EletiofeHow a French visionary turned the Columbus Crew into...

How a French visionary turned the Columbus Crew into the most entertaining team in MLS

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Head coach Wilfried Nancy has led the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup final after just one year at the helm.

Head coach Wilfried Nancy has led the Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup final after just one year at the helm.

The Frenchman’s revolution began at his inaugural team meeting, with a declaration both utopian and rebellious. The Columbus Crew had poached him for the same primary reason any coach gets hired. But when Wilfried Nancy first met his players last winter, he reframed their purpose. “Yes, everybody wants to win,” he said. “But how are we going to win?” That was paramount.

“The scoreboard,” he’d later say, “is not important. What is important is what we want to do with the ball and without the ball.”

He presented as an ideologue in a sport often ruled by pragmatists. He arrived in Columbus with a bold vision for how the Crew would play; he sometimes calls it “a way of life.” He spent the coming weeks and months reteaching players the game and purging well-drilled habits. He wanted them to invite pressure onto themselves, to bravely hold the ball rather than quickly pinging it. Sometimes, he knew, they’d lose it and put their teammates in peril; he wanted them to accept the potential embarrassment.

He asked for their trust and courage, because all of this, he knew, would manipulate opponents and produce splendid soccer. It could remake a mediocre team into a prolific one. It could invigorate fans and guide Columbus to the top of Major League Soccer.

The Crew have done all of that and more in their very first season under Nancy. They led the league in goals, chance creation, possession and entertainment. On Saturday, they stunned FC Cincinnati with three unanswered goals to win the Eastern Conference. A week later, this coming Saturday, they’ll host MLS Cup (4 p.m. ET, Fox) — and navigate a dizzying contrast.

LAFC, their foe, has climbed to within reach of a second straight title by conceding possession, constricting games, riding stars and adapting game plans to situations and opponents.

Nancy would never.

The Crew, as he told MLSSoccer.com, are “trying to attack most of the time; and when we don’t have the ball, try to attack also, to try to win the ball back as soon as possible.”

That, in a nutshell, is NancyBall. It’s why the Crew are 90 minutes from glory. And it could, over the coming years, spread across the league.

Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy watches his team on the sideline in the second half against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy watches his team on the sideline in the second half against Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

NancyBall makes its MLS debut

Nancy was born in the north of France but spent his childhood globetrotting. His Guadeloupean father’s service in the French navy took the family to temporary homes in Africa and the Caribbean. By Wilfried’s adolescence, they’d settled in the south of France — and that’s where he began an unremarkable playing career.

He was a slow center back, technical and tactically savvy but athletically limited. Those limitations shaped his philosophical views of the sport. He hated chasing the ball; he craved connection with it. He eventually set out to build teams that could keep it, torture opponents with it and make magic.

In his early-to-mid-20s, as he bounced around the lower leagues of France, from semi-pro clubs to amateur ones, Nancy realized his future was in coaching. He began refining views into principles — into a vision. He moved to Canada in the mid-aughts to study at the University of Quebec in Montreal, where he continued playing soccer but also began coaching at a local secondary school.

He soon made his way through the Quebecois amateur ranks, coaching clubs and provincial youth teams. After five educational years, in 2011, he joined the academy staff of Montreal’s newly minted MLS team, the Impact. He worked with the Under-16s, U-18s and U-21s, molding teens into pros. In 2016, he became an assistant coach with the professional team. And in 2021, he became Montreal’s head coach after Thierry Henry abruptly resigned six weeks before the start of the season.

That, after 15 years sans spotlights, is when NancyBall truly took hold. His first season was understandably rocky; his second was the best in Montreal’s MLS history. Nancy transformed a roster ranked bottom-third by payroll into a ball-dominant force that claimed 65 points — 14 more than the club’s previous high and two off the top of the league.

He clashed, however, with the club’s owner, Joey Saputo, when Saputo tried to confront players after a mistake-riddled loss in July 2022. Saputo’s volatility seemed to corrupt Nancy’s process and the foundational beliefs on which he’d remade the team. Failures are necessary when teaching a radical version of the sport, when asking players to take risks. “I believe that to convince the player to do something — or to convince a human being to do something — he has to try things,” Nancy would later say. “He has to make mistakes. He has to be comfortable in the uncomfortable situation.”

Nancy reportedly considered leaving immediately after the verbal altercation with Saputo. He saw out the season, but before long, the Crew came calling. Columbus owners and team president Tim Bezbatchenko made Nancy their star offseason signing; they even paid Montreal a transfer fee to procure him. Exactly a year ago this week, they handed Nancy the keys to their club.

Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy directs players against FC Cincinnati during the first half at TQL Stadium.

Columbus Crew head coach Wilfried Nancy directs players against FC Cincinnati during the first half at TQL Stadium.

‘A good lesson’

All across the soccer globe, there are coaches who speak like Nancy. There are aesthetic ideals, widely shared beliefs about how the sport should be played, or at least about the characteristics that make it fun to watch. There are thousands of Barcelona disciples, self-professed gurus who publicly preach possession, creative passing and attacking fluidity.

And then they drift.

They speak, but they don’t act like Nancy.

They modify game models to suit specific players. They react to opponents’ strengths. They discard beliefs under pressure, after failures. In the absence of job security or courage, they go game by game, tweaking tactics to survive, to win.

Nancy, on the other hand, told The Athletic this past spring: “I never talk with my players about winning. Never.” He talks about competing, about concepts and about adherence to them. “Winning,” he said, “at the end of the day, is a consequence.”

He has instilled those concepts more quickly and more thoroughly than anyone in Columbus could’ve expected. They manifest in the stylistic similarity between the Crew’s reserve team and first team. And they manifest most of all in the adventurous soccer the first team has played all season, especially since the summer. They show up in short passes and streaming attacks and stunning goals. They do not produce possession simply for the sake of possession, as a defensive tactic. This is not 2010s Spain or Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. national team; this is a proactive, progressive, high-flying unit.

To players, Nancy’s ideas have been both startling and “refreshing,” as forward Christian Ramirez recently said. “Because so many times, you go into a situation where it’s like ‘OK, well, [the opponents] do this, they do that, they do this,’ and you get away from your strengths. But here with Wilfried, we play to our strengths no matter what.”

And they take chances. They hunt the ball. They pass it purposefully and dangerously, to bait opposing strikers and midfielders out of position and then exploit the disorganization they inflict.

Sometimes, they know, they’ll look silly. They’ll turn the ball over in their defensive third. They’ll leave themselves exposed. They did both of those things Saturday in Cincinnati. They dug themselves a 2-0 hole. Nancy’s son began to cry.

But his wife relayed the same message that Nancy always gives his team: “You cannot quit.”

And his players didn’t. They refused to panic. They trusted themselves and their system. They came back to win 3-2.

“Hey, Daddy,” Nancy’s son told him afterward, “a good lesson.”

There are plenty more good lessons within the Crew revolution. It is the story of a coach and his players but also one of front-office alignment, of a single vision that seems to permeate every level of the club. Others throughout MLS will surely try to replicate it. They might even poach Nancy’s assistants. The revolution will expand.

But they’ll stand a chance of replicating his success only if they stick to professed principles. That’s why Nancy has been exceptional. Where so many others stray from ideals, he and the Crew have wholeheartedly believed.

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