National Writer: Charles Boehm

What makes Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus Crew so special?


Writers, commentators and other observers, this correspondent included, have by now already devoted a large and growing body of praise to Wilfried Nancy and his Columbus Crew.

With an MLS Cup trophy already in hand and a string of distinguished continental performances paving their run to Saturday’s Concacaf Champions Cup final vs. CF Pachuca at Estadio Hidalgo (9:15 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), the Crew have ensured that “NancyBall” is no longer one of MLS’s best-kept secrets, the way it was when he first hit the scene as CF Montréal’s boss from 2021-22.

Perhaps the most striking tribute to the effectiveness and appeal of Columbus’ way of playing, however, came from a very different and unexpected source: The applause that drifted down on the Yellow Football Team from opposing fans after they overcame Mexican giants in the two previous rounds of CCC – first from Tigres UANL faithful at Estadio Universitario in the quarterfinal second leg on April 9, then from CF Monterrey supporters at Estadio BBVA on May 1 after an emphatic 5-2 aggregate Crew win in the semifinals.

“It was cool to see Tigres, the fans, they respected us when we came off when we played them away. I think you saw that from some of the Monterrey fans,” recalled Columbus central midfielder Aidan Morris this week. “I think we play a style of soccer that’s very brave, and we’re not scared to try things.

“We’re always being pushed to try new things, tactically, technically, being pushed outside our comfort zone. Speaking for myself, I’ve had to grow so much since I stepped in with Wilfried,” explained the 22-year-old homegrown. “He’s asked me do to so many different things and I’ve had some games where I’ve struggled with it, but then the next game or the next few games I’m more comfortable with it. So it’s a constant evolution of the game, and he says it's an infinite game, so he’s always pushing us to try new things, experiment.”

Tactical identity

In a sport increasingly paced by pragmatism, where big data enables the calculation of risks, rewards and odds to granular levels, the Crew appear to cut against the grain, like Gian Piero Gasperini’s Atalanta or Tottenham Hotspur under Ange Postecoglou.

Nancy teaches his teams to play quite differently from most, marked by the extent of their collective comfort with the ball, the way they juggle danger like a high-wire act, baiting opponents into pressing them to tease open spaces and slash through them with line-breaking passes and aggressive overloads.

“I guess the easy answer for what’s enjoyable about it is, most of the time you’re not running after the ball – you have it, which is nice. You get to dictate the tempo and the flow of the game,” noted Morris. “Most games it’s going to be up to you and how well you play if you’re going to win the game or not. Wilfried says, if we have good games and we play well, we’re going to come out on top.”

Members of the squad tend to get evasive when pressed about the nitty-gritty details of the game model, loathe to leak information that could be utilized by their adversaries. Watch how methodically and collectively the Crew orchestrate their possession buildups, however, and one soon gains a sense of the intricacy of the preparation, the humming hive mind of 11 players solving the puzzles, picking the locks.

“The way I see it, to express, to have freedom and to create something, you need concepts, and within the concepts, after that players can move freely, because they respect the game and they respect the concept. So this is between position and relation,” Nancy told Andrew Wiebe in a one-on-one interview on the Extratime podcast earlier this month.

“In the past I was more a positional play coach, so, ‘you have to stay in your position, the ball is going to come.’ Now I am in between a bit. So yes, we like to exploit the weak side. But I need only one guy on the weak side and where is the ball, I need a lot of density, many players close to each other to manipulate the opposition, to go towards the goal or to go around or to go in between, it depends. But this is a mix between position and relation.”


His past and present pupils usually speak in glowing terms about his philosophy, how it both challenges and empowers them, asking them to unlearn many concepts widely considered fundamental to success at the professional level in order to adopt and embrace the role of protagonist, even to heart-pounding extremes.

Notably, this runs well beyond tactics into psychology, group dynamics and more.

“What's enjoyable about Coach's system is, you're on the ball a lot,” said Morris’ engine-room partner Darlington Nagbe. “But with that comes a lot of movement, a lot of knowing where your teammates are going to be – not just understanding your position, but understanding your teammates' position and what the whole team is trying to accomplish.

“It’s special because, I think, the way that we’ve done it. The way Wilfried came in his first year, changes to the team and guys stepping in, not just younger guys but guys that have been here, changing their roles and accepting the new roles that they’ve been given, and then the younger guys stepping into leadership roles … the group came together to accomplish the goals that we accomplished, I think that’s what makes this team really special.”

Nancy did headline writers’ job for them at Field in December after his team beat defending champions LAFC to claim a league title in his first season in charge, memorably declaring that “impossible is an opinion” as he became the first-ever Black head coach to hoist an MLS Cup.

Listen to his players, and it quickly becomes clear this was not mere sloganeering, but a crystallization of the mentality he cultivates in his group.

“It's fun because you control the ball most of the time. We complement each other very well, we know each other very well,” said striker Cucho Hernández in Spanish. “But it's also difficult because it changes a lot. You play in different positions, it changes a lot. You are in one position, then you go to another. You have to do certain things in one position, then you go to another one and you have to change everything tactically.

“Each player that plays this system needs to be very focused in order to make things right.”

