COLUMBUS, Ohio – Before the Columbus Crew beat LAFC 2-1 to win Saturday’s MLS Cup final, Crew coach Wilfred Nancy and his staff showed his players pictures of themselves as little kids, his way of reminding them that their desire to win soccer games has been there from the very beginning.
“We had a good laugh” at the photographs, Nancy said.
Columbus’ captain, Darlington Nagbe, then delivered a moving speech, one that Nancy said made Nagbe’s teammates cry.
“Beacuse he was genuine,” the coach said. “This is my team. That’s why I’m so proud of them, because they are able to play with the emotion — and to accept the emotion in the moment.”
Columbus manager Wilfried Nancy praises team’s resilience after 2-1 win over LAFC in MLS CUP | FOX Soccer
By the time the hosts hit the field, there was no way they weren’t going to end the day holding MLS’s most coveted piece of silverware for the second time in four seasons.
But this latest title feels far different than the one the Black and Yellow claimed at the end of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That MLS Cup was played at what is now known as Historic Crew Stadium — the first soccer specific venue in the United States when it opened way back in 1999, three years after the club debuted as one of MLS’s 10 original teams. Because of health restrictions, there were few fans in the house that night in a revered venue that the Crew had long since outgrown before that chilly night in Ohio’s capital.
Saturday’s match, by contrast, looked the way finals are supposed to. Every seat in Columbus’ beautiful new current home was taken, the almost 21,000 in attendance setting a new record for the two-year-old Lower.com Field. There was a pre-match honor guard and a military flyover — all the pomp befitting of a game of this magnitude.
And right after the first whistle blew, the home side shocked and awed the visitors with relentless, smothering intensity. The first goal came from star striker Cucho Hernandez via the penalty spot just over half-an-hour in. The second arrived just four minutes later, on a beautiful long pass that the two main protagonists — scorer Yow Yeboah and server Malte Amundsen — and their teammates swore afterward was a play they’d rehearsed all season long in training.
Before giving Columbus a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, though, Hernandez was uncharacteristically jittery.
“I’ve taken seven or eight penalties this season,” Columbus’s Colombian national teamer said. “This one was the one that I was nervous for. But I knew I couldn’t miss it.”
Even when Denis Bouanga, LAFC’s own star striker and the 2023 MLS Golden Boot winner, cut his side’s deficit in half with a little more than 15 minutes of regular time to go, it never really felt like the visitors would get another, even when Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte was forced to make a key late save with his face to maintain the lead.
“They played a fantastic game,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said of the Crew. “Do I think they’re better than us? No. I think they were better than us tonight.”
“They deserved to win,” added LAFC center back Giorgio Chiellini, the 39-year-old former Italian national team legend who was probably playing in the final match of his decorated career. “They played much better.”
MLS Cup: Columbus Crew vs. LAFC Highlights | FOX Soccer
The Crew’s latest triumph was especially sweet for Nagbe, the hosts’ captain. The Ohio product won two MLS Cups with two different teams before arriving in Columbus before the 2020 campaign. But he was forced to miss not just that year’s successful finale but all the celebrations that followed after testing positive for COVID on the eve of the title bout. “We didn’t get a chance to pack a stadium [three] years ago. I wasn’t a part of the game,” said Nagbe, who could only congratulate his teammates via FaceTime then. “Tonight is just special. The fans were incredible. The team was incredible.”
Saturday was also special for first-year Columbus bench boss Nancy, who became the first Black coach to win an MLS Cup in the 28th edition of the event.
“I’m so proud of that,” Nancy said. “But I’m not happy at the same time. Because this is not normal…this is something that has to change.”
The France native took a huge leap of faith by leaving CF Montreal after an impressive 2022 season to take over a Crew side that didn’t even qualify for the playoffs last season. Right from the start of this year, he created an environment that allowed his players to thrive. Showing those photos of his players as youngsters before one of the biggest games of their lives was just one example.
“I thought that was great,” Nagbe said. “If there was any tension, I think that kind of broke the ice for a lot of guys, being in this situation for the first time.
“That’s what Wilfried does,” he continued. “There’s the technical side of it and the game plan and everything like that. And then there’s putting guys in the right mind frame to go out there and perform.”
The Crew certainly performed on Saturday. A third MLS Cup title for the city of Columbus is their well-earned reward.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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