The Columbus Crew have done the impossible once – can MLS’ most-talented team ever win in Mexico again to reach the CONCACAF Champions Cup final?

The 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup has been a competition full of twists, turns and shock results, as well as some brilliant soccer. None more so than from the Columbus Crew.

Wilfried Nancy’s side have done the unthinkable through the semifinals of the tournament, becoming the first MLS team to ever win a knockout match in Mexico – and even more impressively, the Crew did so against powerhouse Liga MX side Tigres.

On Wednesday, the reigning MLS Cup champions have a chance to write their name into history as they aim to do the impossible for the second-straight round and win south of the border. The Crew hold a 2-1 advantage from the first leg over Monterrey, and if they can manage a result… well, let’s just say impressive wouldn’t even cut it.

They wouldn’t be the first MLS team to reach the final of the competition, of course, and nor would they be the first to go on and win it. Seattle Sounders’ triumph in 2022 opened the floodgates for a change in perspective as to how MLS is perceived and has evolved as a league.

That said, you cannot compare that Sounders side to this Columbus club. From Cucho Hernandez to Darlington Nagbe to Patrick Schulte, this Crew side is the most well-rounded team MLS and its fans have ever seen. A result in Mexico, however, would thrust them into American soccer folklore and put this team in consideration as being the best MLS side ever.

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      Mastering MLS

      The Crew’s dominant 2023 MLS season booked their spot in this year’s Champions Cup, as Nancy’s side took home MLS Cup with an emphatic 2-1 victory over LAFC in December. Colombia international Cucho Hernandez was awarded MVP of the match, and all of Columbus celebrated their third league title, and second in four seasons after lifting it in 2020. They were MLS’ best in every sense, from the fluid way they played to the execution of tactics on the pitch.

      First, they knocked-out World Cup winner Thiago Almada and Atlanta United in the Conference semifinals; then it was MLS Supporters’ Shield winners FC Cincinnati and league MVP Luciano Acosta in the Eastern Conference finals.

      In MLS Cup, they slayed the dragon, defeating the reigning champions and Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga. Now, in 2024, their ultimate priority is the Champions Cup. This spring, they’ve gone full steam ahead en route to their ambitious goal to hoist the continental trophy, a run that has seen them surpass even the most lofty expectations.

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    Conquering on the continent

    The Crew have been outstanding in the continental competition this campaign. They started off with a first-round bye thanks to their MLS Cup triumph, but followed it up by regularly striking fear into opponents.

    In the Round of 16, they took down fellow MLS side Houston Dynamo over two legs, winning the first and ultimately securing a draw on the road to advance.

    Their impressive run really began in the quarterfinals against Tigres, though. A 10-man Columbus secured a 1-1 draw at home in the first leg and were forced to go into Mexico to secure a result, a feat no MLS side had ever achieved.

    They entered El Volcan in San Nicolas de Los Garza and advanced in remarkable fashion, as Arsenal-linked U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper Schulte provided the heroics. The 23-year-old stood on his head across the 120-minutes of regulation, making six saves, with the two sides needing to settle the tie from the penalty spot. In the ensuing shootout, Schulte denied Tigres not once, but twice, ultimately handing the Crew a sensational 4-3 victory from the spot.

    Nancy’s side had conquered Los Tigres in Mexico, with the Crew coach executing a perfect gameplan to secure the result. A budding star in MLS himself, Nancy’s acumen from the touchline might be the biggest reason why the Crew are in such an envious position.

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    No one like Nancy

    There is zero doubt that Nancy is the face of MLS managers right now. Recently handed a contract extension by the Crew, the 47-year-old Frenchman has been absolutely sensational since taking over in Columbus in 2022.

    Before joining the Crew, he was an assistant in Montreal, working under Thierry Henry. But after the Arsenal legend departed the Canadian MLS side in 2021, Nancy was promoted to his first head coaching job in the league, and he’s flourished.

    After two seasons in charge of Montreal, he earned a move to the Crew, and began writing history. Nancy differentiates himself from every other MLS manager through his defined approach to tactics, opting for fluid play through the defense, while actively looking to slow the game down in an era of fast-paced soccer.

    “So this is a day-to-day work, this is a lot of video, this is a lot of interaction also, because I believe that to convince the player to do something – or to convince a human being to do something – he has to try things. He has to make mistakes,” Nancy told MLSSoccer.com in 2023. “He has to be comfortable in the uncomfortable situation. So this is something that we do all the time on the pitch: repetition, with clear situations, and also a structure, a defined structure. But within the structure, a lot of creativity within that…We are really, really, really, extremely demanding with the structure. But within the structure, the players have the freedom to pick and choose what is the good option.”

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    Dynamic approach

    Nancy’s dynamic approach to management has seen his squad flourish, with an understanding from Schulte in goal to Cucho leading the line that while they are stretching the pitch, they remain a cohesive unit.

    Former U.S. men’s national team star Nagbe – who is widely regarded as one of the best American midfielders in MLS’ history – has formed a superb partnership with USMNT Olympic-squad member Aidan Morris, and through them, the Crew play brilliant transitional soccer. Their double-pivot, accompanied by wingbacks Yaw Yeboah and Sean Zawadzki, create a dynamic flowing midfield, which is able to support the three central defenders behind them while also pushing into the attack.

    Going forward, Cucho, who in the first leg against Monterrey was accompanied by Canada international Jacen Russell-Rowe and Uruguayan star Diego Rossi, is an attacking threat who poses difficulty for any defense.

    However, Monterrey aren’t just any team, and their defense isn’t just any back line. They’re a well-composed side used to playing under pressure, and a group with all the experience needed to thwart the momentum Columbus have heading into Mexico.

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    Never write off Los Rayados

    The five-time Champions Cup winners are one of the most respected footballing organizations in all of North America. Los Rayados are the winningest team in the competition’s history, a true pedigree side in this tournament. From USMNT striker Brendan Vazquz to dynamic Argentine duo German Berterame and Maxi Meza, Monterrey are the definition of elite in Liga MX.

    They currently sit fourth in the Clausura heading into Wednesday’s tie, just three points out of first place Club America – another semifinalist in the Champions Cup this season. They have already taken care of two MLS sides in this season’s competition, too, having knocked out Supporter’s Shield winners FC Cincinnati and Lionel Messi-led Inter Miami.

    In the first leg, Meza netted an important away goal at Lower.com field, striking in the 58th minute. That handed Monterrey a unique advantage, despite being down on aggregate score to start leg two of their semifinal tie.

    For Columbus to advance, they’ll have to be defensively sound, but more importantly, they’re going to have to overcome a team who knows how to win in this tournament in a charged environment.

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    MLS’ best ever?

    “I didn’t invent anything – this is football,” Nancy added from his September conversation with MLS. “Everybody talks about, you have to win, you have to win. Yes, I know that I have to win. If I don’t win 10 games in a row, maybe I’m going to be out. But at the end of the day, I don’t care about that, because this is our job. Me, I care about how we want to win, what we need to do, to maximize our chance to do a good game.”

    Nancy’s tenure as Crew coach has led to this moment against an unbelievably talented Monterrey side. Columbus have done the unthinkable once, so can they do it again? If they do, there might not be another MLS team from the past who can touch them.