Throughout the 2023 MLS regular season, Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy said each match would offer different lessons to prepare his team for the postseason. So, when the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs finally arrived at Lower.com Field, what did Nancy think of his team’s opening performance?
“They were ready,” Nancy said.
Wednesday night was only game one of a best-of-three opening round against Atlanta United FC, but the 2-0 win was an emphatic – and comfortable – one that highlighted the best traits of this Crew side: a great attack, a sturdy midfield and a stout backline.
“They were expecting everything,” Nancy said of his team’s preparedness for the first ever playoff game at Lower.com Field. “I really like the spirit. That's why for me this is a top performance because it was difficult, but they step up, they step up, they step up. I'm really happy with that.”
Cucho Hernández opened the scoring in first half stoppage time with an electric goal that capped a brilliant team buildup.
Columbus caught Atlanta in transition, and Diego Rossi played a cross-pitch pass toward a streaking Cucho down the left side. The Colombian collected the ball 40 yards from goal, dribbled into the box and unleashed a near-post corker that roofed into the net behind Atlanta keeper Brad Guzan.
Cucho scored his second goal six minutes into the second half when Alexandru Mățan was bundled down inside the box for a penalty. From there, Cucho sent Guzan the wrong way and produced his 12th goal in his last nine matches across all competitions.
“It’s very important to be in form at this moment for the team and for myself personally, having this confidence in the playoffs,” Cucho said. “But the work is not done yet. Tonight, would count for nothing if we don't qualify for the next round. So right now, I am only thinking about Tuesday and how we have to get another result there [Atlanta].”
Certainly, Atlanta will be thinking about how it’ll be able to break down the Crew backline.
Not only did the Black & Gold earn a clean sheet, but they limited the visitors to one shot – none on target. For the all the hype that led toward his first playoff match, goalkeeper Patrick Schulte said it was the perfect postseason debut.
“I'll always take a game where there are zero shots on goal,” Schulte said. “Obviously, the people in front of me are doing their job. I think it was just a lot of communication. You know, we knew coming into playoffs that margins were small. So, the communication was vital. …Just really going back to the fundamentals. People in front of me doing an unreal job."
It should be noted the atmosphere around the stadium matched the impressive performance on the pitch. Nancy and his players alike all commended the Columbus supporters who carried an energetic atmosphere throughout the match.
“Brilliant. Amazing,” the coach said of the crowd. “Before we started the game, when my players were walking on the pitch, what they decided to do [in the stadium pre-match] was really good. It was really good. I'm happy. I'm happy when we play at home. We know that there is an extra energy. This is good. We're going to have to keep that and do the same when we go away.”
Hopefully, Wednesday night was the start of a long, memorable MLS Cup Playoff run. At minimum, the Crew will have at least two postseason matches still to play. The first is Tuesday, Nov. 7 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That match will be the second in this best-of-three series against Atlanta to open the postseason.
If the Black & Gold win in Georgia, they’re guaranteed a spot in the Eastern Conference semifinals against either No. 2 Orlando City SC or No. 7 Nashville SC. If the Crew loses in Atlanta, that’ll force a must-win third match against the Five Stripes on Sunday, Nov. 12. That match would be at Lower.com Field.
But before supporters start thinking about Game 3 against Atlanta, it’s worth listening to some advice from Aidan Morris:
"We'll get the job done in Atlanta. We'll get it done."
CLAIM YOUR SPOT FOR PLAYOFFS!
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