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Columbus Crew 2023 season wrap: Black and Gold are champions

Crew+fans+unveil+banner+before+MLS+Cup.
Carter Sims
Crew fans unveil banner before MLS Cup.

Omne trium perfectum: the number three in many cultures is considered to be perfect and even divine. There’s a great deal of powerful groups of three in society: past, present and future; Father, Son and Holy Spirit; egg and cheese. The list goes on.
For the Columbus Crew, three is now the number of MLS Cups belonging to the club. While the climb to that feat was not flawless, in a way, it was perfect. It was never easy, but Columbus stuck to its identity and hoisted silverware because of it.

NEW FACES AND DIFFERENT PACES

The season started last February, but the road to the championship actually goes back to the December before that, when Columbus brought in manager Wilifired Nancy from C.F. Montreal and a quick offseason of change followed, as tenured players left the club and a new era was notably upon the Crew.
Nancy hinges his footballing style on possession. Retrieve the ball, keep it for long stretches and put maximum pressure on the opposition’s defense. This differs from the popular style in the modern day, where teams are willing to let the other team possess, hoping to capitalize on a counter-attack.
The Crew had the personnel in the front and middle of the field for this ideology, with known commodities in the attack and dependability up the middle.
Star striker Cucho Hernandez is typically a goal machine and has a lot of flexibility in the attacking third. His partner in crime, Lucas Zelaryan is one of the most skilled players in Columbus Crew history and a dynamic part of the attack. These two were the driving force of the team last year and the faces of the club.
In the midfield, one of the league’s best in Darlington Nagbe returned to his spot and brought his accurate passing and ball security that makes him such a benefit to a team.
Joining him and taking the starting position left by Artur would be Crew Academy product Aidan Morris, who’s defensive presence and ability to win the ball paired with his intricate passing makes him one of the most promising stars of American soccer at just 22 years old.
Questions arose past these positions. How would the Crew be able to attack off the flanks, and would the backline be able to support this high octane style of play?
The initial answers were mixed, as the Crew started the year without the likes of left back Pedro Santos after his departure to D.C., as well as center back and former captain Jonathan Mensah who was traded days before the season, and a new defensive formation compared to previous seasons.
Instead of a flat four in the back, this year’s formation (a 3-5-2) called for 3 in the back and flexible wing backs that can attack and defend in similar capacities. Initially, the Black and Gold started with Will Sands at left back, Phillip Quinton, Milos Degenek and Steven Moreria in the center, and Mo Farsi at right.
Sands is a promising player and could have an increased role in the future, but an ACL tear cut his season short in devastating fashion. Quinton (as well as Sands and Farsi) was a member of the championship winning Crew 2 side, but struggled to solidify himself in the first team and in a squad where the entire teams is advanced and dependent on a swift retrieval from the backline, he just wasn’t cutting it in the early stages of the season. Quinton’s spot was soon occupied by Gustavo Valencia.
Degenek, a quality player, just looked a bit behind and struggled transitioning to the new style. Farsi showed moments of inexperience, with some questionable dribbling and leaky defending on the outside, but also showed moments of promise, ball stopping and advancing the ball into the attacking third. The question was could he be trusted in the big moments.
The star of the backline though was converted right back Steven Moreria, who transitioned to the right center back and provided stability and versatility, with his ability to push forward and involve the defense in the attack.
In the wider areas were typically attackers Yaw Yeboah and Alex Matan. Yeboah inherited a larger role at the onset of the season due to the departure of Derrick Etinne Jr., who was not retained by Columbus and moved on to Atlanta, and Matan returned to Columbus after a loan move to Romania last season.
Yeboah is a real threat going forward, but isn’t as gifted with his touch, where Matan is more equipped in tight spaces and can drift to more central spaces of the pitch.
Also joining the attack was veteran MLS striker Christian Rameriez, whose role was primarily as a substitute that can score late in matches. Rameirez added a change of pace as a large target man in the box.
The Crew opened with a blowout loss to Philadelphia Union, and after some mixed road results, sat in the middle of the pack of the Eastern Conference.
The biggest frustration with the team in recent years has been the tendency to let leads slip and concede at the end of games. After a year where the team missed the playoffs by a single point, the blown games at the death were just not going to fly in 2023.
Nancy’s philosophy helped this issue, and instead of tightening up at the end of the games, the Black and Gold were now the ones attacking. While there were still frustrating ends, like an early year loss to New York Red Bull at the 85th minute, the Crew also showed spark to spur comebacks of their own, including a match against Toronto FC that was punctuated by substitute wingback’s Jimmy Medranda’s 75th minute equalizer.
As the early frame of the season progressed, change in the lineup continued and goalkeeper Patrick Schulte took the lionshare of games in goal over Eloy Room. Schulte, a young keeper at only 22 years of age, is a bit more technically sound than Room and didn’t have as much of a tendency to get frozen on his line.
Up front, Zelaryan and Hernandez were teaming up for a potent attack where each of them contributed a mix of assists and goals for the Black and Gold. It was a work in progress, but this new look Crew had a bit of promise considering it being the first year of the Nancy Era.
As the weather turned warm and the sun began to shine, Columbus looked like a strong team. The team had protected their home grounds, young players like Aidan Morris were shining with contributions in both attack and defense, and the group was growing more comfortable.
The frustrating part was that with every stage of optimism, it felt like the team was met with a reality check.

