MLS Cup

LAFC reunion: Diego Rossi pursues MLS Cup with Columbus Crew

23MLS_Cup_Rossi

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Diego Rossi is more than a familiar face for LAFC. After all, we’re talking about the very first player to score a goal for the Black & Gold in Major League Soccer.

When LAFC take the field Saturday afternoon for MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free), they will find the Uruguayan international standing in the way of a back-to-back title opportunity, now donning the colors of the Columbus Crew.

“I'm thankful to LAFC for everything I was able to live with them,” Rossi told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I'm thankful to their supporters because of the love they always showed me, but now I have to focus on my new club and winning this very important game.”

Four successful seasons at LAFC meant a rise to stardom for Rossi, who scored 48 goals and recorded 21 assists in 104 regular-season appearances from 2018-21 as a Young Designated Player. In that time he gathered major individual accolades, including the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi, an MLS Young Player of the Year award and MLS Best XI honors in 2020. He also helped earn the club’s first Supporters’ Shield in 2019.

LAFC captain Carlos Vela was there through it all during their MLS beginnings. He knows Rossi well and the type of challenge the 25-year-old poses.

"Diego was an amazing player for us because he came very young,” Vela told reporters Thursday during a press conference at Lower.com Field. “He was there every single day working hard, listening to everything you said to make him better. Unfortunately, right now he's playing against us and he will be one of the keys for them. So we have to be really worried about him.”

Rossi, who returned to MLS in August after a two-year adventure with Turkish Süper Lig club Fenerbahçe, has adjusted well to life in Columbus. He's added five goals and six assists in 15 games, including a key goal in last week’s Hell is Real-style Eastern Conference Final victory over FC Cincinnati.

“I had a very nice welcome at the club and it truly has been a great few months,” Rossi said. “I was able to adapt quickly to the team and that was very important. They made me feel very comfortable and I'm very happy to have made it this far."

Perfect fit for NancyBall

At first, Rossi’s arrival came with a degree of uncertainty. It took place two days after the Crew parted ways with club legend and fan favorite Lucas Zelarayán, who was transferred to Saudi Pro League side Al Fateh.

But quickly, he's earned the trust of those around him.

"Diego came in obviously as a high-profile player, but I think what stands out for me is just how unselfish he is," Crew captain Darlington Nagbe said. "The type of player, type of person that he is, and he's coming to the team and he's injected pace, energy, on the ball dribbling and running in behind, so I think he's just stretched the game for us. He has opened up the game for us and a lot of the players … to get more freedom and more space."

Perhaps no one has benefitted more from Rossi’s presence than his attacking partner, Colombian international striker Cucho Hernández, who has emerged as the team’s leading goalscorer with 20 goals in the regular season and Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, the majority of which came after Rossi joined the club.

“He's a player who is very different from Lucas. … Lucas offered a lot of quality, we all know the type of player he is, but Diego came in to give us depth and speed,” Cucho said. “Diego is capable of creating space for others and he is capable of assisting and scoring too. Diego's arrival has been very important for our attacking system, mainly, and we're very happy.”

Rossi has more than answered the call, benefitting from head coach Wilfried Nancy's system that's allowed him to flourish quickly.

“We have a team with very good and smart players who know how to adapt to the concepts of our manager. I saw that the moment I came here, it was very clear to see on the field what our manager wanted us to do,” Rossi explained. “He instills a clear dynamic that makes us keep the ball with us. As a forward, this is very beneficial because we can have possession and attack.”

A more mature star

Rossi’s development at LAFC earned him a transfer to Fenerbahçe in September 2021, initially on loan before securing a permanent deal. He registered 10 goals and 20 assists in 90 appearances across all competitions during his time in Turkey, an experience he reflected on fondly after being able to test himself in European competition.

"I'm more experienced now. I was able to play two years in a different league and I had to learn new things,” Rossi said. “Two years with different types of competitions helps you grow as a player and as a person. Sometimes that can be reflected on what you do inside the field.”

Now, as Rossi readies for MLS Cup, he’ll look to apply what he has learned when he meets LAFC and Vela, his original striking partner when he first arrived to MLS in 2018 from Peñarol.

"I'm on the other side now, but I lived some great moments with Carlos and my teammates there,” Rossi recalled. “We were there with Carlos in the team's first year and that was difficult because starting the first year of a team is always challenging.”

For both Rossi and Vela, it will be an exercise of putting the past behind them to focus on winning their biggest game yet this Saturday, something Vela is aching to do as his own career winds down and questions about his future arise.

"We were very happy to help him grow as a player and to send him to Europe to play in another level. Now he's on the other side, so Saturday he won't be my friend. I will try to beat him,” Vela said. “Like in the last game against [Héctor] Herrera, if I have to kick him I will do it because in the end I'll do it all for my team and we don't care about who's on the other side.”

That’s all fine with Rossi.

“We developed a great relationship with him and the rest of the players,” he said. “But now I'm here. I'll always respect them, but we'll try to win this game."