Concacaf League

Crew’s Championship Cup win will reverberate well beyond Columbus and Monterrey: Arace

Crew's Championship Cup win will reverberate well beyond Columbus and Monterrey: Arace

Crew coach Wilfried Nancy needed more than half of the 2023 season to install his 4-3-2-1 formation, adjust his roster to fit the system and then polish everything to a silver sheen. The Crew were not a particularly good defensive team last year, but by the end, their offense was so fearsome, it didn’t matter. They added a third MLS Cup to the team’s trophy case in December.

Early in 2024, it appears their ambition has a wider scope.

Crew forward Cucho Hernandez celebrates scoring against CF Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals. The Crew won 2-1.

Possession is the key to Nancy’s system. The three backs – and even the goalkeeper – invite pressure. They work in concert with central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. The five are a swirling mass. The ball goes from the back line to the midfielder and, if necessary, back again. They’re baiting their opponents, inviting the press, trying to create cracks.

Someone in the back finds space. He in turn tries to locate a free attacker. And off they go. All of this takes poise on the ball, movement off the ball and a teamwide commitment to go forward without fear. Among the reasons it works so well is the coolness and intelligence of the midfielders and the creativity and skill on the flanks and among the attackers.

Crew take victory over CF Monterrey: Columbus Crew take 2-1 victory over CF Monterrey in Champions Cup semifinal: Replay

It’s good to have Nagbe, who might be the greatest holding midfielder in MLS history. It’s good to have Cucho Hernandez, among the most refined goal-scoring machines in the league. It’s good to be the Crew, who have proven that sagging back and packing the box isn’t a reliable a gameplan that defeats them. The Crew have the talent to unlock the box.

Columbus Crew at CONCACAF Champions Cup

Winning the MLS Cup gave the Crew a bye to the Round of 16 of the CONCACAF Champions Cup – a continental club tournament that has been dominated by Liga MX teams. Only one MLS team has ever won the thing, the Seattle Sounders in 2022. This year, Nancy and his banana-yellow-clad lads, the last MLS team still alive in this year’s CCC, are expanding the hemisphere of their attacking evangelism. They may not win it – odds are they will not – but they will not change how they try.

Crew forward Diego Rossi has his shot stopped by CF Monterrey goalkeeper Esteban Andrada.

After knocking off the Houston Dynamo, the Crew did a crazy thing in the quarterfinal round of the CCC: They became the first MLS club to win a two-legged tournament series after not winning Game 1 at home (they tied 1-1) and the first MLS club in the history of the competition to beat a Liga MX team on kicks in Mexico. They did this to one of the powerhouses of the venerable league, Tigres UANL. It gave them a spot in the semifinals against Tigres’ archrival, CF Monterrey, another storied Mexican club. Monterrey has won five titles in the tournament formerly known as the CONCACAF Champions League.

The first leg of the two-legged series was played Wednesday night at the new Crew stadium, where the home team posted a solid, 2-1 victory over Monterrey, aka the Rayados. The Crew had the edge in shots (12-10), shots on goal (8-6), corners (6-3) and, of course, possession (54.1% to 45.9%). Forwards Cucho Hernandez, Diego Rossi and Jacen Russell-Rowe were menacing. The back five kept them fed. And Schulte was there, and big, when called upon.

Crew coach Wilfried Nancy’s strategy

Nancy fiddled with his lineup – he started Yevhen Cheberko at left center back and Sean Zawadzki at right wingback – but, then, he does these things. His process does not change. Hernandez worked a give-and-go with Russell-Rowe and placed a laser inside the left post in the 25th minute. The Crew fairly dominated the first half. A missed mark led to a Monterrey goal in the 72nd minute, making this game – and, moving forward, the series – much more interesting. Then, in the 72nd minute, the Crew converted on a corner. (They’re markedly better on set pieces this year, by the way.) Two headers led to the one game-winner: Rossi put a ball into the near side of the box, Zawadzki flicked it to the other side and Russell-Rowe finished clinically, heading a one-bouncer past Monterrey’s keeper.

Crew forward Jacen Russell-Rowe (19) scores off a header against CF Monterrey. It was Russell-Rowe’s first goal in CONCACAF Champions Cup play.

It was all a vivid portrait of Nancy’s brand of brave-ball. Possession, patience, pounce. Cucho’s in the middle, then he’s hiding on the right flank, then he’s driving left. Rossi’s confidence hasn’t been higher since he transferred in last August. Russell-Rowe can have some heavy first touches but, man, he’s a handful when he turns. Nagbe was Nagbe. Morris was Morris, with that big motor. Goalkeeper Patrick Schulte looks like he’s ready for Europe. And so on.

Last July, the Crew thumped Club America, a Mexican giant, by a 4-1 score in a Leagues Cup game. This year, they’ve knocked off Tigres, and they’re carrying a one-goal lead into the second leg of their aggregate-goal semifinal against Monterrey.

Crew forward Cucho Hernandez celebrates scoring against CF Monterrey in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals. The Crew won 2-1.

It’s not overstating things to say that the dynamism of Nancy’s uniquely focused possess-and-attack game, and the exploits of his team are gaining an audience that extends beyond the continent and is reverberating in waves across the oceans. Wednesday night was probably the biggest stage the Crew have set for themselves in their history. You don’t get stars above your club logo for winning Champions Cup games, but you do get noticed.

The Crew will face Montreal and Nancy’s former assistant, coach Laurent Courtois, in an MLS game at Lower.com Field Saturday night. The second leg of their CCC semifinal is at Estadio BBVA in Monterrey on Wednesday.

marace@dispatch.com

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: CONCACAF Champions Cup semi begins with Crew win over Liga MX power

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