Saturday night might have been the end of the 2023 MLS regular season, but it felt like the beginning of something special – and hopefully something massive.
On a night when the Columbus Crew needed a win to control its own destiny, the team produced a stirring 2-1 Decision Day victory against CF Montréal at Lower.com Field to seal the three seed in the 2023 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The win, along with other results, also meant Montréal was eliminated from the postseason.
As the No. 3 seed, first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy and his side will face No. 6 seed Atlanta United FC in the first round of the playoffs in a best-of-three series. Additionally, the Crew clinched a spot in the 2024 Concacaf Champions League, as the side will compete in the continent’s biggest tournament for the first time since 2021.
“It's a really good moment because they achieved the challenge that we gave them,” Nancy said of the 2023 regular season. “Yes, to finish third, but also to grow. This is what they did. When I see this kind of game tonight, we should have scored more goals – we didn't score all the goals that we wanted – but we finished the game in a good way.
“Again, it is because we've been through this kind of situation in our journey. I'm really happy for the players, I’m really happy for the organization because it's a pleasure to work with them. They accept the way I am as a coach but with my staff also and the way we try to push them all the time, and I think that this is a good reward and they deserve it.”
The Crew needed to rally from an initial deficit om Saturday, though.
The visitors took the league seven minutes into the match when Sunusi Ibrahim was on the receiving end of a swift counter attack.
The Black & Gold responded soon after, however, when Cucho Hernández produced a lovely, curling effort that kissed the woodwork and nestled into the net beneath The Nordecke. The goal was Cucho’s 16th league goal this season, which led the Crew and was third-best in MLS.
Darlington Nagbe produced the night’s game-winning goal five minutes into the second half when the captain’s long-range effort rocketed toward the bottom right corner.
The goal was Nagbe’s third of the season and enough for Columbus to earn three points. But it was also more than that.
The game winner was the team’s league-leading 67th goal of the season. That tally ties the team record for the most in a single season, while it also allowed the Crew to finish with an MLS-best +21 goal differential.
“We wanted to show everybody what we have been working on all year, trying to play, trying to attack and win,” Cucho said of the club’s attacking venom. “It went well and now we want to begin the playoffs with all our effort.”
As the match was Fan Appreciation Night, Nancy praised the Crew supporters for their faith in the club this season.
“Really happy also for the fans because they've been unbelievable – unbelievable,” he said. “Since the first game, I felt something behind, and it was powerful; this is still powerful. The MLS journey is done now. Now, we're going to focus, we're going to rest a bit – a lot – enjoy this moment, and after that, we're going to start the second journey that we want to do.”
Now, the focus is on the future and preparing for the postseason, as the Black & Gold are back for the first time since they won MLS Cup in 2020. As the third seed, Columbus will have home-field advantage in at least the first round. The first match will be played at Lower.com Field, and the third game will be too, if necessary.
It’s worth noting the Five Stripes will be without star attacker Thiago Almada in the opening match after he was sent off in Saturday’s 2-2 draw at FC Cincinnati.
But before we look toward the MLS Cup Playoffs, there’s still business to be done this weekend at Lower.com Field.
On Sunday night, Columbus Crew 2 hosts Austin FC II in the MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final. It’s an opportunity for the Capybaras to claim their second-straight MLS NEXT Pro Cup trophy in the league’s second-ever season.
Tickets to the MLS NEXT Pro Cup Final are still available, and the match will kick off at 5 p.m. While it’s a chance to hoist some hardware, Black & Gold supporters will also be able to cheer for players who could play an important role in the First Team in the coming seasons.