Voices: Joseph Lowery

Columbus Crew: What are the keys to victory vs. CF Monterrey?


The Columbus Crew want more.

After winning MLS Cup in their first year under head coach Wilfried Nancy, Columbus are pushing towards 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup glory. They just beat Tigres UANL, becoming the first MLS team to advance in Mexico after not winning at home in the first leg. Now, a semifinal battle awaits with another Liga MX giant in CF Monterrey.

How can Columbus defeat Rayados, starting with Leg 1 on Wednesday evening (8:15 pm ET | FS1, TUDN)? The second leg is May 1 at Estadio BBVA, determining who meets Club América or Pachuca in the June 2 final.

Stay true to NancyBall

It’s tempting to start any analysis of this series with CF Monterrey. After all, they’ve won the Champions Cup (formerly called the Champions League) five times and have been to multiple Club World Cups. They know this competition. They’ve had success in it. And they’re filled to the brim with high-level players. It would be reasonable for both us and the Crew to look at Monterrey’s approach and build the rest of the discussion around those findings.

But we’re not starting with Monterrey. Why? Because Nancy certainly isn’t doing that.

“It’s all about us,” the Frenchman said after his team pushed past Tigres in the quarterfinals. "We respect the opposition, we try to adjust certain things depending on what kind of style of play we're going to face. But at the end of the day, we try to play our football.”

That commitment to a singular style of play is a huge part of what's made Columbus so successful over the last calendar year.

Few teams on this side of the Atlantic have such a distinct tactical vision – one built on possession, a clever mixture of on-and-off-ball movement, and field control. Even fewer can rival the Crew’s obvious commitment to their tactical approach. Up against some of the best and brightest in Concacaf, the Crew don’t lose faith in their vision. They averaged 53.5% possession across two legs against Tigres, eventually toppling André-Pierre Gignac & Co. in penalties. In last year’s MLS Cup win over LAFC, Columbus enjoyed 62% possession while playing out of their fluid 3-4-3 shape.

If just one Crew player loses courage in buildup while under pressure, the entire attacking sequence can crumble. The same applies to the defensive side of the ball. If just one Crew player starts to drop back, worried about the space behind, instead of stepping to apply quick counter-pressure, the entire scheme is compromised. With the system poised on a knife’s edge, buy-in is critical – something Nancy's achieved since arriving from CF Montréal last year.

Columbus also have star power, led by striker Cucho Hernández. Diego Rossi is a goal threat and scored both Crew goals in the last round. Darlington Nagbe is your favorite player’s favorite player. There are impact role players in every line of the field, along with a share of imperfections, too. But the talent mixed with a tactical structure that eliminates basic (but common!) mistakes like redundant spacing and sluggish off-ball movement makes this Columbus team special.

And it gives them a real chance of beating Monterrey.

Manage the game

Under manager Fernando Ortiz, Monterrey are more willing to bend than the Crew. Pushing to finish atop the Liga MX Clausura table, they typically dominate possession in league play. But against ball-heavy teams like Columbus, they’ll likely ease off the gas and adopt a balance between possession and transition in a flexible 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 shape. Between the combined goal threat of Brandon Vazquez and Germán Berterame, and Sergio Canales’ vision and passing range, Monterrey also have more than enough quality to cause problems for the Crew. They’ll be a handful and then some.

How effectively Columbus counter-press and defend in space deeper downfield will be key.

In their quarterfinal win over Inter Miami CF, Monterrey had real success defending with a narrow block that forced Miami out to the wings. We could see a similar approach from Ortiz and his team against the Crew, who love to find Cucho through the middle or in the halfspaces with low, line-breaking passes. The focus for Columbus, then, will be exactly where Nancy wants it: on his team’s ability to create chances and control the game with the ball.

Expect aggressive outside center backs, pushing into the attack to provide a numerical advantage on the wings, while their more central teammates look for gaps between the lines. Or, even when they’re not pushing forward, expect the Crew’s central defenders to probe for progressive passes after quick ball rotation across the backline. These are the kinds of passes and off-ball runs that can tear even a solid block to shreds:

Total commitment

If the Crew deviate from what’s made them so successful recently, they’ll falter. Any hesitation with the ball will turn dangerous attacking moments into tame ones – and any hesitation without it will see a Monterrey attacker burst in behind with time and space. So, the key for Columbus across these two legs is to play their game.

For all their positive traits, those who have tuned into CCC matches this year or CCL matches in the past know how tricky it will be for Columbus to march past an elite Liga MX team. The two-legged affair will test Columbus in ways they’ve rarely been tested before. But isn’t that what Nancy wants? You don’t improve without challenges – and that’s exactly what Columbus will get in this semifinal round.

Keep this in mind, too: The Crew are the last MLS team remaining in CCC, and a FIFA 2025 Club World Cup spot is there for the taking. These are the games you crave, the ones where more history awaits.