By most metrics, the Columbus Crew are ahead of schedule.
Yes, a few pieces remain from their MLS Cup 2020 triumph – most notably midfielders Darlington Nagbe (still the same elite metronome he always was) and Aidan Morris (a surprise starter in the 2020 Cup who’s risen to irreplaceable All-Star status).
But the rest of the projected XI for Saturday's MLS Cup presented by Audi vs. LAFC (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free) weren’t even on the roster four years ago at Historic Crew Stadium. More to the point, it’s still the team’s first season under head coach Wilfried Nancy, whose system is predicated on the type of bold and elaborate patterns of play that usually take years to master. And even at their scintillating best in attack this season, the Crew's propensity for giving up late goals made them look like the type of side that’s a fun regular season watch, but less likely to be an MLS Cup contender.
Yet here they are, hosting MLS Cup again, only this time at their state-of-the-art stadium, Lower.com Field. How’d they do it?
It’s not often a club lures a mid-contract coach away from another club in the same league, especially a league as parity-driven as MLS, where there are no “super teams” like Real Madrid or Manchester City that dwarf the others in stature and buying power. But that’s exactly what happened when the Crew compensated CF Montréal to secure the services of Nancy and much of his Montréal staff.
The bold move came on the heels of Columbus’ decision to part ways with Caleb Porter after 2022 as they narrowly missed out on the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs with a Decision Day loss at Orlando City SC. Porter had delivered a historic MLS Cup to the city in 2020 (fresh off the #SaveTheCrew movement) and won another with Portland in 2015. But GM/president Tim Bezbatchenko had a new vision for the Crew’s future, and Nancy was at the center of it.
That decision made all the difference as the French coach, who spent five years honing his craft in Montréal’s youth academy, has put his undeniable stamp on the club. Under Nancy, the Crew have become the most swashbuckling team in MLS, leading the league in both total goals and average possession per game.
With impressive playoff road wins over Orlando and FC Cincinnati paving the way to MLS Cup, Nancy's proven that style and substance don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Sometimes in sports, a team with beaucoup resources makes an offer that can’t be refused. Usually, when that’s the case, the team on the receiving end accepts an exchange of short-term regression for long-term investment.
But when the Saudi Pro League’s Al Fateh swooped in to sign playmaker Lucas Zelarayán midseason, the Crew barely missed a step. Just two days after transferring the face of 2020’s Cup-winning team (who at the time was leading the team in goal contributions for 2023), Columbus announced the arrival of a replacement Designated Player, Diego Rossi.
The move showed how in lockstep Bezbachenko and Nancy had quickly become in year one – first, in that they replaced their star player within the same transfer window they lost him, and second, in that Rossi arguably suited the team’s needs better than Zelarayán. The former LAFC star excels in off-ball movement and provides a vertical threat in behind that allows Columbus’ other playmakers (Cucho Hernández, Alexandru Matan and Aidan Morris, to name a few) more time and space to do their thing.
Accordingly, Rossi’s notched 5g/6a in only 13 starts as Columbus lost just twice in the regular season after his arrival.
Remember that last part about Rossi unlocking a new level for Columbus’ attack with his off-ball movement and vertical threat? Well, nobody benefited from that addition more than Columbus’ record-transfer signing, Cucho. The big-money striker went from “good” in the first half of the season to “MVP levels of unstoppable” post-Rossi’s arrival, tallying 15g/3a since the Leagues Cup break (including playoffs).
While Cucho has all the elite poacher’s instincts of a “fox in the box”-type striker, he’s also a more than willing playmaker. So when opposing defenses worry about Rossi running in behind to goal, Cucho can drift out wide, collect the ball in space and build attacks from there. By the time he inevitably returns to the box to finish many of those plays, all that off-ball interchanging has often scrambled defenses to the point of no return.
Despite Columbus’ last MLS Cup appearance coming in 2020, two of their starters throughout the playoffs were champions in 2022: Patrick Schulte and Mo Farsi. The respective goalkeeper and wingback won MLS NEXT Pro Cup last season with Columbus Crew 2, and Nancy, staying true to his academy-coach roots, gave both young players a chance to not only contribute, but to shine, with the first team this season.
Trusting the up-and-coming talents hasn’t come without some growing pains – Schulte made a crucial blunder in a Hell Is Real-derby loss to FC Cincinnati early in the year, and Farsi erred on both Cincy goals in the Eastern Conference Final. But the duo has also repeatedly come up big this season.
Farsi notched five assists from his wingback position in 2023, and his ability to provide starter's minutes allows Nancy to keep Julian Gressel on the bench as a super-sub capable of swinging games late – which he very much did in the Eastern Conference Final. Schulte, meanwhile, was arguably the team’s man of the match in their Eastern Conference Semifinal win over Orlando City and made a jaw-dropping save to keep Columbus within touching distance of Cincy before mounting their comeback in the ECF.
No moment explains the Crew’s fairytale season better than last Saturday’s three-goal comeback to knock off arch-rivals FC Cincinnati in the Eastern Conference Final. Everything that’s made Nancy's side great this season was on display:
- A commitment to their possession-heavy style of play, even on the road against one of the most elite transition teams in MLS.
- Goal contributions from Cucho and Rossi.
- Huge role-player performances, from Schulte’s aforementioned save to Christian Ramirez’s heroic goal contributions from the bench.
If any team has that unquantifiable “good-vibes chemistry” so often cited by championship teams, it’s Columbus. Even with their backs against the wall against the Supporters’ Shield winners last week, they played with joy and grace.
As a result, they’re one match away from winning MLS Cup