Winning a championship in professional sports is hard. Doing it again in a parity-driven league? Even harder.
But that’s just what the Columbus Crew are trying to do after a stunning run through the MLS Cup playoffs that culminated with a third MLS Cup title in club history in December.
Now, after a short break, the Crew are back, largely unchanged from last year with that six-letter word hanging over their head.
Can Columbus repeat?
“It’s all about perspective,” Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy told reporters after the club’s first training session last week. “A few people are going to say ‘yeah, so we are champions, second year it can be difficult’ and other people can say ‘yeah you’re are champions so you have to be confident.’ So for me you have all the time to be at the age of in between. This is the way I am, this is the way I teach my players.”
Nancy said he anticipates sending a similar message this season, but will he be a different coach? He said he doesn’t know because the MLS Cup was his first title.
“Really good challenge because the focus for me is going to be on helping them to get better and it doesn’t change,” he said. “Yes, you were talking about winning another trophy and yes, why not? But like I told you, this is not the objective. The objective is to be good day to day, is to want to improve and grow as a person and a player and to be consistent. Consistency is going to be key this year. After that, we’re going to be able to win something if we can.”
Understandably, Inter Miami CF are receiving all the attention, with the Barcelona reunion now complete as Luis Suarez joined Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba in South Beach. And FC Cincinnati, the Crew’s rival and Supporters’ Shield champions a year ago, are also getting consideration.
But that is the team the Crew dramatically rallied to beat to reach MLS Cup, where they knocked off LAFC at home in a thorough performance, one Nancy said he’s still not been able to watch as a fan.
“We’ve got to be able to do what we did last year,” Nancy said. “But at the same time we’re going to have to change and modify and adapt, also to learn how we have to act when we win something and after that we have to come back and start from the bottom. All these things are going to be really interesting as a player, as a coach, but also as a human being.”
Columbus passed the first major hurdle by keeping the core of last year’s championship team intact. That includes the attacking trio of Cucho Hernandez, Diego Rossi and Alex Matan, along with super sub Christian Ramirez and the midfield duo of Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris.
Hernandez, in particular, is coming off the best season in his career with 16 goals and 11 assists during the regular season and five goals and two assists in the postseason, including one in the championship match to earn MLS Cup MVP honors, a standout 2023 season that also earned him a call-up to the Colombian national team.
“My goal is to improve on last year and nothing less,” Hernandez said through a translator at MLS Media Day in Miami. “It’s true that last year was the best year of my career, but I want nothing short of winning another championship.”
Remarkably, the Crew return all 11 starters from the MLS Cup final, including left back Malte Amundsen, one of the few players on the roster who knows what it’s like to try and run a championship back. He was on New York City FC’s MLS Cup-winning side in 2022.
“I, and we, have confidence, but I think we’re all aware of this is a new year,” Amundsen told reporters after training last week. “Now the past year’s achievements are gone and we have to commit 100 percent to the journey of this year. We have a couple of new tournaments that we’re involved in and that’s going to be super exciting.”
The additional tournaments start with Concacaf Champions Cup and the Crew join that competition in the Round of 16 in early March, one of 10 MLS teams to compete in an expanded field.
They’ll also play in the Campeones Cup against a to-be-determined Liga MX side later in the season, as well as Leagues Cup and perhaps US Open Cup as well. There could be upwards of 50 matches on the docket in this year after the MLS Cup title.
“Mentally, 2023 helped a lot,” Hernandez said. “This year we want to achieve even more than we did in 2023. Obviously we have Concacaf Champions Cup coming up so our goal is to do even better than we did the year past.”
The biggest outbound move was Julian Gressel’s departure to join Messi and friends in Miami. But by the time the playoffs came around last year, Gressel had lost his starting spot for Mo Farsi.
Meanwhile, Columbus added Marino Hinestroza, a transfer from Pachuca. The 21-year-old Colombian can play a variety of positions for the Crew.
“We know this type of profile, a player who likes to dribble, who likes the 1-v-1 so when he gets the ball some things can happen. Again, he has this already in his locker so the idea is to give him the confidence to be able to repeat it again and to size up the situation when to give the ball, when to keep it,” Nancy said of Hinestroza.
“I like the fact he likes to attack the box. Some things can happen when he has the ball. Now, what I like also about him in terms of effort, he likes to make the effort to come back and also to make the run.”
Can the Columbus Crew make another run? The last back-to-back MLS Cup champions were the LA Galaxy in 2011-12. They followed the Houston Dynamo (2006-07) and D.C. United, who won the title in the league’s first two seasons in 1996 and 1997.
“We just have to focus on what we did last year, use it for confidence, but we’re not (standing) still because of it,” Nagbe said at MLS Media Day. “If you just think about last year and what we did last year, you forget about the present and what you’re trying to achieve this year. We’re done celebrating. We’re looking forward to a new season and being able to repeat what we did the previous year.”