Columbus Crew, MLS' 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, in the six years since a snake-like owner tried to steal them from Columbus and a grassroots fan movement saved them, they have become Major League Soccer’s model franchise.

They have an ownership group willing to spend. They have 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 belief and courage. They have a superstar, Cucho Hernandez, who set the tone in last week’s first leg, and several bright attackers around him.

But they did what Messi and Miami couldn't because they are a well-rounded, coherent, cohesive team.

They've invested in a reserve squad, Crew II, that has beefed up the senior roster with players like Jacen Russell-Rowe, who sealed the semifinal triumph.

They've invested in an academy that has produced linchpins like Aidan Morris, who turned Wednesday's second leg on its head with the last kick of the first half.

After a strong opening 10 minutes in Nuevo León, the typically unflinching Crew had been wavering. Monterrey had scored and gradually taken 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 into the second half, 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, paralyzed by their inferiority, and afraid of playing soccer. The Crew, instead, in the quarterfinals against Tigres and again Wednesday night, never backed down from two of the 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. 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, or at least in question. MLS teams had played 14 matches vs. Liga MX in the 2024 Champions Cup prior to the semis. They had lost nine, drawn five, won zero. They had scored 10 goals and conceded 33 — their worst such goal differential ever.

Their collective debacle came to a head at the very same stadium Columbus visited Wednesday night. Last month, Messi and Inter Miami came, and crumbled, losing 5-2 on aggregate.

The Crew very easily could have done the same. But they are not MLS’ glamor club; they are, rather, the gold standard. They would be the league's best representative at the 2025 Club World Cup. They are now one win away from qualifying.

But they have already won something else, the hearts and minds of American soccer. They are doing things that no MLS team has ever done. In an on-field huddle Wednesday night, Nancy instructed them to take a few seconds of silence, to soak in the momentousness.

And then they all assured one another: they have no plans of slowing down or stopping.

"For me," Nancy said late Wednesday night, "this is about trying to be limitless."