Columbus Crew see clear path to MLS Cup: "We want to create something"


The Columbus Crew's magical 2023 keeps on rolling. Revitalized under first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy, the Ohio club advanced to the Eastern Conference Final Saturday night with an impressive 2-0 extra-time win at Orlando City SC.

"I discussed with my players before the game about the first meeting that we had when we met and we were talking about trying to create a story, trying to create memory," Nancy reflected following the win that sets up a Dec. 2 showdown against Hell is Real rival FC Cincinnati (6 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) – with the winner advancing to MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9.

"These players, I challenged them to add their own chapter to the club this year. And this is what they did. And because of the connection with the fans, they tried to do a lot of things on the pitch, but they tried to create a lot of emotions. And I'm really happy for that because this is really important for me – because yes, we want to win, but also, we want to create something."

On the road against a stingy and well-drilled Orlando side, the Crew were the protagonists, outshooting the Lions 20-13 and nearly doubling their expected goals. Even before Rodrigo Schlegel's 77th-minute sending-off, Columbus were the more dangerous side.

That superiority was eventually reflected on the scoreboard when Christian Ramírez found the 93rd-minute breakthrough and Cucho Hernández iced the game in the 118th minute.

The result was a testament to Nancy's vision for the club and their ability to consistently dictate style of play.

"I knew that this moment would come because there's been a lot of discussions during the year about how to do it. It's normal," said Nancy of his team's approach. "But I knew that again, the fact that we were able to do our job with the ball and without the ball to have a competitive spirit like this.

"... It's funny because we have a clean sheet in Orlando, one of the most difficult places to play. And we scored two goals. So I knew that we were able to do it and I'm really, really, really happy for the guys because they deserve it."

It's no surprise to anyone who's watched the Crew play this season, but enjoying the game and the process has always been a core piece of Nancy's plan. That joy was reflected in Saturday night's result.

"Listen, I am a human being so I'm really happy for that. I have emotions so I would say I'm really proud of that," he added. "But with my staff, when we came here the first day we said that we have values, and values is about, for us, to compete and to enjoy. This is what we try to put all the years in place with our players. So I'm happy. But again, the job is not finished."

Super-sub Superman to the rescue

Ramírez entered a scoreless deadlock at the start of extra time and took just two minutes to find the breakthrough goal for Columbus. The 32-year-old has started just two matches since the beginning of September, but was more than prepared to make an impact when he got the call.

"Anybody who knows me knows I put my heart and soul into this, being ready. Obviously, the last 10 weeks I haven't played as much as I did early on in the year or in the middle of the year," said the forward, who contributed 8g/4a in 30 appearances (19 starts) this season. "But I never once complained. I just stayed ready and I knew my job wasn't done this season. There would be a moment where they would need me and hopefully the story continues to be written."

As sweet as a Conference Semifinal-winning strike is on its own, the goal was even sweeter for Ramírez and his growing family. The twice-capped USMNT forward almost didn't travel with the Crew to Orlando: He and his wife spent Tuesday in the hospital, thinking she was about to deliver their new baby.

It turned out to be a false alarm and Ramírez made the trip. The rest is history.

"It's hard to put into words," he smiled. "... Hopefully that goal was special for her, for the little one. I know for myself, it was really special. So hopefully she can go into labor tomorrow, not tonight, and enjoy this one."

Schulte heroics

At the other end of the pitch, goalkeeper Patrick Schulte stepped up in a key moment to keep his team in the lead. The 22-year-old second-year professional has improved consistently throughout the year, his first in MLS after winning the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro Cup with Columbus Crew 2.

"I don't like to talk about one player in particular, but I've been astounded. Schulte, he kept us in the game," Nancy gushed. "... It was a roller coaster and I said that for him a bit, and it's normal because first year as a first goalkeeper in MLS. So I knew that he will fail and I always told him that the objective is not about how he's going to fail, he's always going to react and all the year he was able to accept the challenge."

Schulte's three saves, all of which came during extra time, were absolutely vital as the Crew withstood Orlando's late onslaught. It was the type of performance he's been preparing for all year.

"I knew the work I was putting in, and just to have the trust from the team and the coaching staff from the front office," Schulte said, summing up his first season as Columbus's number one 'keeper. "... It's been up and down, good moments, bad moments. But honestly, just learning from them and just taking each moment in and just trying to become better from it. Last time I came here, I knew I didn't have a good performance.

"It's been a crazy journey, but super thankful and just blessed to have the opportunity."