Voices: Jon Arnold

No fear: Columbus Crew navigate Liga MX gauntlet to Champions Cup final


You can pick your poison regarding tough stadiums in Mexico. Each has an element or two that makes it unique.

Columbus Crew have gotten a crash course in that during the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup, coming out unscathed from two venues in Nuevo León – first beating Tigres UANL in the quarterfinals and then CF Monterrey in the semifinals.

That’s all set the stage for Saturday’s CCC final at CF Pachuca (9:15 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), making Estadio Hidalgo a final boss of sorts. Columbus are looking to go three-for-three in trips to Mexico this spring, an unprecedented run for MLS teams.

“It’s hostile. It’s not an easy place to go play, either of those places,” Crew midfielder Aidan Morris said of past trips.

“There’s all the external factors: The fans, the stadium. I think I saw three Crew fans in the stadium in the last game. In a massive stadium like that, only seeing three of your fans is not easy.”

Road warriors

Tigres’ Volcán is an old-school stadium with little room between rows and some of the best supporters in the Americas cramming into the seats. Meanwhile, Monterrey’s Estadio BBVA has jaw-dropping views, awe-inspiring size and fans as passionate and loud as the ones across town.

Then there’s Estadio Hidalgo: Pachuca’s home venue sits at a daunting altitude (nearly 8,000 feet above sea level), prompting physical challenges far beyond what MLS teams encounter when visiting clubs the Colorado Rapids or Real Salt Lake. It’s more compact than Estadio BBVA, feeling like fans are on top of you, trying to push on their Tuzos. There is also a long history of soccer, with the state of Hidalgo claiming to host the first soccer match in North America back in the 1800s.

Ask Crew players about recent trips to the Monterrey area and you hear phrases like “great experience,” “beautiful memories” and “cool” – words much easier to deploy after positive results than the typical MLS encounter in a Mexican stadium. Former Pachuca winger Marino Hinestroza joked it was a good thing most of his English-speaking teammates couldn’t understand the profane barbs being tossed at them.

Bad words aside, trips to Mexico have historically proved daunting for MLS teams. But after going down early against Tigres, the Crew trusted their style of play, stayed patient, and eventually found a goal that forced a penalty shootout. Much of the same unfolded against Monterrey, overcoming an early own goal to earn a resounding 3-1 win.

Now, with confidence in their philosophy and style under manager Wilfried Nancy, there’s a sense that the worst may be behind Columbus. They know how to cope with a vibrant crowd in Mexico.

“Going to Tigres and Monterrey, you can’t get a tougher environment than that, but I think the way we bonded together to go down and win those games, you set yourself up for the final and build a lot of confidence from those two games knowing you’ve experienced almost everything you can experience,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. “Looking forward to going to Pachuca.”

Consistent routine

While the Crew’s preparation for the state of Hidalgo’s thin air has gotten plenty of attention before Saturday’s final, few things change from their preparation for a trip to Mexico compared to a standard MLS away fixture.

For a CCC contest, the Crew travel two days before and take advantage of the tournament-mandated opportunity to train in the host stadium the day before the match.

“Apart from that, I think it’s almost the same,” forward Cucho Hernández said. ”The focus is there from the start of the week and right now we’re thinking about this game and only this game.”

Pachuca have been laser-focused on the CCC final for over three weeks since getting eliminated from the Liga MX Clausura playoffs in the quarterfinals. Tuzos lost to eventual champion Club América on a tiebreaker after knocking the same team out of CCC at the semifinal stage to arrange this match with the Crew.

Most Crew players said that rather than hyper-focus on one match, they’re happy to have stayed in a normal rhythm, playing league games. After all, little changes from the build-up when comparing last weekend’s visit to Orlando City SC and this weekend’s in Pachuca.

“The preparation is always the same for any match,” Crew attacker Diego Rossi said. “It’s not going to change no matter where it is: You’ve got to be focused, to do your job and it’s not going to change no matter the city, the country, wherever you are you’re going to be concentrated on having a good game.”

And that’s the idea the Crew have: Whether at El Volcán, Estadio BBVA, Estadio Hidalgo, Lower.com Field or anywhere else, they want to play their brand of soccer. This has seen them become champions of MLS, now sitting one step away from becoming champions of Concacaf and earning a spot in the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup.

Even with their relaxed attitude about the travel, the confidence in their style of play and being fueled by a crowd shouting against them, the Crew know they’ll once again be heading into a difficult environment Saturday. Whatever type of ‘venom’ they encounter, they’ll hope they once again have the antidote that allows them to block out the noise and the environment and leads to a CCC triumph.