on Matchday 30, struck the back of the net three times (twice from the penalty spot) within 23 minutes to give the Crew a commanding first-half lead and eventual victory.
Given his form of late, Hernández, a club-record signing from English Championship side Watford, has emerged as a dark-horse candidate in the Golden Boot presented by Audi and Landon Donovan MLS MVP races with 13g/11a in 22 appearances this season – including seven goals in his last three outings. He is just two goals back of reigning MVP Hany Mukhtar (15g/9a).
Numbers aside, Hernández has become, according to his coach, the best modern No. 9 in the league thanks to his willingness to adopt a selfless style of play.
"He’s been improving a lot,” Nancy told MLS 360. “Cucho was not the same when I took the team [compared to] now. He has the ability to step back, to accept the criticism, and to understand that we want … everything to be better. So obviously, he has really good quality. But to me, the big step that he made is to be able to be open and to play to be good individually, but also to be good for the team. And for me, this is the best modern forward in the league.
“That’s why I love him a lot, because the way he runs without the ball, the way he plays with the ball. Yes, he has to get better at certain things but in terms of energy and intensity, for me, this is the best.”
Hernández’s standout play couldn’t have come at a better time for the Crew after the departure of Lucas Zelarayán, who left midseason via transfer to the Saudi Pro League. Hernández, along with the club's new three-pronged attack that also includes summer signing Diego Rossi and Christian Ramírez, has helped fill the massive void left by the former MLS Cup MVP, leading the Crew to third place in the Eastern Conference through 29 matches.