MLS analysis

Analysis: Olympic duo of Schulte and Morris lead Crew past Orlando & into conference final

Columbus was technically the underdog in this game but they travelled to Florida and came away with an impressive win over a talented Orlando team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta wrote up his thoughts on the game. 

BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 26, 2023
5:10 AM

THE COLUMBUS CREW are through to the Eastern Conference Final after a well-played 2-0 away extra time win over Orlando City on Saturday night. From the onset, Columbus was the more aggressive and ambitious team, and they were rewarded with a spot in the conference final against interstate rivals FC Cincinnati.

The game was fairly open through the 78minutes but it changed at that point when Rodrigo Schlegel was sent off for fouling Diego Rossi who got beyond him after a long ball. Down to 10 men, Orlando was forced into a much more defensive approach.

After 90 minutes, the game was scoreless but just two minutes into the first half of extra time, it was substitute Christian Ramirez who put the guests ahead when he tapped home the cross from U.S. U-23 midfielder Aidan Morris.

Despite Orlando growing into the game down a man to force saves and big defensive plays, Columbus found a second goal in the 118th minute via Cucho Hernandez who buried a long shot with goalkeeper Pedro Gallese stranded in the midfield trying to play almost as a distributing defender.  

Columbus will now move to the conference final with a wave of momentum. They have designated players who are playing up to their potential. They have defenders and a goalkeeper making big plays. On top of that, they’re a well-coached squad. Cincinnati will be favored, but this will be a great game.

Here are some thoughts on the game.


Aidan Morris was huge


Over 120 minutes, Aidan Morris gave a terrific performance. Even before Columbus had a man advantage, they had the edge of play on the road against a good Orlando team. Morris, 21, was a big part of that. He is a very good two-way midfielder and that was on display. On offense, he created the decisive opening goal both in forcing the turnover, but then dribbling the ball into the box and teeing it up for Ramirez.

He finished with 119 touches, 88/95 in passing, 5/6 in long balls, 9/14 in ground duels, five fouls drawn, and 14 passes into the attacking third.

Morris has been excellent the second half of the season and that has continued into the playoffs. He is giving his team the midfield presence that is needed when the games become far more important and intense.

“I like to talk about competitive spirit, and this is one [where] sometimes this is too much for him,” Crew manager Wilfried Nancy said. “Sometimes you just have to just enjoy it a little bit more because he is such a competitor that sometimes he forgets that, ‘OK, I just have to relax and to enjoy the moment.’”

“He improved a lot because when we took the team, he was running all over the place,” Nancy added. “He was running too much. It was not easy for me as a coach to tell a player you are running too much and you run too much. He's so smart that he was able to understand. Also, with my staff, we showed him and we worked with him to show him and to have discussions with him and so on so he was able to understand what we want and about repetition and so on. Yes, he's improved. He's been improving a lot. I think that he's going to better.”

Morris is now pushing for his second MLS Cup and next year a spot on the Olympic team. His ACL tear in 2021 set him back, but he has grown stronger overcoming that.


Schulte’s breakout


Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte had a breakout performance in this game that elevated his stature and expectations. More people will be paying attention to him now. It was similar to the outing Aidan Morris had at the 2020 MLS Cup when he started in place of a sick Darlington Nagbe and shut down Nicholas Lodeiro.

After the first Crew goal, Orlando grew into the game despite being down a man. On three big occasions, Schulte came up with huge saves to preserve the win.

"I don't like to talk about one player in particular, but Pat [Schulte] has been outstanding,” Nancy said. “Schulte, he kept us in the game. I'm so happy for him because I remember many games that he was not happy about his performance and he did a good job during the performance, but he was not happy with that. All the time, he's extremely demanding with himself to try to put the level up and the level up. Tonight, yes, he made plays, and he deserved it."


This was a huge reward for Nancy who stuck with Schulte over the veteran Eloy Room despite some rocky moments early in the season. In the end, both were rewarded.

Next year, will Schulte’s play his way onto the U.S. Olympic team? He has a real shot.


Crew’s defense


There are typically many plays that lead to a win, but the Crew made big defensive plays as well. This one from Steven Moreira on Ivan Angulo was outstanding.  

But even beyond just one play, the defensive approach from Columbus was spot on. Orlando’s starting No. 9 Duncan McGuire was starved for service all game long with just 14 touches over 71 minutes. He also completed just four passes (including the outstanding pass to set up Angulo.


Orlando post-mortem


Orlando ended a great season in disappointing fashion as their objectives were at least to push Cincinnati to win the East.

“It was a complicated game, especially in the first half and we felt uncomfortable and couldn’t create many sequences,” Oscar Pareja said. “We needed to be reactive to the game that we planned to be more positive in our ways. I thought the image that the boys left after a tremendous effort was great, I thought they were great. Their heart probably needed a better reward because they had a few chances where it could have impacted the game.”


In the end, they were outplayed at home – and that is something Pareja probably feels shouldn’t happen. But when looking at the team on paper, Columbus had a talent edge in the attack with Diego Rossi and Cucho Hernandez as one of the best (maybe the best) forward duos in the league. Orlando was trying to figure things out in the attack during the season. Ercan Kara was the designated player forward who was eventually replaced by McGuire.

Without a doubt, they’re on the right track and they desperately need to bring back Pareja (who is not under contract heading into next season). If they don’t bring him back, they’re in trouble. If they do, they can continue to build. The team needs to make some upgrades, but they’re not far from where they want to be. But Pareja’s contract is the big question.

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