Arace: Columbus Crew get a flashback, and then an impressive victory over Tigres UNAL

First, there was the Steve Clark flashback.

Tuesday night, in San Nicolas De Los Garza, on the outskirts of Monterrey where Estadio Universitario is located, Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte handed Tigres UANL a 1-0 lead in the third minute. All over, right? This was the second leg of a two-legged CONCAF Champions Cup quarterfinal, and Tigres, gifted a 2-1 aggregate-goal lead, never lose at home. Well, “never” is a bit strong. Tigres entered Tuesday having lost one home game in Estadio Universitario in a year.

Crew fans watching on Fox had to shiver as a vision of the 2015 MLS Cup final danced in their heads. In that game at old Crew Stadium, Clark was pickpocketed by Portland’s Diego Valeri just a few feet from the goal line. Valeri scored at the 27-second mark. Portland then took advantage of a blown call – the assistant referee missed it when the ball clearly went over the sideline and let play continue – and the Timbers took a 2-0 lead in the seventh minute. That goal proved to be the Cup winner.

Arguably, the Crew were in an even tougher spot Tuesday night. Liga MX teams have dominated the continental club championship. They'd won 15 in a row until Seattle pulled off an upset in 2022, then Leon reestablished Mexican hegemony by beating LAFC in last year’s final. Tigres, which won the tournament in 2020, (almost) never lose at home.

And there’s this: In the first leg at Crew Stadium last week, the teams played to a 1-1 draw and Aidan Morris, a critical piece of Crew coach Wilfried Nancy’s midfield machinery, took a straight red card and was thus suspended for the second leg. These things did not bode well. No MLS team has ever beaten a Liga MX team after failing to win at home. And Tigres (almost) never lose at home.

Crew midfielder Aidan Morris (8) reacts to being given a red card during the second half of the Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinal against Tigres UANL at Field. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.
Crew midfielder Aidan Morris (8) reacts to being given a red card during the second half of the Concacaf Champions Cup quarterfinal against Tigres UANL at Field. The game ended in a 1-1 tie.

If you are a Crew fan and you watched Tigres dominate the first half, you figured, well, it was over. And then you watched Nancy come out of halftime and outcoach his counterpart, Robert Siboldi. You watched Schulte shake off his early game blunder and make saves that ranged from world-class to impossible – and that was before the shootout. You watched Cucho Hernandez, in his second game following a team-imposed, two-game suspension, set up Diego Rossi's goal. It was Rossi's second goal in as many games against Tigres. And then you watched Schulte become Superman in the shootout, which the Crew won 4-3. Hernandez was the only Crew player to misfire. (His kick hit the post.) The winning kick came from ... wait for it ... Max Arfsten!

You could not believe it.

Hernandez is the Crew’s brightest star. The league splays Cucho's visage in promotions, sometimes right next to smirking Lionel Messi, who is in a different tax bracket. Cucho was given a two-game suspension for undisclosed reasons. (Best guess is it was for his sideline contretemps with assistant coaches after he was subbed out of a road loss in Charlotte on March 21.) Nancy, the soccer shaman who led the Crew to an MLS Cup title in his first season with the club last year, stuck to his principles while providing no details. Despite his deservedly exulted status in Columbus, it was fair to question the harshness of his doghouse rules. Hernandez in his first game back took a straight red card in a 1-1 draw with D.C. United Saturday night. The Crew realm, even with the philosopher king at the controls, had a tinge of discomfiture about it.

And then they got CONCAFed.

It is a popular conspiracy theory among U.S. fans that the federation’s referees do not ... how shall we say? ... they do not give Americans the benefit of the doubt. The bias is pronounced in national team games, especially when the Americans are on the road. The bias, as the theory goes, also reaches down to the club level.

The Crew-Tigres series only fed into this old theory. Tigres committed 16 fouls in the first leg and 20 in the second leg and two yellow cards were issued to them. One must feel for Crew wing back Yaw Yeboah, who, in a span of a few minutes in the outskirts of Monterrey, received a Darius Kasparaitis-like hip check in the box, which clearly should’ve led to a penalty kick, and had his calf spiked while he was hard-tackled and prostrate. No call. At the very least, the referee should have field-dressed the wound.

The Crew still won, and it was a victory their fans will not soon forget, not given the circumstances and the venue and the officiating. This game was not up there with the Crew’s three Cup victories, but it was better than the Campeones Cup. It was a game that will mark time in Columbus.

With a 3-2, aggregate-goal victory, the Crew advance to play Tigres’ archrival, Monterrey, in the semifinal round of the CCC. Monterrey, by the way, is above Tigres in the Liga MX standings and they’re coming off a romp over Messiami. For the fourth time in six years, there is one MLS team left in the final four of the tournament, and this time it is the Crew. The first game of the two-legged Crew-Monterrey series will be at Field sometime between April 23-25. The CCC final is a one-gamer on June 2.

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Columbus Crew overcomes much to advance past Liga MX foe Tigres