The Columbus Crew did many impressive things en route to their MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi title, scoring a league-high 67 regular-season goals and playing some of the most assertive, aesthetically pleasing soccer in recent MLS memory.

Remarkably, one thing they did not do last year was win many 1-0 games – not a single one in league play, in fact.

So as the club officially celebrated 'Crewsmas' – the fan-given nickname for home openers – by awarding championship rings and posting their latest honor on the wall at Lower.com Field, head coach Wilfried Nancy took heart from grinding out their first three points of the new campaign by that very scoreline over Atlanta United.

“I'm really happy because Atlanta started the preseason two weeks before us and we knew that we would struggle around 65, 70 minutes,” Nancy told reporters after Saturday's win. “But it's been a good exercise for us because, as you know, we had the ring ceremony and I told them to enjoy this moment because they deserve it. But at the same time, to do the switch, and to start right away. And the way they did it, I'm really happy with that.

“This is the first time that we win 1-0. So this is good. I like to score goals but also, like I told you last year, I like to [earn] a different win. Atlanta as you know, this is not an easy team, they are really good, but we deserve to win.”

Judging by the festive energy in the stands, the loud, proud Crew faithful that braved sub-freezing temperatures to support their team enjoyed the result, too.

Darlington Nagbe - 2023 MLS Cup ring - Columbus Crew

Nancyball clinic

The hosts were dominant over the first hour, forcing the Five Stripes to chase with long periods of ball circulation and probing possession, and further elevating their guests’ frustrations with sharp counter-pressing and coordinated patterns of play when it did turn over.

“It's difficult because they’re always trying to play in behind, they have players in the pocket, players willing to attack the backs,” noted Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda. “So somehow they are doing counter-movements, someone running behind, someone checking the pocket. So if the whole back line is dropping off, then there's space in between the lines.”

Star striker Cucho Hernández thumped home the winner after a trademark Crew buildup in the 27th minute, his 16th goal for the Ohioans since Sept. 2 – nearly half of the team’s total scoring over that span. It was a just reward for Columbus’ efforts, and they looked likely to add to it as they pulled ATLUTD apart repeatedly, with Jacen Russell-Rowe particularly guilty of wastefulness.

Cucho could have effectively iced the W when he stepped up to a penalty kick earned early in the second half by wingback Mo Farsi, who picked up an ankle injury on the play that forced him to leave the match. But Brad Guzan saved the Colombian striker’s spot kick, gusting wind into Atlanta’s sails and forcing the Crew to sweat out a nervy finale.

Columbus Crew - fans celebration - 2024 postgame

A new kind of win

Then again, perhaps Nancy’s intricate game model can be deployed in a different way: by wearing down adversaries rather than blowing them away with the swashbuckling attacks that earned so many plaudits during his first season in charge.

“Physically, it was a game where we need to spend a lot of energy, because of how many passing lanes they open for their center backs,” said Pineda. “And then we have to cover a lot and shift over a lot, making sure that we're doing a collective effort at blocking passing lanes, forcing the balls to the areas where we want the ball.

“But it's part of the process that we have to go against a team like Columbus. At the same time, I felt like the second half especially, we were moving the ball very well, fortunately, and doing better than them. So I think we are two similar teams in that sense, in terms of the style, and the way we build."

While they won’t be pleased to have allowed ATL to hang around right until the end, the ‘23 champs may want to get familiar with winning these sorts of games. They face a more congested schedule this year, with some high-stakes knockout fixtures early on thanks to their Concacaf Champions Cup participation, which kicks off on March 6 at the winner of the St. Louis CITY SC-Houston Dynamo FC first-round series.

“The second half was a bit different,” said Nancy. “We had less of the ball, but I really liked to see my players with a good resilience and the persistence to try to keep the clean sheet, and the way we defended the box also was good. So yes, we could have scored more goals, but for the first game, at home, with a lot of pressure, this is a good win.”