REALITY CHECK

They came to a head in a rivalry loss to FC Cincinnati in the Queen City, when the Crew went down 2-0 before equalizing, only to give up a third goal that would seal defeat. The match lived up to the name of the Hell is Real rivalry, as it seemed like everything went wrong for the Crew.
This would be the first of three straight losses for the club, and the inexperience in the back and disconnect in the attack were becoming more apparent. The young defense was coughing the ball up and Zelaryan seemed to be playing in a form that was somewhat isolated from the rest of his teammates. These problems weren’t constant, but seemed to rear their head at the worst moments
The Crew steadied the ship with an early summer point streak, but heading into Leagues Cup, a revamped tournament that for the first time would encompass all MLS and Liga MX teams, it was obvious that the Crew needed to take steps to go toe to toe with the top clubs in the East.
Coinciding with this tournament was the international transfer window opening.
Over the course of the summer transfer window, attention flocked mostly to South Beach as all-time great Lio Messi signed with Inter Miami CF, bringing former F.C. Barcelona teammates Jodri Alba and Sergio Busquets along with him garnered a media frenzy. While the world’s eye was turned to Miami’s Leagues Cup run, Columbus was quietly making moves.
It started with an expected move as Degenek left to join Red Star Belgrade, a transaction that had been in the works leading up to the window. A move that wasn’t foreseen was Zelarayan heading to Saudi Arabia, as club Al Fateh snatched the Crew’s star catalyst and sent shockwaves through the league.
Zelarayan will go down as one of the greatest players in club history and an integral part of the 2020 MLS Cup championship team. His departure came as a surprise, especially considering it happened mid-season.
Luckily, reinforcements were on the way. In came center backs Yevgen Cheberko and Rudy Camacho to strengthen the backline. Camacho previously played under Nancy in Montreal, and was familiar with his style of play, while Cheberko provided some depth.
The Crew also brought in Julian Gressel, a United States Men’s National Team wingback with a renowned passing touch that would ideally further develop the team’s pressing identity and elevate the quality of style.
The crown jewel of the transfer was the acquisition of Diego Rossi. The former MLS Golden Boot winner for LAFC had spent the last few years at Turkish side Fenerbahce, and was brought in just a few days after the gut punch of the Zelaryan departure.
The gap left by one dynamic attacker was quickly filled by another. The 25 year old attacking midfielder was a star in Los Angeles alongside striking partner Carlos Vela, and the pairing of him with Cucho Hernandez who had been a steady goal machine already for Columbus had scary potential.
After a complete window that contributed to each aspect of the team, the Crew needed to make steady progress and begin turning into playoff form.
As the season continued on, the Crew began to take shape. Camacho provided quality and Farsi began to grow into that starting role, becoming dependable at right wing back and splitting time with Gressel at the position. Cucho was consistently scoring goals and the rest of the attack was adding contributions through assists and goals alike.
Most importantly, the team was getting results, especially at home. The Crew only lost one game at lower.com Field and were accompanied by sold out crowds for each home match. After a brief spell where the team struggled to close out road results, they rebounded with 6 games unbeaten to end the regular season.

