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What to expect from Wilfried Nancy’s Crew in Year 1

The Black & Gold have a new manager. But what will he bring to Columbus this season?

Sam Fahmi - Massive Report

A new era is set to begin for the Columbus Crew as Wilfried Nancy is now in charge in Ohio’s capital city. Nancy, who was announced as the Crew’s 8th full-time head coach on Dec. 6, joins the Crew from Eastern Conference rivals CF Montreal. As Nancy and his new club work through the preseason, it’s fair to ask the question: what can Black & Gold supporters expect from Nancy and his staff this year?

Nancy was an MLS Coach of the Year Finalist in 2022 after leading Montreal to the second seed in the East and just two points away from the Supporters’ Shield. Nancy achieved this success in just his second season at the helm in Montreal.

Despite being relatively unknown when hired in Montreal, Nancy quickly made a name for himself in MLS. Despite missing the playoffs in 2021, Nancy quickly turned the club around after a disappointing 2020 campaign, highlighted by qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League via the Canadian Championship, a cup competition similar to the U.S. Open Cup. Albeit a short spell as a head coach, Nancy has been successful almost immediately and has a solid foundation to build on in Columbus.

While Nancy’s success has been noticeable, perhaps the most impressive part is the way his teams have played. Especially in the 2022 campaign, Montreal played some of the most attractive attacking, possession-based soccer in the league. On top of that, Nancy’s Montreal side showed impressive grit, determination and fighting spirit throughout the course of the season. Of course, Crew fans will remember this well, as the Black & Gold gave up not one but two late leads against Montreal in 2022.

Nancy best characterized how he wants his teams to play with the phrase “boxing and chess.” Nancy explained, “In terms of style of play, I think a chess game and boxing is something I came up with because boxing represents the intensity that I want to see with the ball and without the ball, and also mentally from my players... The chess game is how we’re going to put out on the opposition; how we’re going to manipulate the opposition. So, for me, that’s why these two keywords are really important to our style of play.” This image will be a huge part of the identity Nancy’s Columbus team assumes in 2023.

While the “boxing” part of this imagery is pretty self explanatory, the “chess” part is much more complex. Last year, Nancy’s Montreal side was focused on maintaining possession, creating numerical overloads and generating attacking opportunities from there. Nancy and the Crew will look to position attackers in strategic areas, and then use what the opponents give to attack. For example, if the opponents won’t let Black & Gold attack through the middle, Columbus will have players in place to hurt their opponents out wide, and vice versa. This proactive style of play that’s focused on attacking and hurting opponents, will be a great next step for the Crew in 2023.

There has been much speculation this offseason on whether or not the Black & Gold will play with three defenders or four in 2023. Nancy, however, is much more focused on the principles of play rather than what formation his team uses. In his preseason press conference, Nancy didn’t commit to either formation and emphasized that he needs time to get to know the group, lay down the foundations of his game model and then make decisions on formations. He told Massive Report that the back 3/5 he often in deployed in Montreal had more to do with the players and the success of the formation rather than an identity he requires from his teams.

Regardless of the formation used, expect Nancy to focus on having players in advanced wide areas and central attacking areas in order to create space for the central midfielders to create. It’s also reasonable to expect more adventurous, aggressive attacking soccer from Columbus in 2023. Last year, Montreal totaled 63 goals and an average of 1.8 goals per game, which was good enough for fifth in MLS. Attacking players such as Luis Diaz, Lucas Zelarayan and Cucho Hernandez will be paramount to the success of this system and will hope to benefit from the freedoms that Nancy gives them in the attack.

As the Crew continues in the 2023 preseason with a new man in charge, the Black & Gold faithful can and should expect more attacking and exciting soccer in 2023.