How Columbus Crew Joined the Elite

Columbus Crew made history by winning the MLS Cup in December to ensure they ended 2023 on a high. The eventual champions battled against adversity throughout the season. They were pushed hard by fellow finalists LA Galaxy but held firm to scoop another MLS Cup, taking their tally to three. The champions move onto a trio of winners' medals, lifting them onto a podium that includes LA Galaxy and DC United. Will that success kick-start a period of dominance in US soccer? Fans certainly hope so.

Columbus battles back
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Columbus opened the campaign earlier this year as the underdogs with apps offering the best MLS bets. Most followers of Major League Soccer, including ex-players and pundits, expected FC Cincinnati or LA Galaxy to prevail. The Orange and Blue certainly went close to getting off the mark in the MLS Cup. They finished on top of the regular season, ending six points clear of runners-up Orlando City SC, with Columbus Crew in third and Philadelphia Union making up the top four. Galaxy blazed a trail of glory to the final before coming up short.

Few thought Columbus could win the MLS Cup from a third-place finish, but Crew silenced the doubters in style. The regular season finished with the eventual champions showing stats of 16 wins, nine draws, and nine defeats, with 67 goals scored and 46 conceded.

They ended the campaign with four straight wins and built from there, proving it's not how well you start a season but how strongly you finish. That's when the hard work began.

Columbus battles back

Crew's third gong lifted them above four teams on two title wins: Houston Dynamo, Seattle Sounders, Sporting Kansas City, and the San Jose Earthquakes. The champions endured a hectic end to the season when they played two games in a week, starting with a marathon win over rival FC Cincinnati to reach the final. Heading into the semi-final as the dark horse against the team that won the regular season, the game swung back and forth throughout 120 minutes of play.

Vasquez scored the game's opening goal in 14 minutes to put Cincinnati in the driving seat, and it was 2-0 at the interval thanks to a second from Acosta, who scored in first-half stoppage time. With a comfortable advantage over their opponents, most fans predicted Cincinnati would pull clear in the second half, scoring more goals to put the game to bed and build confidence ahead of the final. But soccer is a sport that rarely goes to plan, and it doesn't get more competitive and unpredictable than the MLS.

When the second half got underway, the tide began to change. Columbus Crew worked hard to try and get back into the contest, but it took them until the 75th minute to score what looked like a consolation goal. Powell knocked the ball into his net, entering the closing stages and setting up a grandstand finish. Then, out of nowhere, Rossi netted on 86 minutes to draw his team level, forcing the game into extra time, and that's when Crew's fitness and desire shone through.

After being 2-0 down at the interval, Columbus progressed to the final with a 3-2 win in extra time thanks to a memorable goal from Ramirez with 115 on the clock. It was a stunning end to the match, but they still had the final to come.

Grand final and honors list
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Grand final

Following an emotionally charged semi-final win over Cincinnati, fans feared Columbus had run their race, and the effort needed to reach the final would've left them flat. The game against LA Galaxy was seven days after Crew endured that 120-minute marathon in the semis. But those who had been paying attention knew it was never wise to write off this battling Crew side. The champions wouldn't be denied, despite starting another game as the outsiders in the betting.

All the talk pre-match focussed on the LA Galaxy story and how their history and backing would be enough to give the team a vital edge. Galaxy is the most successful team in MLS history, winning the cup final times and playing in no fewer than nine finals. 2023 was only the fourth time Crew had made it to the deciding match. Going in as the underdogs seemed to inspire Columbus, they took a two-goal lead inside 37 minutes thanks to goals from Hernandez from the penalty spot and Yeboah before the break.

Crew started the second half with a two-goal lead, and although they were in a comfortable position, they must've thought karma had caught up with them. Were the tables turned when Bouanga scored on 74 minutes to slice the deficit? Was another comeback on the cards? Thankfully for Crew fans, their team held firm to win the game 2-1, standing firm in a tough end to the game.

From finishing third in the regular season to going two goals down in the semi-final, Crew ended as the most unlikely winner of the MLS Cup, but they won the trophy on merit.

Honors list

That hard-fought win for Columbus over the Galaxy adjusted the outright winner's list in MLS history. LA Galaxy remains the competition's most successful team, with five championships won between 2002 and 2014, but the team has endured a painfully long drought. For the most successful club to wait more than nine seasons for glory is alarming to fans, and that wait may rumble on. Could Galaxy win their sixth title a decade after scooping their fifth? It's possible, and many soccer fans in the US and overseas may see LA as a good bet to win the league next year. This season's near-miss certainly adds fuel to the fire.

DC United sits in second place on the overall honors list with four title wins. They banked their maiden gong in 1996 and did the double with a second title in 1997. DC United then lost the 1998 final but bounced back to secure glory in 1999 and then again in 2004, which was their last prize. A third title in four years would move Columbus Crew ahead of DC United and into the silver medal position.