COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The final whistle had blown. The Columbus Crew had claimed a tense, but unforgettable triumph in Saturday's MLS Cup final, defeating LAFC 2-1. And it was all too much for Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe. He couldn't hold back the tears.
One would think that winning MLS Cup would feel almost routine for Nagbe. He's won four of them now, with three different teams. It puts him in select company too. He is the 10th player in MLS history to claim at least four league titles, though he still has a way to go to catch Landon Donovan's six.
But the depth of Nagbe's emotion can be traced back to three years ago. After nine years in MLS, the Liberian-born Nagbe had returned to his Ohio roots with the Crew. He spent many of his formative years in Lakewood, and he won an NCAA title with the University of Akron. He wanted nothing more than to win a championship in what he considers his home state.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
The Crew did claim an MLS Cup triumph that season, but it was bittersweet. It took place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a positive test kept Nagbe out of the final that was attended by just 1,500 fans.
Aidan Morris replaced Nagbe in the lineup that day and delivered a sensational performance. It was fitting, then, that Morris was the one to help Nagbe put a smile back on his face on Saturday: The two were outstanding in the victory over LAFC. Morris gave him some words of encouragement, and the two embraced. Now the celebration could really begin. Nagbe wouldn't have it any other way than to have Morris by his side.
"Since his first full season, he's been tremendous, a lot of confidence," said Nagbe about Morris. "He's the heartbeat of our team, in my opinion. He pushes me and I push him ... it's an honor to play with him."
Columbus manager Wilfried Nancy speaks often his desire to see his team play with courage, and to take risks. It's a lot easier to play that way when you have two foundational midfield pieces in Nagbe and Morris. Morris won an eye-popping 70% of his duels, and Nagbe was even better at 87.5%. Nagbe misplayed but two passes the entire night, bringing peace to the game. Granted, his second misplay sparked the sequence that led to Denis Bouanga's 74th-minute tally that made for an anxious final 23 minutes, including stoppage time. But the tandem helped Columbus control the midfield for much of the night.
"They are indestructible, they're creative. Their partnership is unlike any I've seen truly," said Columbus team president Tim Bezbatchenko in the Crew's champagne- and beer-soaked locker room. "And they make each other better on the field, off the field. They're really close and I think you see how it lifts his team to a whole other level."
For the first 30 minutes or so, the Columbus attack was like waves against a jetty. Outwardly, there seemed to be no discernable effect. The LAFC defense looked solid. What few openings appeared were blunted aside, with center-backs Giorgio Chiellini and Jesús Murillo stepping in with vital stops.
That defend-first recipe is one that LAFC had used for almost the entirety of the playoffs. The Western Conference champions last conceded in the first round against the Vancouver Whitecaps back on Oct. 28. It didn't matter that Columbus had over 70% possession at that stage; LAFC had shown it could win matches in more ways than one.
And then, in one incredible four-minute stretch, it fell apart.
Diego Palacios was whistled for a handball in the 31st minute. Those are always contentious calls these days, but VAR ultimately backed up referee Armando Villarreal's decision, and Cucho Hernández slotting home the resulting penalty with ease two minutes later. Not content with the one-goal lead, Columbus continued with their habit of turning the opposition defense into a Gumby doll. Just six minutes later, Malte Amundsen sent a superb through ball right into the path of Yaw Yeboah cutting inside form the left wing, and the Ghanaian made no mistake, finishing under the onrushing Max Crepeau to make it 2-0. It was as if the foundation of the LAFC slowly eroded to the point of buckling.
LAFC patched things up, however, and the second half was played on more even terms. But it wasn't enough. And somewhat counterintuitively, Nancy said that was the half he was most proud of.
"This is more about the savviness that we [have] as a team, because we went through a lot of lack of savviness during the year," Nancy said.
Nancy referenced a 4-3 defeat to Orlando back on Sept. 16, a game that saw the Crew blow a 3-1 lead. This time Columbus was able to slow the game down at times, allowing the team to catch its breath. Tactical fouls were taken at the appropriate moment. And the team played smart, like when substitute forward Christian Ramírez, finding himself in space late in the game, wisely took the ball to the corner, and won a corner kick, allowing precious seconds to tick by.
By then, Nagbe had been subbed off -- the toll of going to extra time in the two previous rounds taking its toll. But the efforts of Nagbe and Morris helped put the Crew in front and stay there. Nancy is usually loathe to single out individuals, and this was certainly a night when there were key contributions from a variety of players, but his appreciation for his midfield duo is clear.
"Darlington is Darlington. Like I told you, this guy is amazing," said Nancy. "He played the two overtime games and [tonight] he was composed with the ball to have the right decision."
There was admiration from opponents too. LAFC and former Italy international Chiellini, who knows a thing or two about quality attacking players, had nothing but positive things to say about Nagbe.
"He's an example for everyone and every player that he played with," Chiellini said. "And watching the games of Columbus, you can understand how much he's important as a player, but as a good leader, and he has a good value. He's a hard worker, very generous, and then helps all the teammates close to him to play better. [He's] not in the shine many times but I think he is a really the heart of this team."
Nancy added that the defensive part of Morris' game has always been there. This season he and his staff have worked with Morris to be more efficient with the ball, and recognize when is the right time to release it. Morris is progressing into a more complete midfielder.
"It's easy to play one touch when there is no pressure," Nancy said in reference to Morris. "But he's able to play one touch, he's able to slow down the tempo, it's able to move to look forward."
With the win, Nancy made a bit of history, becoming the first Black manager to claim an MLS Cup title. It is a milestone that Nancy said carries with it mixed emotions. There was pride at the accomplishment, but acknowledgement that it shouldn't have taken this long.
"Obviously I'm happy. I'm so proud of that because there is a lot of work behind that. There is a lot of courage also behind that," he said. "But I'm not happy at the same time because it's not normal, simple as that. So I'm proud to represent, yes. To be the only Black [MLS Cup-winning manager], I'm not happy with that. So this is something that he has to change. I know that MLS try to do that. But this is not only MLS, this is everywhere."
Two hours after the game, the rain that had fallen during the match was still coming down. The crowd had long since departed, eager to take their celebration of the club's third MLS Cup to environs both drier and wetter. (The latter in term of beverages to be consumed.) Confetti still dotted the ground. But Morris could be seen standing in the center circle, taking in the evening's events, and his second MLS Cup.
"We put a lot of hard work in throughout the year, and a lot of sacrifice and it's nice to see it pay off," said Morris. He was speaking then about his moment with Nagbe.
But he then returned his focus to the team: "We know we're the best."