CONCACAF Champions Cup
Concacaf Champions Cup final: Columbus Crew's run should be celebrated, win or lose
CONCACAF Champions Cup

Concacaf Champions Cup final: Columbus Crew's run should be celebrated, win or lose

Updated May. 30, 2024 12:32 p.m. ET

A decade before Wilfried Nancy became an MLS Cup champion and earned a reputation as the best coach in the U.S. and Canada's top league — long before he took the Columbus Crew to within one win of a FIFA Club World Cup berth, which the Black and Yellow will go for in Saturday's Concacaf Champions Cup final against Mexico's Pachuca (9:15 p.m. ET, FS1 and the FOX Sports App) — he took a coaching course with his future boss, Tim Bezbatchenko.

"I saw he was a good guy with lots of potential," Nancy said of the Crew's president and general manager in a recent interview with FOX Sports.

Nancy gets most of the credit for Columbus' success over the last year, and it's all thoroughly deserved. He won the league title just a year after leaving CF Montreal, where he rose from Thierry Henry's top assistant to head coach when his fellow Frenchman left  before the 2021 season.


Nancy has exceeded all expectations with the Crew, who have achieved their success by playing some of the most stylish, attractive soccer MLS has ever seen.

But Bezbatchenko is the guy who hired Nancy. He's the architect of the Black & Yellow's roster. And since he returned to his home state in 2019 to take over MLS's original club, Bezbatchenko has transformed the humble, small-market Crew into nothing short of the best-run organization in the entire 29-team circuit.

Not that anyone should be surprised.

Bezbatchenko was barely out of his 20s when then MLS laughingstock Toronto FC lured him out of the league office in 2013 and made him its GM. By the time he left the Reds a little more than five years later, TFC had reached two MLS Cup finals, winning one, claimed the 2017 Supporters Shield, and lost the 2018 Concacaf final on penalties to Mexican side Guadalajara.

"I don't think ‘vindication' is right word," Bezbatchenko said when asked about the possibility of achieving regional supremacy with the Crew. "But certainly it would be gratifying and satisfying to climb the mountain again and succeed."

With a far smaller budget — Toronto had the highest payroll in MLS during Bezbatchenko's time there — he won another MLS Cup with Columbus in 2020, just his second season in Ohio's capital.

"He's not spoken about a lot, but look at what he did in Toronto, and look at what he's doing here," Crew captain Darlington Nagbe. "He's one of the best leaders you can have for a club in this league."

Perhaps the best, period. Beating Pachuca on Saturday would add another piece of compelling evidence. But pulling it off won't be easy.

Just one MLS team has won the Concacaf title since 2001: the Seattle Sounders two years ago. But the 2022 final was played over two matches, with Seattle hosting the decisive second leg at home. After tying the opener south of the border, the Sounders beat Liga MX's Pumas and made history.

Saturday's championship, on the other hand, is a winner-take-all contest at Pachuca.

Still, Columbus must fancy its chances after eliminating two Liga MX powers, Tigres and Monterrey, in Mexico to reach the finale.  The 3-1 triumph over Los Rayados earlier this month was perhaps the finest-ever performance by an MLS team in international competition. 

Meantime, the win over Tigres saved MLS from the embarrassment of not having at least one representative in the semis for the first time since 2016.

"Obviously, the team has done well against Mexican teams. It gives us a lot of confidence," Nagbe said. "But a final is different, whether you're home or away."

On paper, Columbus matches up favorably with Pachuca. They'd probably be the bookies' pick over two legs, or if the final was staged in a neutral city, a la UEFA's Champions League. But Pachuca's 30,000-seat Estadio Hidalgo sits nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, which gives the hosts a huge advantage. The Crew's staff has done everything possible to help its players adjust to the thin air as quickly as possible, having them train in altitude masks and sleep in tents filled with similar levels of oxygen to what they'll experience on Saturday.

"That doesn't mean we're going to win, but we're going to prepare well," Nancy said, adding that the Crew's ball possession-based style might best help them conserve energy. "If we control the game," he said, "I don't have to change my players."

Whatever happens on Saturday, Columbus will remain MLS's standard-bearer — a remarkable turnaround for a city that nearly saw its club leave Ohio just a few years ago. Instead, the fan-led effort to "Save the Crew" led to Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam and former team doctor Pete Edwards buying the team in early 2019 and constructing a glittering downtown stadium.

"Our owners were very intentional. They want to compete for championships," Bezbatchenko said. "That was one of the first questions they asked me: ‘can you do that in a market like Columbus?' So ownership spent a lot of money on our stadium. It probably could've cost less, but we wanted our fans to have the best in-venue experience in North America.  That translates to a better atmosphere and a better product on the pitch.

"I sometimes forget what happened with this team in 2017 and 2018," Bezbatchenko added. "I think that's a sign of maturation of our club and our fan base. There's a different feeling inside Field than at [former home] Historic Crew Stadium. We've crossed a tipping point with the way the supporters show up every week. I really feel like we've arrived in so many ways."

Much of that is down to Nancy, who has exceeded even the loftiest expectations. But Bezbatchenko deserves plenty of credit, too.

"He's won so many things in this league and has massive respect from everyone, but he's humble," Nancy said. "When we first met to speak about the possibility of coming to Columbus, it was like we'd been friends for years.

"Then there was the clarity of the vision," he continued. "Every detail mattered. Yes, Bez wants to win, but he wants to win in a certain way. And he has the balls to empower people. After one week here, I told my wife, ‘this club deserves something special.'  

"For me, it was a no-brainer to work with him."

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Doug McIntyre is a soccer reporter for FOX Sports. He was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports before joining FOX Sports in 2021, and he has covered United States men's and women's national teams at FIFA World Cups on five continents. Follow him @ByDougMcIntyre.


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