Columbus Crew stay true to their identity to win 3rd MLS Cup

Columbus hang on vs. LAFC to win MLS Cup (0:54)

Two first-half goals are enough for Columbus Crew to secure a 2-1 win over LAFC to win the 2023 MLS Cup. (0:54)

COLUMBUS, Ohio - For Columbus Crew manager Wilfried Nancy, the most important thing going into Saturday's MLS Cup was for the team to stick to its identity. If that were to happen, he believed, the rest would take care of itself.

He was right.

Columbus recorded a convincing 2-1 victory against LAFC on Saturday night, delivering the club's third MLS Cup and second since 2020.

"That's why we had the possibility and that's why we won," Nancy said. "I'm really proud of that as a coach. Yes, we can talk about that tactics and talk about a lot of things, but the performance that we had tonight was spot on."

As expected, the Crew were on the front foot to begin the game and after waves of consistent pressure, they were rewarded in the 30th minute.

That's when a touch from Diego Rossi in the top of the penalty area deflected off LAFC defender Diego Palacios' right shoulder area, then his outstretched hand and was called for a handball. The decision held up on video assisted review, after which Cucho Hernández calmly slotted the opening goal to the lower left side, away from the diving Maxime Crépeau.

The already electric atmosphere inside Lower.com Field reached a fever pitch and had not fully subsided before the Crew doubled their lead four minutes later. A brilliant through ball from center back Malte Amundsen put Yaw Yeboah in on goal and he finished with confidence.

It wasn't just a win for the Crew, but an emphatic display of Nancy's vision for long stretches against an LAFC side that was attempting to cement its status as the preeminent power in MLS.

In their first year under Nancy, the former CF Montréal manager, the Crew led MLS with 67 goals and finished the regular season in third place in the Eastern Conference standings -- 12 points back of Supporters' Shield winner FC Cincinnati. The Crew reached the final after defeating Atlanta United, two games to one, in the first round, and road victories against Orlando City (2-0) and Cincinnati (3-2).

Nancy is also the first Black coach to lead a team to an MLS Cup.

"Obviously, I'm happy. So proud of that because there is a lot of work behind that," Nancy said. "There is a lot of courage for being that, but I'm also not happy at the same time because this is not normal. Simple as that.

"So, I'm proud to represent, yes, to be the only Black [coach], but I'm not happy with that. So, this is something that he has to change and I know that MLS is trying to do that, but this is not only in MLS, this is everywhere."

One of the leagues original 10 teams, Columbus won its first MLS Cup in 2008, defeating the New York Red Bulls at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. Its next Cup win came at home in 2020, however only 1,500 fans were allowed in the stadium due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Saturday's win at Lower.com Field -- the team's $314 million stadium that opened in 2021 -- will be remembered as one of the most iconic days in Columbus' storied soccer history. The club is just five years removed from a controversial attempt to relocate to Austin, Texas, which was staved off by the fan-driven "Save The Crew" campaign that ultimately led to the Haslam Sports Group taking ownership.

Speaking in the annual state of the league address Friday, MLS commissioner Don Garber reflected on that dark time for Columbus.

"Going through that process is not one that I would hope to ever have to go through again, but when I look at where we are today, we have a stadium that's one of the best soccer stadiums in our league, if not the best small soccer stadium in the world," Garber said.

"We have a team that's performed incredibly well. We have a bunch of fans who now have more to engage with and cheer for. We have more sponsors for the team than we have before.

"We have more political and municipal support than we've had before. We have an ownership commitment that is at the highest level. So, if we had to go through that again and end where we are today, we'd go through it again."

Crew fans haven't completely forgiven Garber for their team's near exit. The commissioner's introduction during the trophy presentation ceremony drew a rousing round of boos.

Under the new ownership group, the Crew set their single-season attendance record (22,111 fans per game), operated in the top half of the league in player salaries this season and were led by an MVP-caliber player in Cucho, who was acquired from English club Watford for a club-record fee of $10 million last summer. The Colombia forward was named the MLS Cup MVP.

"It was an incredible feeling, you know?" Hernández said. "I cried like a baby when the final whistle blew. But now it's all about enjoying the moment. Enjoying the moment for the rest of the week and weekend ... and just enjoying it."

In July, Columbus transferred club legend Lucas Zelarayán to the Saudi Pro League and, just before the secondary transfer window closed, replaced him with Rossi, a former MLS golden boot award winner with LAFC.

LAFC's attempt to become the fourth team in league history to win back-to-back MLS Cups fell short.

"Did Columbus deserve to win tonight? Yes, they did," LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. "They played a fantastic game. Do I think they're better than us? No, I think they were better than us tonight and we made a couple of errors defensively that led to their two goals. And that's pretty much it. And that's how these games are decided."

After being soundly outplayed in the first half, LAFC was much better after halftime. LAFC cut the deficit to 2-1 in the 74th minute on a goal from Dénis Bouanga, but -- unlike last year's MLS Cup, when Gareth Bale rescued the game late in extra time -- the equalizer never came.