National Writer: Charles Boehm

Columbus Crew accept Champions Cup heartbreak: "My players gave everything"


There’s almost always a ‘what might have been’ feeling for those who suffer defeat in a match of the magnitude of Saturday night’s Concacaf Champions Cup final at Estadio Hidalgo.

The particular circumstances that befell the Columbus Crew in the leadup to the occasion made it impossible for the Ohio side to feel any other way. On the initial evidence of the 90-plus minutes, CF Pachuca were the superior team, carving open the Crew defense with regularity as veteran striker Salomón Rondón tormented the visitors’ back line, bagging a brace to spearhead a 3-0 victory for Los Tuzos’ sixth Concacaf title and a berth in next year’s expanded FIFA Club World Cup.

Slow, sloppy and jittery, Columbus looked a shadow of themselves, producing perhaps their worst display since coach Wilfried Nancy took the helm before the 2023 campaign. Afterwards, Nancy shed some vital light on why.

“Bravo for Pachuca. They deserved to win, so I will not talk about if they deserved to win or not, they won, so well done for them,” he said. “My players gave everything, knowing that they were sick also. All the team had diarrhea since yesterday; the staff also. So again, don't get me wrong. This is a fact. I'm not here to tell you [Pachuca] don't deserve to win. They scored three goals; OK. But my players gave everything, knowing that it was not easy for them.”

The Crew jetted south on Thursday, arriving in Pachuca that night, and by the next morning symptoms of illness began to ripple through the group – a stomach bug eventually afflicting a majority of the traveling party, robbing the squad of energy even before the lung-squeezing effects of the city’s high altitude truly took their toll.

“We had more than 20 people from the staff sick with diarrhea all night for two days,” said star striker Cucho Hernández in Spanish postgame. “It is not a coincidence that 20 people got sick. I do not want to blame anyone or blame the result on that, but I think it affected us physically. Some of the guys spent two nights almost without sleeping.

“I not am complaining. I am not complaining. The city was spectacular, the people were very helpful. It is just not a coincidence that more than 20 people from the group got sick.”

Columbus icon Darlington Nagbe, who wore the captain’s armband on Saturday, suggested that there was a resulting drain on the physical output required to maintain the necessary intensity against Pachuca’s aggressive pressing and dig out of the hole the Crew found themselves in.

“I'm proud of the guys, you know, just to show up and play the game,” said Nagbe. “It was really difficult, the situation we had ... We started pretty well, had some chances, couldn't capitalize on them and they took advantage of their chances.

“I just think we needed, from the players' side, just a little bit more to give, and unfortunately we couldn’t give it today.”

Alas, those realities did precious little to ease the sting of being so close to history and falling short.

“I don’t want to find excuses, but most of the team were sick before the game,” said wingback Mo Farsi. “I'll talk for myself, I was sick and I was feeling cold – yeah it’s an excuse, but for me, I still give my 100% and of course at altitude it’s hard, it's tough. But I think we prepared well.

“It is what it is.”

It’s a common soccer truism that you can’t win a two-legged series in the first leg, but you can lose it.

With the revamped CCC shifting from a two-legged format to a one-game final for this year’s edition, Columbus experienced that old saw in condensed form. The reigning MLS Cup champs wasted several early scoring chances while looking uncharacteristically brittle in defense during the first half, falling behind 2-0 via well-taken goals from Rondón and Miguel Rodríguez.

“3-0 is 3-0. But I rewatched a bit of the opportunities that we had. We had also many opportunities to score a goal,” said Nancy. “So we were not clean, I would say, when we attacked the box. We had possibilities when we started the game, we had a few opportunities that we could have done better. After that, they did well.

“We missed the last step, I would say.”

It all proved a deficit too big for even the Crew’s expansive possession system to overcome, dashing their dreams of continental glory. The Ohioans were well and truly beaten, to an extent that recalled the decades of MLS heartbreak on Mexican soil that had preceded their inspiring run to this year’s final. Estadio Hidalgo has been a particular house of horrors: Pachuca remain undefeated against MLS adversaries at their atmospheric venue.

“They’ve got a really good attack and are really dangerous in transition,” noted goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, who made five saves to keep his side in contention until Rondón's second salted away a Tuzo triumph. “They made a lot of runs in behind in the first half and played a lot of balls over the top and that caused us a little bit of problems early on.

“In the second half it was better, but at that point it was already too late.”

Falling so agonizingly short of a level of Concacaf glory only three other MLS clubs have reached all-time, everyone in Columbus will always wonder what might have been, and hope they can navigate a direct path back to such opportunities soon. The Crew have slightly less than two weeks to heal the wounds, both physical and mental, before returning to MLS play.

“We’re very saddened,” said Cucho. “I think that at the beginning of the match we felt that we were better, but mistakes are always condemned and you have to pay the consequences. You have to learn from defeats too, and that is how things will continue.

“Yes, it was difficult. Ultimately they were just better than us today.”