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Massive Predictions: How the Crew will line up under Wilfried Nancy

Our staff members give their thoughts on what formation the new head coach might use.

SOCCER: MAR 05 MLS - Philadelphia Union at CF Montreal Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Columbus Crew is set to kick off the 2023 Major League Soccer season on Saturday. It means the start of a new era for the Black & Gold with new head coach Wilfried Nancy set to take charge of the team for the first time.

Throughout the preseason, Nancy and his players have kept tight-lipped on how the team will line up when they take the field. So we decided to speculate a bit and asked some of our staff members to predict how they believe Nancy will deploy his team most often in 2023.

Caleb Denorme: 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid

Nancy’s first game as coach of the Crew is sure to have a lot of interesting storylines. In terms of starting formation, I’m leaning towards a 3-5-2/5-3-2 hybrid that can change based on where the Crew is in the game. We all know Nancy prefers a three-back system from his time with CF Montreal. The only problem is that the Black & Gold are light on center backs right now with the recent trade of Jonathan Mensah to the San Jose Earthquakes.

This 3-5-2/5-3-2 is where Columbus will eventually end up in the season with new signings and some more squad depth. But the question is if Nancy wants to wait until the team gets another center back or if the group can play the system with the squad they have.

Starting at the back, I have Josh Williams, Milos Degenek and Mohamed Farsi in the center back positions. Farsi played some center back in a three-back system with Crew 2 last year, so he should have some comfort in that role.

On the outside right wing back position, I have Steven Moreira and on the outside left, I think new signing Jimmy Medranda will bring some experience to the backline. Look for these wing backs to be going up and down the pitch and being integral on the offensive end.

The two defensive midfielders will be Darlington Nagbe and Aiden Morris with Kevin Molino sitting in front of them in the attacking midfielder role.

Cucho Hernandez will lead the line alongside Lucas Zelarayan as the front two. As the season progresses, I would not be surprised to see Christian Ramirez start alongside Hernandez, with Zelarayan sliding into the attacking midfielder role.

Collin Johnson: 5-2-2-1

At this point, almost everyone is expecting a three-back setup for Nancy’s Crew. That back three will be flanked by two wing backs and supported by two holding midfielders. Up the pitch will be two attacking midfielders supporting a single striker up top. In defense, this will surely look like a 5-2-3 (or 5-3-2), while in attack I expect something that more resembles a 3-4-3.

Two of those three center-back spots seem to be secure (Degenek in the middle and Moreira on the right) but that third slot is up for grabs. Josh Williams would seem to be a fit on the left but, as mentioned on the most recent Massive Report Podcast, he’s been limited during most of the preseason. So, it seems that homegrown Keegan Hughes or Crew 2 standout Philip Quinton will slot in as the left center back to start the season.

Flanking the back three, I see Will Sands stepping in on the left to play a bit more of a reserved role allowing his right-sided companion, Luis Diaz, to step into the wing back role, to push further forward. When dropping back deep, Moreira can shift to the right allowing Sands to drop left, forming a pretty traditional four-man back line. Diaz could thrive in this role while using his pace to create overloads on the right side, but he will have to commit to more defense and running than he has at this point for the Crew.

Nagbe and Morris have the two holding midfield spots locked down and will almost certainly start together every match the pair is fit.

Zelarayan grabs one attacking midfield slot and Molino secures the other. Molino’s slot could be filled by an out-and-out winger, should the team need more width, or it could be a spot for one of Yaw Yeboah or Alex Matan to win.

Hernandez acts as the lone striker but can easily drop back as more of a false 9 or step into one of the attacking midfield spots to play with a target striker like Jacen Russell-Rowe.

Drew McDaniel: 3-4-1-2

Nancy has not yet revealed what formation he favors, but hints from the players during preseason lead to an assumed three-man backline. Nancy has lauded Moreira as a versatile player, believing he can be a right center back. The departure of long-time captain Jonathan Mensah gives the recently signed Quinton a chance to make a name for himself. A potential new signing will most likely push Quinton out of the starting lineup down the road.

If the Crew wishes to add more experience to the backline, Williams could play on the left while Degenek shifts to the middle as a more imposing aerial presence. Williams has dealt with many injury issues over the last few years and may not be fully fit to be an every-week starter.

Medranda and Farsi will play as wing backs with Nagbe and Morris playing their traditional central midfielder roles. Medranda is a talented left-footed player who should see plenty of action as a wingback if healthy, which has been a past concern. With Moreira shifting to a right center back, Farsi or possibly Luis Diaz will have a chance at the right wing back role. Farsi is the more natural fit at wingback and should get the start.

Zelarayan will play his natural role as a middle-of-the-pitch attacking midfielder. The Argentine is more effective at this role than in a more advanced position. Zelarayan’s vision and ball placement should be used behind true attackers that will occupy defenders, giving him more room to operate.

Hernandez is locked in as a starter whenever he is fit for the Black & Gold, and his inclusion opens up more space for Zelarayan to operate and gives a creative attacking threat from seemingly anywhere in the final third. The Colombian is not a one-trick pony, he can score any type of goal.

Ramirez, one of a couple of offseason additions, likely came to Columbus with a plan to play more minutes than he got in Scotland. The veteran forward will crash the penalty box and make it difficult for defenders, which should give Zelarayan and Hernandez space and options. In this formation, Ramirez should pick up plenty of second-chance goals. MLS NEXT Pro MVP Jacen Russell-Rowe will get some minutes with the senior team as well.

Grant Miller: 4-2-3-1

Crew faithful have grown accustomed to the above formation for almost 10 years. Even with a new manager in town, it isn’t going away… yet. The first match against Eastern Conference favorite Philadelphia Union is right around the corner, and the state of the roster is still in flux, now is not the time for any radical experiments.

Perhaps come the summer months, the situation will lend itself to a different flavor, but until some new additions are made I predict Nancy will opt for the status quo out of the gate.

Before Mensah was dealt to San Jose, this backline looked considerably different. Barring a big-time signing to address the defense, this is a safe bet with how the team will start the season.

A no-brainer in midfield. Morris split time last year with Crew icon Artur who is now with the Houston Dynamo, the opportunity to take over the midfield is there from the young lad. Expect one player to drop back between the center backs and the other to push ahead to get involved in the attack. Both players are capable of both roles, and I anticipate they will alternate.

Let’s get wild here with the attack. Alexandru Matan returned from his brief loan in Romania to break out for the Crew. Sometimes all a young player needs to find his game is a new voice in the locker room. Nancy’s reputation for getting the most out of youth bodes well for a guy like Matan.

Diaz has been with the Black & Gold for four seasons but it’s easy to forget he’s still rather young. The Costa Rican winger found his stride and click with Hernadez over the second half of last year. His raw speed opens up so much space for his teammates that if he can provide just a little more in the attack, the sky is the limit.

Zelarayan pulls the strings from the middle of the field just as he has since he arrived in Columbus three years ago. I don’t expect anything different from the No. 10, but if Zelarayan is assisting more than he’s scoring, then things are going well for the Crew.

No sense in taking up the word count on this one. Just play the highlights and get excited for a full season of this from Hernandez.