How Columbus Crew won 2023 MLS Cup

Columbus Crew made history by capturing their third MLS Cup title with a 2-1 triumph over LAFC at Field.

Not many predicted first-year head coach Wilfried Nancy and the Crew to go the distance in this year’s postseason, but the team silenced their critics to add to their trophy cabinet.

The final was close, as many expected, but it felt like Columbus were destined to win for nearly the entire contest as they remained in cruise control.

Here’s how one of MLS’ original sides took home their second title in four seasons.

Wilfried NancyWilfried Nancy

Nancy won his first MLS Cup / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages

Up until the last 15 minutes of the game, the Crew absolutely had their foot on LAFC’s throats, doing things as they pleased as they inched closer to winning MLS Cup. This is exactly what Nancy wants from his team, and he’s made the same point over and over again earlier this season as well.

“I am so happy because the most important thing was not to win, but to be ourselves,” said Nancy after the win.

The Crew’s persistence saw them take the lead in the 33rd minute afer Hernandez slotted home a penalty kick, and a brilliant through-ball from Amundsen saw Yaw Yeboah add to the home side’s lead just four minutes later.

It wouldn’t have been a huge surprise to see the Crew play in their shell given the occasion and the powerful opponent they were up against. However, that wasn’t the case. In fact, it seemed like Crew were the actual reigning champions and not the visitors, given how the difference in the two teams’ performances.

While LAFC were below par, a lot of that can be attributed to how well-drilled Columbus were. It wasn’t the worst performance by Steve Cherundolo’s side, but the Crew were just that much better. And the stats back that up, too.

The home team dictated the game with 62% possession and tallied an xG of 1.96 with 14 shots, five on target. Outside of a few efforts and Bouanga’s leveler, LAFC were limited to pop-shots from distance that Patrick Schulte was able to save comfortably. The 2022 champions notched 11 shots, also getting five on target, but they were only able to amass an xG of .76.

Teams that stick to their winning philosophy typically go on to do great things, and the Crew proved that theory right against LAFC.

Steven Moreira, Denis BouangaSteven Moreira, Denis Bouanga

Steven Moreira kept up with Denis Bouanga / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages

Along with sticking to their guns, the Crew also knew that if they wanted to win MLS Cup they had to limit one of if not the most dangerous player in MLS in Denis Bouanga. Before the game, it wouldn’t have been a shock to anyone watching if Bouanga took home the game’s MVP award.

But the Crew’s Steven Moreira had a different idea. The 29-year-old, who recently signed a new two-year deal with Columbus, went toe-to-toe with the electric Bouanga that’s terrorized defenses all year, no matter the occasion.

In the first half, Moreira and wing-back Mohamed Farsi muted the Gabon international. Many probably came away from the first half thinking, “was Bouanga even on the field?”

There were several moments where Bouanga seemed like he might dance past a defender or two to put himself one-on-one with Schulte, but Moreira and co. had it covered. However, Bouanga finally made his presence known late on with a scrappy goal that just snuck by Schulte, as the strike could’ve and probably should’ve been kept out by the 2022 MLS Next Goalkeeper of the Year.

Bouanga is going to get his chances here and there in pretty much every game; It’s just about limiting how much damage he does. Columbus’ defense excelled in that area and did just enough to keep the player who scored 38 goals in 2023 at bay.

Rudy Camacho anchored the Crew backlineRudy Camacho anchored the Crew backline

Rudy Camacho anchored the Crew backline / Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the Crew under Nancy in 2023, you automatically think about the league’s top-scoring attack (67 goals in the regular season) that boasts Cucho Hernandez and Diego Rossi.

Columbus certainly flexed their attacking might in the first half by going 2-0 up on last year’s champions, but their defending in the second half was impressive. As they say, the best way to defend is to attack, which is what the Crew did by suffocating LAFC deep in their own half.

There were all kinds of warning signs ahead of the final that perhaps conveyed that the Crew could be in trouble given how both teams like to play: Columbus play with a high line with lots of possession, while LAFC don’t care about possession but have the pace and clinical finishing to break forward on the counter.

But that never came to fruition, as the Crew’s backline of Amundsen, Rudy Camacho and the previously mentioned Moreira came to play in front of their supporters. Amundsen and Camacho put in solid shifts for the ‘original’ Black and Gold, but Moreira’s defensive showing was excellent.

Moreira made three tackles, won five ground duels and committed zero fouls — all while being tasked of locking down Bouanga. The Columbus defense didn’t do it by themselves, though, as Nancy’s cream-of-the-crop midfield duo was as sharp as ever.

Two-time MLS Cup winner Aidan Morris and four-time MLS Cup champion Darlington Nagbe played their part on the defensive end of the field just as much as they did going forward. Not only did Nagbe run the show around LAFC’s penalty area, but he also stepped in to make several tackles and interceptions on the night. The same can be said for Morris, as the two go hand-in-hand as one of the best midfield, if not the best, partnerships in the league.

The Crew’s backline and midfield played their part in putting on a defensive performances for the ages while not compromising on the way they like to play. Not only did several individuals step up to make timely challenges, tackles and interceptions, but Columbus’ ability to essentially play keep-away is another reason of how they were able to defend with the ball and hold off LAFC.

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