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For Wilfried Nancy’s Crew, competing is all that matters

The Black & Gold must maintain their level of competing for a full game if they are to be successful in 2023.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesdays at Columbus Crew training are known as “Compete Days.” Nearly everything the players do during that day’s practice is about competing, including small-sided games at the end that are celebrated or despaired like an MLS Cup Final.

This past Tuesday at the OhioHealth Performance Center came with some controversy. Initially, it appeared that the gray team won the final game of the last phase of practice. But following a VAR review, thanks to the team’s drone that flies over the field and films training, it was revealed there was a foul that changed the outcome.

“We call it ‘Compete Day,’” head coach Wilfried Nancy explained after the session. “It’s all about – we don’t talk about tactical aspects or technical aspects. It’s all about mindset. Mindset, mindset, mindset, mindset. Resilience. Also the value important for us, we not me, is togetherness. And today we were really, really happy to see that they kept going.”

It may seem silly to review the film to determine which team won in a small-sided game in practice in late February, but it’s that word mindset that Nancy repeated that he wants to instill in his players. As a new head coach, Nancy is not only trying to teach his team how to play a 3-4-2-1 formation or how he wants his players to move around the pitch, but also how they must mentally approach the game each day.

In the season-opening game at the Philadelphia Union, there were signs that the Crew players had picked up on Nancy’s teachings in the preseason. The Black & Gold controlled much of the first half, going up 1-0 before conceding a late penalty kick.

The second half was not as good, as the Union showcased why they were one of the best teams in Major League Soccer last year and are expected to be again by turning up their pressure and making things more difficult for Columbus in what was ultimately a 4-1 loss for the visitors.

Nancy, however, doesn’t believe the scoreline reflected the play on the field. In watching the game, it was clear the Crew did positive things and likely didn’t deserve to lose by three goals.

“That my team, they were able to compete against a really good team, as we know,” Nancy said of what he learned about his Black & Gold group from Saturday. “So especially in the first half. Also the second half but we struggled to maintain it, I would say. We were not able to compete with their intensity and we conceded goals. Yes, two PKs and after that, two counter attacks but I really liked the fact that we were able to play and to play a good game.”

While certainly the legitimacy of Columbus being called for two handballs in the box that led to two penalty kicks can be argued, there were little moments when the Crew’s intensity switched off and Philadelphia was able to capitalize.

In the 51st minute, midfielder Lucas Zelarayan couldn’t control a pass near midfield quickly enough while pressured by Union defensive midfielder Jose Martinez. A quick splitting pass from Martinez took Black & Gold midfielders Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe out of the play and allowed a 4 v. 3 heading into Columbus’ penalty box. Two passes later and an open Julian Carranza had a one-touch finish from the top of the six-yard box to put Philadelphia up 2-1.

After going down 3-1 on the second penalty kick call, second-year Crew forward Jacen Russell-Rowe had a chance to cut the lead to one but couldn’t finish. That goal, making the game 3-2, might have changed the final outcome.

Instead, the Union was able to put the finishing touches on the match in the 79th minute when Steven Moreria gave the ball away at midfield while attempting to push forward. Again, not enough numbers were around the ball as second half substitute Joaquin Torres was able to dance around defender Philip Quinton and Nagbe before slotting a through pass to Carranza to set up his second goal of the night and give Philadelphia an insurmountable 4-1 lead.

For Nancy, these mistakes come down to competing at the right level for 90-plus minutes. The Union made their share of mistakes – including on the Black & Gold’s lone goal – but as an experienced team that has been together for a long time, understood what it takes to win in MLS.

Nancy, however, took the positive approach, using this game and these mistakes as teaching tools for his side.

“I’m really happy also to get this opportunity to show to my players that yes, we want to play but also we need to compete all the time,” Nancy said. “All the time, all the time, all the time. And we had a lack of – we didn’t win our battle and we know that Philly are really good on that. But it was a good tool and good exercise to compare a bit the intensity physically.”

This will be the challenge once again for Columbus in Week 2. While at home, the Crew faces a D.C. United side that embodies the spirit of their head coach Wayne Rooney and will fight until the end. Last Saturday, D.C. came from behind to win against Toronto FC and won’t back down even if the Crew takes a lead again.

In Montreal last season, Nancy’s team, as Black & Gold fans will remember, fought throughout the course of games. The level of competition through 90 minutes led to being two points off the Supporters’ Shield winners at the year’s end.

If Columbus is going to have that same kind of success under Nancy in 2023, competing must take place not just on the practice field and not just for most of a game but from the time the opening whistle blows until the referee ends the game.

Every day must be a “Compete Day.”