Throughout this postseason, head coach Wilfried Nancy and his players have talked about writing a new chapter in this Club’s decorated history. As the authors, they control what transpires.
So, how’s this for the latest chapter: 15 minutes after the game ended Saturday night, Columbus Crew players danced on a midfield stand while captain Darlington Nagbe hoisted the Eastern Conference trophy. Behind the players, fireworks filled the December air, and black, white and gold confetti blasted into the night, falling slowly onto the field.
While this was the setting on the pitch, Black & Gold supporters roared in pockets around TQL Stadium, reveling in delight not only in what just happened, but how it happened.
The Columbus Crew, trailing 2-0 at halftime, rallied to beat FC Cincinnati, 3-2, in stoppage time to win the 2023 MLS Eastern Conference Final. More importantly, the stirring performance meant the Crew will host the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Final at Lower.com Field next Saturday against LAFC.
“I’m so happy because today we showed that we were able to play but also to be good with competitive spirit and the mindset,” Nancy said after the match, wearing a “EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPS” shirt that was damp from champagne. “I remember how we started, and tonight, I’m so happy. I’m drained. I’m happy. I’m happy for the players because they deserved it.”
In the biggest Hell is Real Derby to date, Columbus delivered an inspiring performance that extended the season and sent FC Cincinnati home exhausted, outplayed – and without answers.
Columbus dominated from the opening minutes, even if the scoreboard said otherwise. Thirteen minutes into the match, Brandon Vazquez put the home side in front when he scored against the run of play. Later in first-half stoppage time, Lucho Acosta doubled the deficit with a set piece strike.
“(I told the players) to be calm, to be patient and to trust the process because we had many opportunities in the first half to score,” Nancy told his players at halftime. “We conceded these two goals, but I had the feeling that we were close to score.
At the same time, we needed to raise the intensity physically and mentally, but we needed also to be cold. We showed them two clips. We adjusted also tactically two or three positions. I told them with the staff that, ‘Guys, this is a new game. If we score one goal, we might have the possibility to score again.’”
FC Cincinnati may have been the Supporters’ Shield winners, but it’s been Columbus who’s dominated in league play as of late. A club that plays attractive, there’s a collective mindset to remain patient and resilient. Seize the moments when they arrive.
That’s a great mentality, but it is also important to have a talented roster. And while Cincinnati was making substitutions to preserve its lead, Nancy and his coaching staff inserted high-quality substitutes that flipped momentum.
The Crew trimmed the deficit in the 75th minute through an Alvas Powell own goal. Second-half sub Julian Gressel whipped a cross toward Christian Ramirez, another sub, who was unable to get a touch on the ball. The sequence surprised Powell, though, who hit the ball into his net.
Nine minutes later in the 86th minute, the match was level through a Diego Rossi finish. Once again, Gressel played a cross into the box, and from there, Rossi had a one-two with Cucho Hernández. Cucho couldn’t get a shot off, but Cincinnati’s poor clearance came to Rossi, who blasted the ball to the back post, shocking The Bailey while fans in black and gold celebrated around the stadium.
Extra time ensued, but it was clear Columbus had confidence while Cincinnati looked gassed.
“We felt they were tired,” Christian Ramirez said. “We felt good physically compared to them. And that moment when that second one goes in, I think it just deflated them. And we just, we sensed that. It’s almost like they said, you sense some blood in the water. And that's what we sensed. And we just said, we gotta keep going.”
The visitors kept pressing. FCC had no answers. The breakthrough arrived in the 115th minute when Ramirez scored the game winner and stunned TQL Stadium.
Kevin Molino played a delicious cross to the back post, where Cucho headed the ball toward Ramirez to produced his second game-winning goal in as many games.
“I have a great relationship with Kevin, from day one in Minnesota,” Ramirez said. “When he picks up the ball there, we make eye contact, and I initially checked to see where I'm at, so I make a run to free up some space. And I mean, Cucho is so unselfish, to give me that. And he told me afterwards, that not one moment was he thinking of heading it himself.”
Ramirez called the next few minutes the longest of his life, but truthfully, there was no doubt Columbus was going to advance. The Black & Gold just looked like they wanted it more.
So, when the full-time whistle finally chirped, there was an overwhelming sense of euphoria, relief, hope and gratitude. While the bench stormed the field, some players crashed to the grass. Nagbe cried. These were not scenes from a movie – they were priceless moments that were deserved and cherished in real time.
Soon, the Crew lifted the Eastern Conference trophy within their Hell is Real rival’s stadium. Cheers of “Columbus” and “Wise Men” echoed around the stadium. Players celebrated with the supporters and with their families.
“It's obviously a great feeling, but I think it's not just for this team; it's for the city of Columbus,” Patrick Schulte said. “We don't take that for granted. We talk about the people that are in the locker room that we play for, but coach showed us a message earlier that it's about our families back home, as well as the fans that come out week in week out and the fans that have traveled down here. We know that we play for the people in the locker room but as well for Columbus.”
Of course, now is when the lofty hopes might become reality. With the Eastern Conference championship secured, the Columbus will host the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Final next Saturday at Lower.com Field. Kickoff will be at 4 p.m. against the Western Conference champ, LAFC, who beat Houston Dynamo FC, 2-0.
This will mark the first MLS Cup Final at Lower.com Field and a chance for the Crew to win a third MLS Cup – and first since 2020. (That trophy was also lifted in the Ohio capital.)
So, is this the dream come true storyline for Nancy and company?
“A dream come true? Not yet because we still have a game to play,” Nancy said. “I came here for that.”