Crew celebrate
What you need to know

Columbus Crew lift MLS Cup 2023

Columbus Crew have turned their bold, possession-centric style into the league's ultimate prize, capturing MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi with a 2-1 win over LAFC. Head coach Wilfried Nancy's team produced a masterclass performance Saturday at rain-soaked Field, resulting in the Eastern Conference club's third-ever MLS Cup after their 2008 and 2020 squads also entered the history books as champions.

Columbus Crew's Hernández named MLS Cup 2023 MVP pres. by Audi

From club-record signing to MLS Cup 2023 MVP presented by Audi, Cucho Hernández has officially secured his status as a Columbus Crew all-time great. The 24-year-old Colombian international striker shined brightest Saturday afternoon at Field, winning Most Valuable Player honors as his game-opening penalty kick sparked a 2-1 Crew win over LAFC.

The 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup Field is set: Ten MLS clubs will compete in the 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup. There are 27 qualifiers total, ensuring 37% of the field is from MLS.

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It was always the Crew

Buster Douglas carried MLS Cup out before the match. The guest of honor and Columbus native shocked the world in 1990 as the 42-to-1 underdog that took down heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. The allusion seemed clear. The Crew, a small market team nearly left for dead a few years ago until their fans saved them, were about to try and knock out a heavyweight.

They did just that.

“Impossible is an opinion,” head coach Wilfried Nancy said after the final whistle.

It’s a great sentiment. But I want to offer a counter argument: The Crew weren’t underdogs. They didn’t do the impossible. We didn’t get Douglas vs. Tyson. We got a heavyweight in better shape and better form sending another heavyweight to the canvas.

I’m not trying to take away from the Crew’s accomplishment. I’m trying to give it the respect it deserves. Impossible? We’re talking about a team that’s played the best soccer in the league for the better part of the last few months snatching their second MLS Cup in the last four seasons. We’re talking about a team that thumped Atlanta twice, rolled over Orlando and stunned FC Cincinnati.

Which, hey, speaking of, we should have known what kind of final we were going to get when we got the Cincy game in the semifinal. It’s a constant across sports that the winner of the storybook game before the game always gets the fairy tale ending. Especially when they’ve taken down the big bad already. Let’s be real here, FC Cincinnati were a whole different beast than LAFC this year. LAFC are a good team that never got out of second gear this season and countered/Bouanga’d their way through a diluted Western Conference that absolutely did not beat the allegations on Saturday night.

That’s not to say all of this came easy for Columbus. You can always and forever go back to the Save The Crew movement that kept the team in Ohio. But on a more recent note, you can go back to September when a disastrous blown lead against Orlando sent Wilfried Nancy into full “I’m not mad, I’m disappointed” mode. You can go back to last season when a team that lost the second-fewest games in the league blew lead after lead until they fell out of a playoff spot.

There’s a poeticism to the Crew pulling out a massive comeback to make MLS Cup and holding on to a 2-0 lead that became a late 2-1 lead. You have to wonder if they’re able to pull that off without the setback in Orlando providing a stark wake-up call.

Then again, it’s not like they really changed much. They didn’t suddenly become a pragmatic immovable object. They stuck to their philosophy and out-possessed and out-created and out-paced their opponents.

It all culminated in the defining moment of the match and maybe Nancy’s time in MLS. I’m not talking about the handball call that opened the scoring. I’m talking about the gorgeous team goal moments later that drew LAFC defenders in with possession until Malte Amundsen’s third eye opened and allowed him to deliver the greatest pass of his life and one of the great passes in league history to Yaw Yeboah. This Crew team will be a favorite in MLS circles for a long time for moments like that.

Those moments come from a few different places. Obviously, Nancy will get, and deservedly so, a ton of credit for instituting a clear game model, conveying the ideas behind them effectively and inspiring a ton of confidence. But there is almost a point in praising Nancy where we end up forgetting this Crew team had some dudes who can flat-out play.

Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris were the best midfield pairing in the league. Cucho Hernandez put together the most complete season of any striker in MLS. Diego Rossi has been as effective as they come in his time in the league. They were bringing guys like Julian Gressel and Christian Ramirez off the bench at the end. Let’s not lose sight of the fact Crew GM Tim Bezbatchenko put together his third MLS Cup-winning roster.

Of course, I’d imagine even Bezbatchenko would admit there were a few surprises thrown in this year. Players who didn’t thrive elsewhere or never got their shot found their moment under Nancy. A little belief and understanding of the role you’re being asked to play goes a long way for development. That goes double when everyone is wholly bought into those roles and ideas to the point where principles become more important than results.

“The most important thing for me was not to win,” Nancy said post-match. “But to be ourselves. We did that tonight.”

The Crew went from a good team with flaws to an exciting team with flaws to a great team that found joy in having shortcomings. They were never going to be an elite defensive unit, but they never wanted to be. That makes them a unique champion in MLS lore. What makes them truly special, though, is they would have been happy just being unique.

Other things

Columbus Crew MLS Cup championship gear on sale: A closet full of championship merch is a good closet. Take a look at the gear here.

Columbus Crew unveil 2023 MLS Cup Legacy Project: As hosts of MLS Cup 2023 presented by Audi, the Columbus Crew have partnered with Major League Soccer and Columbus City Schools to introduce the Stay in the Game! Initiative. The first of five planned Stay in the Game! rooms was unveiled Friday morning at Starling PreK-8 School in Columbus. Offering creative and engaging spaces designed to motivate and reward students for consistent and improved school attendance, this Stay in the Game! room features a multi-sensory environment that promotes opportunities for movement and relaxation.

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Good luck out there. Don’t play it cool.