MLS Cup Playoffs: Columbus Crew stun Cincinnati with wild comeback in Eastern Conference final

Columbus Crew forward Christian Ramirez (17) holds trophy as he celebrates with teammates after an MLS Eastern Conference Final soccer match against FC Cincinnati, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Cincinnati. Columbus won 3-2 in overtime. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

FC Cincinnati was 25 minutes from a landmark MLS Cup final when the Columbus Crew comeback began.

Cincy was cruising, up 2-0 in Saturday's Eastern Conference final, crowning a worst-to-first turnaround, entering dreamland at home. But two late Columbus goals, created by two crucial substitutes, put those dreams on hold. And a third in extra time, scored by supersub Christian Ramirez, sent the Crew to MLS Cup with a wild 3-2 win.

An hour earlier, they'd been down 2-0, and a heated, high-stakes derby seemed to be fizzling. That's when head coach Wilfried Nancy introduced Ramirez and Julian Gressel, and boldly pulled his midfield anchor, Aidan Morris.

With 15 minutes remaining, Gressel curled a cross toward Ramirez, and a clumsy own goal cut Cincinnati's lead in half.

Ten minutes after that, Gressel again crossed toward Ramirez. This time, the 32-year-old forward clipped a clever, delicate pass into the penalty box, where Cucho Hernandez and Diego Rossi combined to bring Columbus level.

Gressel had been a controversial exclusion from the starting lineup. And his replacement, Mo Farsi, had helped gift Cincinnati the game's opening goal. A second just before halftime, conjured from nothing by MLS MVP Luciano Acosta, dug the Crew a deep hole.

But they trusted their process, and their slick soccer, and their brilliant coach.

They were creating occasional chances prior to the substitutions. Once the steady drip slowed, Nancy turned to his bench — to a veteran striker nicknamed "Superman" and a wingback he once called "my little Beckham." He re-oriented his attack to empower Gressel and overwhelm Cincinnati. And once the equalizer went in, the hosts never stood a chance.

Cincy tired and sputtered. Acosta could barely move. Head coach Pat Noonan seemed to shrink under pressure, and never pulled his star.

Columbus, on the other hand, never relented. Throughout extra time, Cucho and Rossi, Gressel and Ramirez, Alexandru Matan and Darlington Nagbe and Kevin Molino just kept coming and coming. By the end of the 120 minutes, they'd taken 26 shots to Cincy's 11, and created 2.78 Expected Goals to Cincy's 1.11.

Cincinnati, the Supporters' Shield winner, survived the first 15 minutes of extra time. But the top seed could only stave of Cucho's quality for so long. The 24-year-old Colombian forward, scorer of 14 goals in his previous 12 games, drifted to the back post with five minutes remaining. And rather than go for goal from a tight angle, he showcased his class. He nodded a header across the face of goal, where "Superman" Ramirez latched onto it.

Cucho wheeled away in ecstasy. Small pockets of Crew fans erupted. The rest of TQL Stadium fell silent. For Columbus, LAFC — which beat Houston 2-0 in Saturday's Western Conference final — now awaits. It will be the Crew's fourth final since 2008, and second since a relocation saga threatened to rob Central Ohio of the franchise for good. It could yield their third title.

But first, they have a stunning comeback to savor. A blow-by-blow recap, complete with highlights and analysis, is below.

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  • RT @MLS: "Brought me luck all week." 🥹 @Chris_Ramirez17 still has on the hospital wristband from his baby boy's birth last weekend. #Cre

  • Armando Botello
  • Armando Botello
  • Henry Bushnell

    3-2 Columbus! What a team goal!

  • Henry Bushnell

    More Columbus pressure, including an acrobatic Christian Ramirez volley.

    More Cincinnati escapes.

    Seven minutes of the 120 to go.

  • Henry Bushnell

    Cincy survives a Columbus barrage, and gets to halftime of extra time at 2-2.

    15 more minutes to go.

  • Henry Bushnell

    Oh man. A (superficially) glorious chance for Columbus.

    Cucho Hernandez darts to meet a Gressel corner. His header spins to Malte Amundsen at the back post, all alone. But Amundsen can't quite get the right body part on the ball, and it sails over the bar.

    Much tougher than it initially looked — especially for a defender.

  • Henry Bushnell

    Columbus is all over Cincy now. More quality, more energy, more cohesion.

    Crowd still very much in it, but if you had to pick a winner right now, it'd be the visitors.

    (Lucho Acosta looks gassed.)

  • Henry Bushnell

    Heading to extra time. What a game.

  • Armando Botello