Major League Soccer

Heavy Champions Cup loss should not dampen Crew’s historically brilliant year

Heavy Champions Cup loss should not dampen Crew’s historically brilliant year

Columbus Crew were the only MLS team to make the semi-finals of the Concacaf Champions Cup this season.Photograph: Adam Cairns/USA Today Sports

DC United, LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders did something the Columbus Crew could not. Wilfried Nancy’s team could have added their name to the list of MLS teams to have won a continental title. Instead, the Crew were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Pachuca in Saturday’s Concacaf Champions Cup final.

And yet even as runners-up, Columbus achieved something profound – they won the respect of the region. For two months, ‘Nancy-ball’ took over Concacaf just as it has MLS. In a region where American and Canadian teams have historically struggled for credibility, the Crew earned it and then some. What other MLS side has ever been applauded off the pitch by Mexican supporters, as Columbus were in the quarter and semi-finals? CF Monterrey and Tigres UANL fans knew they’d seen something special.

Columbus ultimately didn’t get their ticker tape moment on Saturday night, but they have just completed the most impressive 12-month period enjoyed by any MLS team ever. MLS Cup glory last season was one thing, but by making their run to the Concacaf Champions Cup final the Crew proved something – it is possible for MLS teams to play this way and be successful.

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Against Pachuca, not much worked as Nancy planned. The hosts found it easy to cut through the Columbus backline – see how Salomón Rondón and Miguel Rodríguez scored the first two goals unopposed in the box. A lack of pressure on the ball and a high defensive line combined to make things difficult for the Crew.

Diego Rossi might have given Columbus the lead after 15 seconds, but his scuffed shot was saved. Just two minutes later, Alexandru Mățan had a good opportunity to set up a teammate on the break, but couldn’t find the right pass. After a strong start, though, the Crew faded. By the time Rodríguez made it 2-0 after 32 minutes, the match was essentially over.

The altitude may have been a factor in Columbus’ uncharacteristically low-key performance. Nancy did his best to prepare his team for the physical test of playing at 8,000ft above sea level by getting his players to work out in altitude masks and sleep in altitude chambers, but Columbus’ lack of intensity on the night suggests they struggled to handle the real thing. At a neutral venue, it could have been a different story.

A bout of illness within the Columbus camp won’t have helped either. “We had more than 20 people from the staff sick with diarrhoea all night for two days,” striker Cucho Hernández said postgame. But the Crew can still feel good about how they fared in the Champions Cup this season. Their 3-1 victory over Monterrey in particular will long be remembered as among the best performances ever produced by an MLS team on Mexican soil. It was Nancy-ball in its purest form.

No MLS team averages a higher share of possession per match than Columbus and yet this isn’t control for the sake of it. There are no lateral passes to pad the stats. The Crew are risk takers. They tease opponents into pressing and knife through them by creating overloads and playing line-breaking passes. At their best, Columbus are an exhilarating force of nature.

Nancy is part of a managerial class that has evolved out of soccer’s Pep Guardiola era, with a focus on positional play and possession. It’s a class that includes the likes of Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou and Atalanta’s Gian Piero Gasperini – and makes Nancy the most forward-thinking head coach currently in MLS.

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Nobody else is on Nancy’s level. And that’s why the Crew’s run is not symbolic of MLS’s growing quality. When Seattle became the first MLS team to win the competition in its modern form in 2022, it was meant to be the first wave of a rising tide. Behind the Crew this season, though, there was no tide. They were the only MLS team to make the semi-finals. Columbus made it to the final not because MLS has reached a level where that happens naturally, but because Nancy got them there.

A dozen teams spent more money than the Crew in MLS last season, yet they were the ones that set the standard across the league. They played the best soccer and they won the biggest prize. With continental soccer – and the fixture congestion it brings – now out of the way, Columbus are expected to build more momentum on the domestic scene. They are now on a three-match winning streak in league play. An MLS Cup repeat could be on the cards.

The real appeal of a repeat could be in the ticket back to the Champions Cup it would provide. The chance to qualify for a Club World Cup on home soil in 2025 is gone, but Nancy has put in place the groundwork for the Columbus Crew to go again next season. Mexican fans may get another opportunity to applaud the best team in MLS.

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