Columbus Crew reaches Champions Cup final: Takeaways from a commanding win over Monterrey

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The Columbus Crew will have a chance to be the second MLS team to win a CONCACAF Champions Cup title.

Aidan Morris scored a vital goal just before the half, and substitute Alexandru Matan provided an assist to Diego Rossi just four minutes into the second half and Jacen Russell-Rowe added the exclamation point in the 89th minute to secure a 3-1 win on the road in Monterrey and a 5-2 win on aggregate. 

Columbus will now face Pachuca in the final on June 2. A trophy is a stake, and so is a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup next summer in the U.S.

The Crew went into Mexico with a 2-1 lead after a win in the home leg last week. Monterrey evened the tally and took the advantage in the series when they struck first on what was ruled an own goal after Maxi Meza’s chip came off the bottom of the crossbar and bounced into the legs of Evgen Cheberko and into the back of the net. 

But Columbus found the equalizer with what was essentially the final kick of the first half when Monterrey goalkeeper Esteban Andrada made a huge mistake, rolling a pass out to a teammate that allowed Morris to sneak in and pick his pocket, then dribble toward the box and eventually beat an out-of-position Andrada inside the near post.

The goal changed the trajectory of the game and, eventually, with a pair of second-half goals lifted Columbus to the win and a chance to win another trophy.

Saving MLS

When Inter Miami went out of the tournament to this Monterrey team in the previous round, MLS’ performance in the tournament screamed of a gap that still existed between the best teams in the two leagues. After 14 games against Liga MX teams, MLS had a minus-23 goal differential and zero wins.

But one MLS team still had a path to the trophy. And Columbus put together one of the most well-rounded performances from an MLS team on the road in Mexico in the history of the CONCACAF tournament with a decisive win over Rayados. They now stand just a win away from salvaging this year in the CONCACAF Champions Cup for MLS.

With a win over Pachuca, Columbus would become just the second MLS team to win the tournament after the 2022 Seattle Sounders, which defeated Pumas in the final.

It would also add another amazing chapter to the story of the Columbus Crew, which was almost relocated to Austin, Texas before being saved by the fans and a #SaveTheCrew movement. Since then, Columbus has won two MLS Cups and now will have a chance to resuscitate the league’s standing in the region during what was an otherwise dismal performance in the tournament.

Nancy pulling the right strings

This Columbus team has won over fans with the way they play, and there is probably no bigger influence than that of manager Wilfried Nancy.

After coming over from Montreal prior to the 2023 season, Nancy has injected a clear confidence and security of personality in this Columbus team. They know who they are, how they want to play and how to approach games. And Nancy seems to know the right moves to make.

Last year in the MLS playoffs, it was the second-half substitutions that brought the Crew back from a two-goal deficit and led them to an eventual 3-2 win and a berth in the MLS Cup final. This time around, Nancy made another change that immediately paid off and secured a berth in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final.

Morris’ goal just before halftime changed the trajectory of the game. No longer did Columbus have to chase the game and look for a goal. Now, they had a one-goal lead on aggregate and were in the driver’s seat for the tie. Nancy took out Marino Hinestroza at the break and subbed in Matan. No longer did Columbus have to worry as much about getting out on the break. They could try to control the game more. Matan then played the pass to split Rossi through Monterrey’s center backs and allowed his goal to seal the result.

Russell-Rowe did not start after playing a key role in the first leg — assisting the first game and scoring the winner — but the 21-year-old Canadian came on in the 85th minute and once again found the back of the net. His goal in the final minutes gave Columbus a decisive win, both in Monterrey and overall in the series. 

Nancy has established himself as the best manager in MLS, and now he’ll have a chance at a continental trophy to add to his accomplishments.

Pachuca lies ahead

The format of the CONCACAF Champions Cup final will be different than in recent years, changing from a two-legged final to a one-off match at Pachuca. 

It will be another difficult proposition for Columbus, but so far in this tournament the Crew has gone on the road to Tigres and Monterrey and found a way to get results. The win over Monterrey was the first time an MLS team beat a Mexican team on the road in a CONCACAF semifinal.

Pachuca currently sits in seventh in the Liga MX Apertura standings after a run of four losses in five games from March 9 to April 13, but they have never lost at home in a CONCACAF Champions match and will likely be the favorite at home again. 

Pachuca downed Club America in the semifinals and earlier in the tournament beat the Philadelphia Union, 6-0 in the second leg at the Estadio Hidalgo. 

(Photo: Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

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