Usually it’s the star players that capture headlines, but the Columbus Crew’s signature piece of business ahead of the 2023 MLS season was acquiring a head coach.
The Crew stared down this season in a state of limbo. A little over two years before the start of this campaign, Caleb Porter’s team lifted MLS Cup in a pandemic-shortened season. The team followed up that trophy with consecutive failed seasons, missing the playoffs in both 2021 and 2022 in a league with an already low bar to qualify for the postseason. Porter was shown the door shortly after the end of the 2022 season – and Columbus began the hunt for a new coach.
It was then that Columbus Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko did something incredibly rare in the soccer world: he paid a transfer fee for a coach.
In Wilfried Nancy, the Crew had their target. They were even willing to pay fellow MLS team CF Montreal to get Nancy out of his contract a year early.
Nancy was just an assistant coach back in 2020 when Columbus won its second-ever MLS Cup before being handed the unenviable task of following Thierry Henry at CF Montreal. When Henry abruptly left the helm in early 2021, Nancy succeeded despite the short turnaround and guided Montreal to a Canadian Championship trophy in his first season. In his second season as a head coach, Nancy’s Montreal team took MLS by storm.
After missing the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons, Montreal finished second in the East last year and set a club-record for points (65) and wins (20).
That year, just Nancy’s second as a professional head coach, was enough to sway Bezbatchenko. With the Crew flying high in the Eastern Conference and playing some of the most effective (and aesthetic) soccer in MLS, it’s safe to say Nancy has rewarded Columbus' initiative.
Here’s how Nancy has revitalized the Columbus Crew.
In identifying Nancy as Porter’s successor, it was clear the Crew brass were interested in evolution instead of revolution. Like Nancy’s previous Montreal sides, Porter’s teams were possession-oriented, ranking in the top 10 in MLS three out of four years during his tenure in Columbus. Nancy, though, has supercharged the Crew’s possession.
The Crew use the ball more and better than any team in MLS in 2023.
That’s the biggest thing that sets them apart. Nancy and co. top the league in possession, short passes attempted and completed, goals scored, and assists, while Porter's teams failed to crack the top five in those categories in any of his four seasons in Columbus. How’s that for improvement?