Columbus Crew show resilience in “battle of power” with Monterrey

Wilfried Nancy gathered his Columbus Crew side for a different kind of video session on Wednesday amid their final preparations for their Concacaf Champions Cup semifinal first-leg clash vs. CF Monterrey at Field.

He and his players had surely already analyzed in detail their epic CCC quarterfinal second-leg duel with another Mexican giant, Tigres UANL, earlier this month. Yet there was one more detail Nancy wanted to drive home – not a tactical nuance or passing sequence, but the reaction of the passionate supporters at Estadio Universitario, better known as “El Volcán,” after the Crew had earned an away draw, then won the series on a penalty shootout.

“Today I showed them the video of the Tigres fans, [how] when we left the pitch, they applauded us,” revealed Nancy in his postgame press conference.

And his side duly produced a confident, resilient performance of similar quality to secure a tense 2-1 win over Rayados that gives Columbus a real chance to advance to the June 2 Champions Cup final as the series shifts to Estadio BBVA for next week’s second leg.

“I'm really proud of the guys,” said Nancy after what he called “a high-level game” against a Monterrey outfit that hadn’t lost a CCC match in five years. “Because we did a really good game in terms of when we had the difficult moments, we were together. And when we had the ball, we tried to play our game and we had good opportunities also, and we were able to unbalance them.”

Cucho, Russell-Rowe deliver

Crew star striker Cucho Hernández was a force all evening, rising to the occasion with a superb finish from the top of the Rayados penalty box for the game’s first goal, a just reward for the Colombian Designated Player’s creativity and dynamism.

Yet it was emblematic of the reigning MLS Cup champions’ collective ethos that Jacen Russell-Rowe, a product of the Crew’s MLS NEXT Pro team, made a comparable impact. Leading the front line with both intelligence and muscle, the Canadian combined with Cucho to set up the opener and nodded home the vital game-winner after Sean Zawadzki flicked on a late corner kick to the back post.

“Jacen, yeah he did a good game,” said Nancy. “You know the connection up front, so I wanted to have this kind of profile for this game and I really liked the fact that he was able to do good stuff also.

“Relief, I would say. Relief,” said the coach when asked about his emotions when he saw Russell-Rowe’s header bounce past Esteban Andrada. “Jacen deserved it, but also the flick-on of Sean, he touched the ball first and this is something that my staff worked on, and it worked today. I think we deserve it, because they didn't stop, they pushed it, they pushed for that.”

Finding answers

Zawadzki’s contribution was poetic considering his culpability on Monterrey’s equalizer. The wingback’s errant pass along the touchline early in a Crew buildup gave the visitors a chance to break out in transition, and as he and his fellow defenders scrambled to backtrack, Zawadzki couldn’t prevent Jesús Gallardo from delivering an early cross that Maxi Meza tapped home at the back stick.

“They deserve also to score one goal, but I would have preferred to have conceded in another way, I would say, the goal that we conceded,” said Nancy.

“We try to convince them that when we do high-level sport, it's a game of mistakes,” he explained in regards to his message to the squad. “The idea is no matter what happened, can we find a way to bounce back? So we work on that during the practice, but at the end of the day, you have to live this situation. And I think that we've worked upon in the past. So now they’ve been better and the chemistry is better. And they were able to sort it out.”

It remains to be seen whether that away goal provides Monterrey with an edge they can maximize on home turf. For the time being, the five-time Concacaf champions had to tip their cap to Columbus’ efforts.

“With the quality of players in the team that the coach has managed to get, it is a very interesting team. It is the last champion of the MLS,” said Rayados manager Fernando Ortiz, calling the series “very open” and expressing optimism about his team’s supporters providing a home-field advantage next week.

“We are all in a perhaps bitter situation due to the result, but it gives me peace of mind that the team responded when it had to respond, stepping up on a difficult field, against a great opponent. I even think I can reach to say that we dominated in many situations [but] we were not effective, that is the reality. There are 90 minutes left."

Handshake snub?

Ortiz made headlines with some contentious statements in the leadup to Monterrey’s quarterfinal series vs. Inter Miami CF, which instigated an ill-tempered faceoff with Lionel Messi, Tata Martino & Co. after their first-leg win at Chase Stadium.

Now, however, it may be Nancy playing the mind games. On Wednesday the French coach said Ortiz did not shake hands with him after the final whistle, which he interpreted as a hint at the ferocious welcome awaiting the Crew in Nuevo León.

“Oh, it's going to be a tough game. I wanted to shake the hand of the coach [Ortiz] but he didn't shake my hand,” said Nancy. “They were not happy. So we expect that they’re going to come out [strong in leg two], but after that, we know what we have to do over there … we know it's going to be a good environment, big environment, but we play for that. We play for these kinds of environments. So we are ready.”

Just as they did against Tigres, and really, throughout their impressive march to last year’s league title, Columbus plan to be themselves and keep faith in their high-risk, high-reward possession style, regardless of the daunting history of MLS clubs’ suffering on Mexican soil in Concacaf play.

“We’re going to try to do a good game over there, and to recognize when this is good for us to attack and when this is good for us to defend, and it’s going to be a battle of power with that,” said Nancy. “But I cannot tell my team to sit and to wait. This is not the way we do things. So we're going to respect the game and we’ll see how we’re going to do it.”

Charles Boehm - @cboehm

Interested in tickets? We're here to help!
Interested in tickets? We're here to help!

Become an Insider

By selecting "Yes", you hereby consent to receive additional information from The Crew, Major League Soccer, Soccer United Marketing, and its marketing partners in accordance with the Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.