National Writer: Charles Boehm

Columbus Crew soar to historic Champions Cup final berth: "One more"


Wilfried Nancy’s intricate tactics and game model necessitate a steady flow of communication among his players and staff, on the training ground as well as on gamedays: “day-to-day work, this is a lot of video, this is a lot of interaction also … repetition, with clear situations, and also a structure, a defined structure,” as he put it to last year.

But in the aftermath of his Columbus Crew’s breathtaking 3-1 away win over mighty Monterrey to triumph in their Concacaf Champions Cup semifinal series 5-2 on aggregate, he gathered his group on the pitch at Estadio BBVA and asked them to say nothing at all.

“When we finished the game,” Nancy explained to reporters postgame, “We did a kind of huddle, you know? And I wanted them to say nothing for three or four seconds, and just realize what they’ve done.

“For me, this is about trying to be limitless, and this value, for me this is so important, because I think that what we did today is going to be good also for their life as a human being, knowing that, why are we going to put limits on what we do? Try to achieve something.”

Columbus did exactly that on Wednesday night, standing toe to toe with an all-time giant of Concacaf play and inflicting Rayados’ first-ever series loss to an MLS side. And they did so in their now-customary style, controlling the run of play after weathering an early gut punch in the form of an Yevhen Cheberko own goal instigated by a Maxi Meza chip over Patrick Schulte that clanged off the crossbar and hit Cheberko before bouncing into the net.

Setbacks like that have historically been the prelude to MLS misery in Concacaf action on Mexican soil, blood in the water that triggers wave after wave of suffocating pressure, and eventually floods of goals, from Liga MX adversaries keen to extend their league’s tradition of superiority over the upstarts to the north.

Not this time.

Embracing the moment

Thanks to a stirring rally keyed by goals from Aidan Morris and Diego Rossi before substitute Jacen Russell-Rowe’s late exclamation point, it will be the Crew who cross swords with Pachuca in the CCC final, which will take place June 1 at Estadio Hidalgo (9:15 pm ET) – shifted from its original date of June 2 due to Mexican elections taking place that day.

“The team showed great resilience, coming from a goal down. It was awesome. I mean, such an amazing stadium, the fans are unbelievable. It was cool, it was an amazing experience,” Morris told reporters in the mixed zone.

“I’m excited to come back. Playing in these stadiums is super cool. I enjoy coming down here, the fans are so energetic, so lively. So I’m ready to come down here. One more game to go.”

The home of a lavishly talented squad with a culture of success, ringing with noise from upwards of 50,000 partisan fans, Estadio BBVA is just the kind of venue that’s become a house of horrors for US and Canadian sides in fixtures like this over the decades. But as Morris noted, rather than be cowed by the setting, the Crew embraced it, and produced the latest in a string of epic big-game performances of Nancy’s tenure.

“This is huge. This is huge,” said the Frenchman. “We know that we played against a good team, but the environment – it was hot, it was a really good environment, the fans of Monterey pushed a lot, it was amazing. Before we started the game, the atmosphere was really, really powerful, and this is something that, we play for that.

“I think that my players used this situation to find a way to come back from behind, and also to fight, and also to play. We didn't play our best game with the ball, I would say, but we played our best game in terms of resilience, in terms of the way we believe.”

"We're not afraid of anyone"

The Crew emphasized that their current mission is not over, not even after knocking off the Regiomontano duo of Tigres UANL and Rayados – two of Liga MX’s wealthiest, most talented and most successful clubs – in back-to-back rounds. Having already claimed an MLS Cup, they must now defeat Pachuca in order to find true fulfillment from this Concacaf run.

But they can easily be forgiven for not being prepared, or of a mind, to answer reporters’ questions about Los Tuzos, their next CCC adversary thanks to their own upset of Club América one night prior.

“I haven’t thought about it, really. I’m just soaking all this in,” veteran Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “Soaking in the game, thinking about everything that happened during this game, all the moments that we had that we pulled together and were able to come through with the win. So it’ll be a tough challenge against another tough team, another good team. But we have a lot of confidence.”

It’s exceedingly rare to see a top Liga MX side outgunned like Monterrey were on this occasion. As impressive as Columbus’ methodical possession sequences were, as fluid as their attack was on those incisive forays forward, it was the dogged defensive display that really distinguished this trip south of the border from the many unsuccessful ones before it.

“Defensively, we were outstanding, in terms of the way we defend in the box,” said Nancy. “Because again, we knew that they have really good quality in the air, to be able to go with their heads, also to make an assist and to score. But [Columbus’ back line] fought, and they were also good to get the right position to play, to try to do the body position also, to try to bump the players, to try to disrupt the run. It's not only the body in the air, this is also all the technical elements, and also the mental aspect.

“They were cold,” he added of his defenders, and it was undoubtedly the highest of compliments.

The Crew, who proudly consider themselves MLS’s first team, will now aim to become just the second MLS team in the modern era to hoist Concacaf’s highest club honor. That sentence in and of itself is magical for a fanbase that barely five years ago had to mobilize and advocate to fight off a proposed relocation from Columbus to Austin via the “Save the Crew” movement.

“It’s absolutely a phenomenal feeling,” said defender Sean Zawadzki. “So proud of this club, so proud of the team. You saw last year, the strides we made from beginning to end, and then this year, starting off strong, playing these Mexican teams and getting results, I think we’re not afraid of anyone and we’re willing to show that day in and day out.

“We want to continue to make history for our club.”