Cucho: Columbus' star

Cucho has been integral to the project, the elite spearhead whose intelligent movement and clinical finishing turns slick buildups into goals. The Crew’s club-record signing, acquired from Watford for a reported $10 million transfer fee in the summer of 2022, the Colombian brings a touch of class that would elevate most any MLS side. Yet his time in central Ohio also illustrates how effectively Nancy and his staff have conveyed their ideas and crafted a culture.

Hernández was Columbus’ team MVP in 2023, leading the team in goals with 16 and topping the assists category alongside Alex Matan. He notched five goals and two assists in the six postseason games that took the team to MLS Cup glory last autumn. Yet Nancy abruptly dropped him from two matchday squads – including the first leg of the Tigres CCC series – last month for what the coach would only describe as a violation of “team policy.”

Was Cucho judged to have crossed a red line when he appeared to yell at assistant coach Kwame Ampadu and other members of the coaching staff (Nancy was absent due to illness) as he was substituted out of a 2-0 loss at Charlotte FC in late March? Was there some other disciplinary breach behind the scenes?

Whatever it was, Nancy, Cucho and the rest of the group didn’t reveal anything to the public. Cucho returned to action, engineering Diego Rossi’s equalizing goal in the second leg at Tigres, and Columbus marched onwards, seemingly as united as ever.

“I have worked with many different coaches in my career. But this is the one I felt most comfortable with. You can tell,” said Cucho of Nancy this week. “I have the freedom to play, to combine, to move to the sides and create chances by surprise. I can't say this is the best system I have played in, because I don't remember the style of play of other coaches, but it is one of the best, because I always enjoy it.”

Hernández has nursed a back injury over the past few weeks, but it appears he’ll be available for selection on Saturday, and will be a key figure if and when he takes the pitch.

“Everybody's different. It's all about personality, it’s all about the way you are the person and to be true to yourself,” Nancy said on Extratime. “I've learned that, any kind of environment, is it possible to embrace and to be yourself? And it sticks with me, because this is exactly what I tried to transmit my players when we played in Mexico against the Mexican teams.

“For me, this is all about clarity. Clarity in what I want to do with my vision, and also the vision of the club. That's why we work together. But also, how I can maximize the potential that I have in front of me with my players? So it’s all about challenge and support – try to challenge them, try to support them, off the pitch and on the pitch. … For me, the most important virtue is courage, because without courage, you cannot do anything in life.”

Weight of history

While the overarching history of MLS teams facing Liga MX opposition in CCC and Concacaf Champions League, its previous iteration, is one of suffering and heartbreak, there have been triumphs.

The Seattle Sounders, of course, made a long-awaited breakthrough two years ago, becoming the first MLS side in the modern era to win the tournament, beating Club León and Pumas UNAM en route. Toronto FC downed both Tigres and Club América in the 2018 edition of CCL before falling to Chivas Guadalajara on penalties in the final; the New York Red Bulls also defeated Club Tijuana 5-1 on aggregate that year. Montréal famously edged Pachuca in the 2015 quarterfinals via a 93rd-minute second-leg equalizer by Cameron Porter at a delirious Stade Olympique.

Yet precious few featured the level of swashbuckling style and swagger shown by the Crew this year. That’s added to the emotional power of their run, both for them and those watching them from afar, and it’s further endeared the squad to Nancy and his methodology.

“I think just honestly the joy in being able to play the way that he wants us to play; it’s very trusting from him to the players that it’s going to be a fun, enjoyable football,” said goalkeeper Patrick Schulte, 23, who was promoted from Crew 2 to the first team’s starter in Nancy’s first season.

“Going up against these big-name opponents, it allows us to show us and be able to show our identity and what he’s created in us, and the talent we have as well. So being able to play that system against these big teams and be able to show that we’re right there with them and that we have quality as well, and we can play an enjoyable and attractive style of football, it just gives you goosebumps, and gives you pride and joy as well.

Much the same can be said of the Crew’s fanbase. The club and its supporters already enjoyed a profound bond, forged in the adversity of the relocation saga under previous owner Anthony Precourt in 2017-18 which birthed the Save The Crew movement, a grassroots effort that helped keep the team in town.

The aesthetics and attitude of Nancy’s system, combined with his own inspiring character as a leader, have deepened that relationship that much further.

“When I signed in this club, after maybe one week, I said to my wife, this club deserves something. Because yes, this is a good club, yes, this is really good people, and also really good players and so on,” Nancy said after the second-leg win over Monterrey. “But the history behind that, and the ways they fought to keep this club in this city, listen, all the time when I see the fans behind us, this is a soccer town, there is no doubt about this. And this is really, really nice and I'm really, really proud of that.”

Saturday presents their biggest task yet, a continental final against an excellent Pachuca side at the lung-searing altitude of nearly 8,000 feet above sea level in one of North America’s most daunting venues. But by now, you can probably recall what Nancy said about ‘impossible.’

His players surely will.

“Honestly, it doesn’t seem crazy to me. It’s just who we are,” said Morris. “Besides from all the soccer talk, I think we’ve got such a good group of guys who are so audacious and so ambitious to accomplish things and they’ll do whatever they’ve got to do.

“We’re going to be winners, man. We’re going to get the job done.”