ROAD TO THE CUP

Rolling into the playoffs, a 16-9-9 secured the 3rd seed and a home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs to face Atlanta United in a best of 3 series.
The first installment took place in Columbus, a match where the Black and Gold took hold of the ball and generated numerous attacks. Hernandez bagged two goals, one being a penalty kick, and after a second half full of fouls and some chippiness, the Crew took a 1-0 lead in the series after a 2-0 win.
Game two was in Atlanta and the Crew had a chance to seal the deal and move on to the next round, but some strong crossing play and leaky defending led to a 4-2 defeat in ATL. The series would return to Columbus with a win or a home match.
In the third and final leg, some gritty midfield play from Nagbe and Morris, fluid attacking play from Rossi, Hernandez and Matan and a masterpiece in goal form from Malte Amundsen lead to a 4-2 victory of the Crew’s own, and it was on to round two.
The next foe would be Orlando, the club that knocked the Crew out of playoff contention last year. This round would be a single elimination, and to stay alive the Crew would have to get a win in central Florida.
The match felt like a boxing match, with a first round full of jabs. Columbus got the ball into the opposing box, but were not able to find the net. The pressure built as the game dragged on, and the amounting yellow cards were indicative of the physicality of the game.
The second half saw more chances and a red card send-off for Orlando center back Rodrigo Schelgel. The half ended at a 0-0 draw sending the match to an extra time period where attrition was starting to set in for both sides.
Orlando had kept the Crew out of goal all night and Patrcik Schulte had stood on his head, but in the 93rd minute an Aidan Morris pass to Christian Rameirez led to a goal to put Columbus up 1-0. Orlando desperately scrambled for an equalizer, but Schulte stifled every attempt and a midfield launch on an empty goal from Cucho Hernandez made it 2-0 and put the match to bed.
The next stage was the Eastern Conference Final against bitter rival FC Cincinnati. Cincy had secured the Supporters Shield in the regular season and had been a favorite to win MLS Cup.
Each team boasting top rosters with class in all levels of the field, this match would be a classic. The game started entirely similar to the early summer thumping the Crew suffered at the beginning of the season, going down 2-0 at the half, helped with a goal coming from some Luciano Acosta wizardry off a free kick.
Coming out of the locker room, it was obvious Columbus would need to create more chances and limit Cincinnati’s.
This was a tough task as FCC got many breakaway shots on goal, but were unable to score due to some offside calls and narrow misses. Finally, in the 75th minute a long ball tapped off of Christian Ramierz ‘flying foot opened the account for the Crew.
After getting shots on goal all night, finally breaking through energized Columbus, and controlling the midfield kept the ball at their feet. As the pressure continued, Diego Rossi equalized in the 86th minute and Cincinnati’s lead had evaporated. Once the 2nd half concluded and the teams prepared for extra time, it was obvious the momentum resided with Columbus.
Extra time persisted with attacking and possession from Columbus, as well as Patrick Schutle standing on his head and keeping the net on lockdown.
After nearly two hours of grinding possession, trading blows and battling to stay alive, the Crew had the ball in the box in the 114th minute. A long cross found Yaw Yeboah at the top of the 18, who played it into a crashing Cucho Hernandez. Hernandez headed the ball back to a rushing Christian Ramirez, who tapped it into the back of the net.
The Crew had evaporated Cincinnati’s lead by dominating possession, getting more shots on net, and reshaping the match after halftime. The Black and Gold were on to the final after defeating the top team in MLS.
For the MLS Cup Final, one black and gold team would play host to another, as defending champion LAFC came into Columbus out of the West. LAFC boasted an elite roster as well, headlined by Mexican international star Carlos Vela, Italian star Giorgio Chiellini, as well as other pieces Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Denis Bouanga that would provide a tough test.
The beginning of the game was a time for each team to settle in, with intense pressure and midfield dueling from both sides. As the first half pushed on, Columbus got more and more comfortable and generated more attacks in the final third.
In the 29th minute, an LAFC hand met the ball in the box, leading to a penalty kick for Columbus. Hernandez took the spot and drove the ball into the bottom left corner, drawing first blood and putting Columbus up 1-0.
Shortly after in the 37th minute, a long ball to Yaw Yeboah led to a second goal, stretching the lead to 2-0 as the game moved into the halftime interval.
Just 45 minutes away from claiming the cup, the Crew were within reach of the ultimate prize in MLS.
The second half brought a chippy, back and forth struggle between the sides as Columbus maintained the ball and used the midfield as the lifesource to make it to the final whistle. This march to the end was contested though by a Denis Bouanga goal in the 75th minute.
Here they were, at the end of a game having just given up a goal. Crew teams in the past had broken, folded at the end of games and given up leads. Crew fans had seen this movie before and it looked like the Black and Gold could fall into their old habit of giving the game away just before the death.
But this time, they didn’t.
This time, the Crew stuck to their identity. They didn’t freeze and park the bus, they kept attacking and kept the ball in their control.
The backline of new faces stood strong and kept LA out of the box. The young goalkeeper put a screen on the net. The class midfield took care of the ball and got it to the dangerous attackers.
Columbus stuck to their guns and when three whistles sounded, it was done. Columbus had arrived.
In their new, state of the art stadium filled with devout fans that had sold it out since the spring. Guided by their inventive head coach and world class star players, they played attacking football and controlled tha match. Columbus is no longer that club in the midwest, struggling to keep the team.
Columbus is the picture of aggressive play, the flagship for the next wave of club structure in MLS, and the epicenter of American soccer. Most importantly, for the third time, they are also champions.

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Carter Sims
Carter Sims, Managing Editor
Carter Sims (he/him) is a senior and a member of the basketball and tennis teams. This is his third year on staff. He is a loyal sports fan and enjoys watching games and coaching youth basketball at camps and skill clinics in Delaware in his free time.
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