Plenty of coaches have won an MLS Cup in their first year on the job. Very few have engineered a transformation quite like Wilfried Nancy completed with the Columbus Crew, who dominated large stretches of their 2-1 victory over visiting LAFC in Saturday’s final.
Cucho Hernandez scored from the penalty spot for his fifth playoff goal, Yaw Yeboah added a second first-half goal four minutes later and Columbus probably should have had more before holding on to win their third MLS Cup and second in four seasons.
Patrick Schulte made four stops to help Columbus prevent LAFC from becoming the first repeat MLS Cup Champions since the LA Galaxy in 2011 and 2012.
Instead, Nancy becomes the latest first-year manager to win the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy after LAFC’s Steve Cherundolo accomplished the feat last year.
“For a new coach to come in and start the season, put a new group together, got it to gel, and to make it to the finals and not just make it, play the way that we play them to win it, and then we get a chance to win it in front of our fans at home?” said Crew midfielder Darlington Nagby. “Man, this is special.”
Nancy’s 2023 trophy comes after Columbus also won the honor in 2008 and 2020, and lost to Portland in the 2015 final. Nagbe — now a four-time MLS Cup Champion — was part of that 2020 squad.
But after previous manager Caleb Porter’s teams regressed in 2021 and 2022, Columbus parted with him and paid CF Montreal a transfer fee for the right to hire Nancy.
The result? The 2023 Crew posted an MLS-best 67 goals and +21 goal differential in the regular season, and won 15 of their 20 regular season and playoff home games. Then they defeated an opponent some even regarded as the best team in MLS history in the final.
“It’s never about them, that’s the thing,” said Columbus midfielder Aidan Morris. “It’s about us. If we do the right stuff and we stick to what we do best, we got it man. We’ll have success.”
Denis Bouanga scored his fifth playoff goal for LAFC in the second half. But the visitors were second-best for most of the competition.
The result was a defeat in a third major final for LAFC this season. The Black and Gold lost the Concacaf Champions League title on two legs to Liga MX’s Club Leon and the Campeones Cup to Tigres UANL, another Mexican squad.
“They deserved to win,” admitted LAFC defender Giorgio Chiellini. “I don’t think they are better in general, but they played much better tonight. We weren’t able, from the middle of the first half to the middle of the second half, to close the gaps for them in the middle. We allowed too many passes inside, and they were so dangerous in these moments.”
Columbus might have worried they would regret missing a handful of early first-half chances before Cucho finally scored in the 33rd minute.
The infraction was a handball on Diego Palacios, called immediately by referee Armando Villareal and upheld after a video review.
Cucho — who took over penalty kick duties in the middle of the season after Lucas Zelarayan’s departure to the Saudi Arabian league — drove his finish hard and low to the left as goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau guessed incorrectly.
Yeboah doubled the lead on a gorgeous incisive attack. Malte Amundsen set it up, controlling a pass from Nagbe in the center circle with his first touch and then driving a firm, half-field through ball into the path of Yeboah cutting into the penalty area from the left.
Yeboah then finished cleanly under the charging Crepeau for the 26-year-old’s first career playoff goal.
“We worked very hard, we worked towards all of it,” Cucho said through an interpreter. “We wanted to make sure that we had the right mentality to get the result that we wanted today.”
Bouanga closed it to 2-1 in the 74th minute on a play created when defender Jesus Murillo’s pressure forced a Crew turnover in their own end.
Murillo continued the run himself, then played a pass to his left that found Bouanga at the back post. Schulte saved Bouanga’s first strike, but Bouanga slid in the rebound from close range for his 38th goal in all competitions this season.
–Field Level Media