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Columbus Crew food poisoning: Was something nefarious at work in Champions Cup loss?

Columbus Crew food poisoning: Was something nefarious at work in Champions Cup loss?

Crew president/general manager Tim Bezbatchenko did not fly to Pachuca, Mexico, until game day Saturday morning, so he escaped what befell most of his team and every member of its coaching staff – a stomach illness that had players vomiting in the locker room and, in the case of one assistant, heaving to the side of the field right after the game.

Bezbatchenko got regular reports Thursday, when the team arrived in Pachuca, and throughout Friday. He was able to piece together a timeline of Black & Gold’s massive discomfiture in the leadup to the CONCACAF Champions Cup final. CF Pachuca won 3-0 in front of a home crowd of 30,000 at Estadio Hidalgo, and the final score does not do justice to Pachuca’s dominance, or the windfall was secured by Liga MX Club.

Crew coach Wilfried Nancy and his staff wait for the start of the Champions Cup final on Saturday.

Pachuca won its sixth continental championship and entry into a few prestigious regional and global competitions, including the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup. These competitions will bring upwards of $60 million.

Yes, the thought that has crossed the minds of many Crew fans also occurred to Bezbatchenko. He just won’t talk much about it.

That thought: Given the big-dollar stakes of the game and the prestige that victory would bring, might the home team and/or its fans been looking for certain gastrointestinal advantage?

“The other team had a leg up,” Bezbatchenko said. “You’ve got to fight through things. That’s just sports. I’m proud of the way we managed it. I’m not going to second-guess. There are a lot of theories.”

Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) reacts after the loss to Pachuca on Saturday.

Bezbatchenko said there are two good hotels in Pachuca, one superior, and the home team stayed at the superior one. Essentially, then, the Crew’s hotel choice was made for them. They had a team meal at their hotel upon arrival Thursday. A few players began to feel sick Thursday night. Then, on Friday, “the numbers started piling up,” Bezbatchenko said.

There were some internal discussion whether to play the game, but the thinking was that there would be enough relief by game time Saturday night. Plus, the players wanted to play. Many of them will never again see a grander stage.

Bezbatchenko estimated that the number of afflicted players on the 23-man roster “was in the teens” and that “the entire coaching staff” was gut-punched. There was some easing of pain as game time approached, but not nearly enough to make the Crew look like the giant killers they were against the legendary Mexican powerhouses, Tigres and CF Monterrey, in previous rounds of the tournament.

If you watched the Pachuca game, you were probably wondering why midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris, defender Rudy Camacho and star forward Cucho Hernandez – among others – looked like they were running underwater. You took note of a shot that goalkeeper Patrick Schulte probably stops 99 out of 100 times and wondered how that one wound up in the net. All of them were sick, in the way your grandmother who isn’t on social media uses the term.

“I was sick and I was feeling cold,” wingback Mo Farsi told our Brianna Mac Kay after the game.

“For me, yeah, it’s an excuse, but I still gave 100%,” he said. “And of course, altitude is hard, but I felt we played well. But it is what it is now.

Crew players watch as Pachuca receives the trophy following the Champions Cup on Saturday.

Pachuca is 8,000 feet above sea level – about a mile higher than the Mile High City of Denver – and the Crew prepared for the game using an array of training techniques to prepare for high-altitude exertion.

Bezbatchenko said that it was determined that no members of the team suffered from altitude sickness and that the team doctor, who was on the trip, believes that food poisoning was the cause of what ailed the Crew. He added that the only water consumed by anyone on the team was bottled.

“Preparation for games is meticulous, right on down to the menus,” he said. “Our dietician and sports scientists map everything out – and it can almost seem monotonous – protein, pasta, bread, fruit, vegetables. … Every meal in Pachuca was planned worked out with the hotel’s kitchen staff in advance. Was the chicken undercooked? Was it something else? I don’t know. Getting food right shouldn’t be that hard.”

Bezbatchenko admitted, “I can’t rule out subterfuge” but stopped there. He said that, to his knowledge, no one else in the hotel was affected.

After the game, Crew coach Wilfried Nancy said Pachuca deserved the victory. As for the suspected food poisoning, he said:

“This is not an excuse. This is a fact that we didn’t have the energy that we usually have. So, it was weird, I will say, because we didn’t know how to act with that. But they took medicine, and they gave everything. … They wanted to compete no matter what. Because we know what we did to get here, but this is something we cannot control. We try to control many things, but on this one, we cannot control.”

The Crew have won three MLS Cups, including two in the previous three years. They have won other important trophies, as well, including three Supporters’ Shields and one U.S. Open Cup. That said, given what was at stake Saturday night, the Pachuca game was the biggest in Crew history. And they couldn’t be the Crew.

What a shame.

marace@dispatch.com

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Crew food poisoning: Was something nefarious at work

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