Lionel Messi has made Inter Miami a must-watch team since his arrival in Major League Soccer two months ago, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily the league’s most entertaining team. Instead, the Columbus Crew deserve that title. Their brand of attack-minded, possession soccer has compelled and captivated all season long. Inter Miami have Messi, but Columbus have Wilfried Nancy.
The Frenchman has earned himself a reputation as one of MLS’s most forward-thinking coaches. Hired by Columbus from CF Montreal at the end of last season, the 46-year-old knows hold to build bold, brave teams. He wants his side to have the ball, but not just for the sake of it. This is possession with a purpose – the purpose being to score goals.
Nobody has scored more in MLS this season than the Columbus Crew (61). They have scored three or more in three of their last four games. Even when the Crew lose, they put on a show – see the recent seven-goal thriller against Orlando City which was decided by a winner six minutes into stoppage time. Everything is geared towards putting the ball in the net.
Of course, Columbus knew what they were getting in Nancy. His CF Montreal team played the same way last season. This was sometimes to their detriment defensively, but the Canadians enjoyed their best-ever MLS season in 2022, finishing second in the Eastern Conference. Having worked as Thierry Henry’s assistant at Montreal before taking charge, Nancy was able to mould a team in his own image.
Few thought he’d be able to do the same thing in Columbus so quickly. Nancy was given something of a headstart because his predecessor, Caleb Porter, also favoured a possession-orientated game, but the Crew finished 2022 outside the playoff places having also missed out in 2021. A reset was clearly needed.
Columbus’ improvement – they sit third in the Eastern Conference – can be measured by several metrics. Their average share of possession (57.2%) is higher than any other team this season whereas they ranked only ninth under Porter in 2022. They are also top for short passes (attempted and completed) having only been fifth before Nancy’s appointment. Only Atlanta United come to close to matching Columbus for their attacking output.
Columbus pass the eye test too. They are thrilling to watch. The Crew aren’t necessarily the fastest team in terms of their tempo over 90 minutes, but few can match them for explosiveness with players often instructed to slow the game down to walking-pace before launching forward into space. Nancy knows the value of waiting for the right moment to attack.
This approach has got the best out of former Watford forward Cucho Hernández (only four players – Giorgos Giakoumakis, Hany Mukhtar, Lucho Acosta and Denis Bouanga – have scored more goals in MLS than Hernandez this season). The Colombian, who scored the second-fastest hat-trick from kickoff in MLS history during a recent win over the Chicago Fire, needs space to attack into and Nancy’s approach has given him plenty of that.
Even when former MLS Cup MVP Lucas Zelarayan left for Saudi Arabia in July, Columbus responded by signing Diego Rossi to perform the same role – Nancy needs attackers to drop deep between the lines to receive and drive at opposition defenders. Rossi may be an even better fit for the Crew given his pressing ability. There’s a clarity to the Crew’s thinking on and off the field at the moment.
“For me it’s all about concepts,” Nancy told the Athletic in April. “It’s all about trying to simplify as often as we can what we want to do on the pitch and also to give them the ownership to express themselves. Yes, there is a clear structure. But within that structure there is also freedom. It’s all about knowing the person behind the players, which helps us know how to better connect with them.”
Nancy is indeed a conceptual thinker. His teams do unusual things that convention might prevent another manager from attempting, but the 46-year-old doesn’t care much for convention. The Crew have been known to line-up for kickoff like an NFL team with all 10 outfield players close to the halfway line ready for the opposition to take centre. Nancy has also played without a conventional centre back in his back three at times this season. More often than not, his experiments pay off.
The success or failure of the Columbus Crew’s season will ultimately be determined by the impact they make in the playoffs. For all their eye-catching play in 2022, Nancy’s CF Montreal only made it as far as the conference semi-finals last season. Playoff soccer requires a different mindset and Nancy has still to prove his trademark approach can work in the post-season.
At Columbus, though, Nancy has a platform to achieve more. The Crew have adapted to his ideas and methods in just one season. Messi might be MLS’s new star attraction, drawing new fans to the league, but no team has won more points in MLS than Columbus since the Argentinian’s arrival. Even if 2023 is the year of Messi, it could finish as the Crew’s season.