Columbus Crew "trust the process" in epic Hell is Real comeback


Things looked pretty grim for the Columbus Crew as they walked into the TQL Stadium locker rooms at halftime on Saturday night, trailing 2-0 to FC Cincinnati, the best team in MLS during the regular season.

So grim, in fact, that even the faith of Wilfried Nancy’s own young children wavered.

“Tonight, my wife told me that when we were down 2-0, my son was crying. And my wife told him, you cannot quit,” related the Crew’s head coach after his team sprang an incredible second-half comeback to level the Eastern Conference Final at 2-2, then win it 3-2 in extra time via Christian Ramirez’s latest clutch goal.

“At the end of the game, my son told me, ‘Hey, Daddy, a good lesson.’ I said ‘Yes, thank you.’ So for me, this is exactly what we want to do.”

His kid certainly wasn’t alone in that bearish outlook. On a strictly statistical level, the Crew’s rally to stun their Hell is Real rivals defied the dominant trend of not just the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, but the last several – the first multiple-goal comeback in this year’s postseason and the first of its kind by any road team since the advent of single-game series.

Game model rewarded

It’s also true on a deeper level. This thing the Crew are doing, the way they walk a collective tightwire in possession, throwing numbers forward, carefully building from the back, basically daring opponents to press them and inflict errors and quick transitions?

This isn’t supposed to be working. Not according to the prevailing conventional wisdom in professional soccer, at least, where defensive solidity is sacrosanct and risks are disasters waiting to happen, to be minimized at all costs.

“It's enjoyable when you know you're going to get after it, no matter the situation, no matter the opponent,” said super-sub Ramirez, the night’s hero with the game-winning goal and an instrumental role in Columbus’ first. “When the manager tells you the whole time, we focus on ourselves and how we play, it gives us the ultimate confidence. We respect our opponent, we know what they're going to do well, how we can exploit them.

“It's refreshing, because so many times you go into a situation where it's like ‘OK, well, they do this, they do that, they do this,’ and you get away from your strengths. But here with Wilfried, we play to our strengths no matter what. … It's challenged me, it's given me a new outlook on football, doing some things that I normally never did in my career.”

And it’s certainly not supposed to be working this quickly: Nancy officially took over in Columbus after leaving CF Montréal last Dec. 6, four days shy of a year from this famous victory which so vindicates his meticulous methodology.

“Listen, this is the way we live. With a lot of humility, I do also this job for that. Because I want to be able to tell the story to my kids, and I want to educate also my kids in a certain way,” said the Frenchman as he related the anecdote about his son.

“And this is not me: I had the vision with the staff. This is clear what we want to do. But my players are phenomenal, can I say that? Because again, to be able to find a way to come back was difficult – physically, but it was also difficult mentally. And we've been working on the year to do that. This is not me. This is the players, because I felt that when I was on the bench, overtime, I was useless. Because they were on the pitch and they were able to sort it out. And I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it.”

Don't give up

The Crew’s possession-centric game model is intricate and aggressive and unconventional, built on a forward-leaning mindset that requires Nancy's players to be adventurous with and without the ball. Even with the sting of Cincy’s usually-deadly second goal still fresh as they headed into the break, the coaching staff urged their squad to stay the course.

“To be calm and to be patient and to trust the process,” said Nancy of his halftime message. “Because we had many opportunities [in the] first half to score. We conceded these two goals, but I had the feeling that we were close to scoring.

“At the same time, we needed to raise the intensity, physically and mentally, but we needed also to be cold. So the idea was to show them two clips. We adjusted also tactically two or three positions. And I told them from the start that guys, this is a new game. If we score one goal, we might have the possibility to score again."

He was right: FCC’s composure slackened when substitutes Ramirez and Julian Gressel combined to inflict an Alvas Powell own goal that halved the deficit, then crumbled after Diego Rossi’s stunning equalizer four minutes from full time.

“One thing that this team has always is belief,” said young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, who helped key the fightback with a massive save on Aaron Boupendza to keep Cincy from running their lead to three goals. “Every day in training we put ourselves in some scenarios like this – you know, if you're up 2-0, you have to maintain the lead. If you're down, you have to fight until the end. And this group is a special group, so we knew that we were just going to fight til the end. We had 45 minutes left in our season at that point. So just fight til the end, honestly.”

As Ramirez put it: “You sense some blood in the water.”

Columbus vs. LAFC

Asked to explain how this new Crew project came together so rapidly, Nancy pointed to “environment and trust,” hailing his players’ courage and openness in taking on his philosophy even with the potential for humbling mistakes it imposed on them. As they move on to host LAFC for an MLS Cup Final on home turf come Dec. 9 (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), that admiration is undoubtedly mutual – even for the likes of Ramirez and Gressel who’ve had to accept difficult decisions about their roles.

“You can only fight for someone like that,” said Ramirez. “So many times you can feel that you're getting the bad end of the stick at certain moments, but I haven't felt that. I think numerous guys understand how he sees the game now, and we respect that.

“We talk about writing our story in the Columbus Crew history; this chapter wasn't done. We got one more week, one more game. [Field], I know our fans are going to be ready. It's going to be electric.”