Columbus Crew, MLS's gold standard, does what Messi and Miami couldn't in Mexico

United States' Columbus Crew players congratulate teammate Diego Rossi after scoring a goal against Monterrey, during a CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal second leg soccer match at the BBVA stadium in Monterrey, Mexico, Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Alberto Lopez)

The Columbus Crew were adventurous and brave, coordinated and confident. They were calm in the eye of a CONCACAF storm, at the same steel colossus where Lionel Messi had faltered. They were underdogs at Monterrey, in the second leg of a gripping Champions Cup semifinal. But on Wednesday night, as most of America snoozed, the Crew rose to a challenge that even Messi and Inter Miami couldn’t stomach.

They beat Monterrey, 3-1 on the night in Mexico, 5-2 on aggregate.

They became the first MLS team to topple Monterrey, a Liga MX giant, in a two-leg knockout series.

They are on to next month’s CONCACAF Champions Cup final, where they’ll meet a third-straight Mexican foe, Pachuca.

And they have rescued MLS from what, without them, would have been a mammoth, humiliating flop in this continental competition.

They did all of this because, over the past few years, they have become Major League Soccer’s model franchise. They have an ownership group willing to spend and a president, Tim Bezbatchenko, who can seemingly find talent anywhere. They have a revolutionary coach, Wilfried Nancy, who has preached pretty soccer all while instilling courage and bravery.

They have a superstar, Cucho Hernandez, who set the tone in last week’s first leg, and several bright attackers around him.

They have a reserve team that has beefed up the roster with players like Jacen Russell-Rowe; and an academy that has produced linchpins like Aidan Morris, who turned Wednesday’s second leg on its head.

After a strong opening 10 minutes in Nuevo Leon, the typically unflinching Crew began wavering. Monterrey scored, and gradually took control of the game. At 1-0 heading toward halftime, and 2-2 on aggregate, Columbus was staring at elimination on away goals.

Then, in the final minute of first-half stoppage time, Morris, a Crew academy alum, charged forward to intercept a foolish roll-out from Monterrey goalkeeper Esteban Andrada.

He beat Andrada a few touches later, and stunned the entire Estadio BBVA, Monterrey players and head coach Fernando Ortiz included.

Four minutes later, the hosts were stunned again, hypnotized by NancyBall, and suddenly down 4-2 on aggregate, needing three goals to recover.

And the Mexican fans were astounded by what they were seeing. For decades, MLS teams have traveled to Mexico in the Champions Cup (formerly called the Champions League) and curled up into balls, inferior and afraid of playing soccer. In the quarterfinals and again Wednesday night, the Crew never backed down from the two richest teams in Liga MX.

In the first leg, they invited pressure, and passed through it, sans fear.

They played just as they did en route to an MLS title last season. But playing bold, possession-based, attacking soccer domestically is one thing; doing so at Tigres and Monterrey is an unprecedented thing.

They needed a penalty shootout to beat Tigres last round. And they entered the semifinal with their league’s reputation still reeling. MLS teams had played 14 matches vs. Liga MX in the 2024 Champions Cup. They had lost nine, drawn five, won zero. They had scored 10 goals and conceded 33 — their worst such goal differential ever.

Their failures came to a head at the very same stadium Columbus visited Wednesday night. Last month, Messi and Inter Miami came … and crumbled.

The Crew very easily could have done the same. But they are not MLS’s glamor club; they are, rather, the gold standard. And they are now one win away from becoming the second MLS team to conquer the modern version of this competition.

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