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Crew Coverage pres. by Medical Mutual | Nancy: Crew ‘deserve’ Eastern Conference Semifinal win in MLS Cup Playoffs

Throughout the regular season, Orlando City SC was the one club that kept clawing back annoyingly against the Columbus Crew. So, it’s only right that when it mattered most, the Black & Gold earned a thrilling win that ended City’s season. 

The Crew beat Orlando City, 2-0, in extra time on Saturday night to advance to the Eastern Conference Final in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs. With the win, Columbus will face rival FC Cincinnati this upcoming Saturday night in a Hell is Real Derby that will decide who hosts the MLS Cup Final. 

The win on the road in Orlando embodied the Crew’s performances throughout the season. Battle tested, the visitors handled adversity, and, as head coach Wilfried Nancy often says, provoked the opponent. 

“I knew that again the fact that we are able to do our job with the ball and without the ball, to have a competitive spirit like this, so they deserve it,” Nancy said after the win.

“It's funny because we have a clean sheet in Orlando, one of the most difficult places to play, and we scored two goals. I knew that we were able to do it. Really, really, really happy for the guys because they deserve it.”

Columbus carried the flow of the match and frustrated Orlando. Chippy fouls were picked up, and while the match was scoreless, the Crew seemed more composed than the home side. That was proven right in the 77th minute when Rodrigo Schlegel was sent off for a second yellow card. The Black & Gold had been in control, but it was the moment that opened the floodgates. 

The Black & Gold broke the deadlock three minutes into extra time when Christian Ramirez was on the end of an Aidan Morris cross to finish off a cutthroat high press. 

Morris won a tackle just outside the 18-yard box, then carried the ball to the endline before sending it into the area. From there, Ramirez scored his 12th goal in 2023 across all competitions – and first since Aug. 4 in the Leagues Cup. (Oh, and while his wife was in labor!?)

The Crew would score a clincher later in extra time, but what mattered most over the next 15 minutes was the unreal performance from 22-year-old goalkeeper Patrick Schulte. In the biggest match of his career, the keeper made three massive saves to keep Orlando scoreless. 

In the 100th minute, he denied Kyle Smith at his near post. In the 106th minute, he made a fine stop from a Ramiro Enrique strike. But it was a point-blank save with his right leg in the 108th minute that truly capped off Schulte’s unbelievable night.

The home side whipped in a fine cross that Enrique nodded toward the Schulte’s bottom right corner. But the keeper, making a reaction save, forced the ball off target – and kept the match 1-0 in Columbus’ favor. 

“I don't like to talk about one player in particular, but Pat has been outstanding,” Nancy said. “Schulte, he kept us in the game. I'm so happy for him because I remember many games that he was not happy about his performance and he did a good job during the performance, but he was not happy with that. 

“All the time, he's extremely demanding with himself to try to put the level up and the level up. Tonight, yes, he made plays, and he deserved it, also – obviously, all the team, also.”

Cucho Hernández sealed the Crew’s spot in the Eastern Conference Final in the 118th minute when he buried a shot from midfield. With Pedro Gallese pressing as Orlando searched for an equalizer, he was caught out inside the midfield circle. Cucho collected the ball from there and then caressed it into an open net.

With the win, the Black & Gold will return to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2020 and will face FC Cincinnati. The weather might be cooling off, but yes, Hell is Real, and Saturday night will be the first time the Ohio clubs meet in the postseason. 

If the Crew wins on the road, Field will be the location of the MLS Cup Final on Dec. 9 against either LAFC or the Houston Dynamo. 

"Honestly, I'm just grateful to honestly be in that scenario,” Schulte said of advancing and playing in Cincinnati. “Yeah, it would be great to have Hell is Real (in Central Ohio), but it would also be amazing just to play in front of the fortress that we're building in Columbus."

Who knows, there’s always a chance the Crew are back home to close the season in two weeks’ time.

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