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Columbus Crew’s potentially golden night slides into blackness on Mexican pitch | Arace

Columbus Crew's potentially golden night slides into blackness on Mexican pitch | Arace

Give Pachuca full marks. They vaporized the Crew Saturday night.

The final score in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final at Estadio Hidalgo, located 60 miles northeast of Mexico City: Pachuco 3, Crew 0. If not for a sterling performance from Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, Pachuca would’ve won by more than a touchdown.

It was the biggest stage the Crew has ever set their feet upon. It was the highest-stakes game in club history. The Crew played a good first minute.

Jun 1, 2024; Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico; Columbus Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe (6) reacts after the match against CF Pachuca in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup Championship at Estadio Hidalgo. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the task for the visitors was an impossible one. The Crew had to travel 2,000 miles to play 8,000 feet above sea level in a hostile environment against a team that began playing in 1892. Liga MX teams have dominated CONCACAF club tournaments because they have bigger payrolls and deeper rosters and are a bear on their home fields, especially the at altitude. It’s like playing “Game of Thrones” with a dragon tied behind your back.

Only one MLS team – the 2022 Seattle Sounders – has won the continental championship in its modern form, and Seattle played a two-legged final with the second leg at home. Pachuca has won it three times since 2008 and claim six continental titles (in six finals appearances) overall.

At home, Pachuca is undefeated in eight matches vs. MLS teams with a plus-21 goal differential.

Maybe if the Crew converted early – and they had their chances – the game might’ve had a different tenor.

There are no excuses, however.

The Crew’s biggest problem wasn’t the drinking water or altitude sickness. It was Pachuca.

The recap: Pachuca takes the ball, makes two passes right up the gut and gets a scoring chance. And there they go again, right down Route 1. Again and again.

The Crew’s midfield machinery, Darlington Nagbe and dinged-up Aidan Morris, spluttered. Their back line was a mess. Up front, they had no answer to Pachuca’s Salomon Rondon, a former EPL striker who had two goals. Rondon was of a class the Crew seemed unable to comprehend.

Jun 1, 2024; Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico; CF Pachuca forward Salomon Rondon (23) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Columbus Crew in the first half in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup Championship at Estadio Hidalgo. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Crew coach Wilfried Nancy, who has been the better manager coming out of halftime in every big game his team has played since he arrived in Columbus last year, was outcoached by his Pachuca counterpart, Guillermo Almada. It was like Nancy had no buttons to push, or if he did, he refused to. Pachuca led 2-0 at halftime and its momentum carried through to the final whistle.

The Crew were +400 underdogs, yes, but it was still a startling result because there was nothing recognizably Crew about them (other than Schulte). They’ve always shown up before.

Their improbable run to the 2023 MLS Cup championship included road victories in Orlando and Cincinnati – they came back from two goals down in the second half to win a Hell is Real Eastern Conference final.

Last year, they smoked Liga MX powerhouse Club America 4-1 in Columbus. This year, they beat two more Mexican powers, Tigres and Monterrey, by going on the road and winning second legs. Against Monterrey, it was a romp, and the home fans politely cheered the Crew because they appreciate an excellent team playing beautiful soccer.

Jun 1, 2024; Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico; Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy reacts after the match against CF Pachuca in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup Championship at Estadio Hidalgo. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Nancy said “Impossible is an opinion.” This year, he’s brought up being “limitless.” The Crew have played through a congested schedule – one heavy on the road games of late – and continued to pull rabbits out of their hat. Had they beaten Pachuca, the Fox Sports personalities would have been screaming “unbelievable” and “shocking” and other such things, and in the next breath they’d be saying, “this is what Columbus does.”

And this theme would have not only reverberated through the hemisphere, it would have sent ripples over the oceans.

So, this is a tough one.

Pachuca now reaps the benefits. Pachuca wins the CCC’s $5 million purse. It gains entry into the FIFA Intercontinental Cup (for which Real Madrid qualified on Saturday). Pachuca gains entry into an as-yet-unnamed tournament featuring the best clubs from CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the South American confederation. And Pachuca gets to play in the big one – the 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, which will feature the best club teams from all over the world.

All of this and more was on the line Saturday night. In total, Pachuca will take in around $60 million just by qualifying, most of it coming from Club World Cup participation. Monterrey, Seattle and Leon have already qualified out of CONCACAF.

Jun 1, 2024; Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico; CF Pachuca celebrate with the trophy after defeating the Columbus Crew in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup Championship at Estadio Hidalgo. Mandatory Credit: Adam Cairns-USA TODAY Sports

Since the CONCACAF will be hosting the Club World Cup – in the United States – the region has an extra bid. How that bid will be determined is yet to be seen. It may be Don Garber’s call, and you can almost hear the MLS commissioner saying, “The 2024 MLS Cup champion will go.” We shall see.

In any case, this season is long from over for the Crew. That is the only source of succor for them and their fans at this jagged moment. They were soundly defeated Saturday night, but they were not destroyed. Impossible must remain an opinion.

marace@dispatch.com

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Crew vaporized by Pachuca in CONCACAF Champions Cup final

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