Columbus Crew’s Wilfried Nancy – the best young French coach you probably don’t even know

Followers of French football may be unaware, but Le Havre-born Wilfried Nancy is making waves across the Atlantic. This weekend, Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus Crew will look to become only the fourth MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions Cup when they take on Mexican giants CF Pachuca at Estadio Hidalgo. It marks just the latest milestone in the meteoric rise of the Crew’s 47-year-old French coach. Last season Nancy led the Black and Gold to MLS Cup glory, the most prestigious title in US soccer. It was only his third season as a head coach, and his first with Columbus. The Frenchman became the first Black coach to win the Cup and he did so playing a compelling, possession-based brand of football that hasn’t been seen before in the league. So, who is Nancy, and could he be the next French coaching sensation?

An early conversion to coaching

Born in Le Havre, Nancy had an unspectacular playing career as a centre back which began with Toulon in 1995. After stints with several semi-professional outfits across Championnat National 2 and 3, he soon realised that his talents lay in coaching. In 2005 he moved to Canada where he combined studying in Québec with coaching around the province’s amateur league circuit. In 2011 he joined CF Montréal’s academy, coaching the U-16s up to the U-21s, before becoming assistant coach to the first team in 2016.

Nancy’s big break came in March 2021 when, following Thierry Henry’s resignation, the Frenchman became Montréal’s interim head coach. Taking the reins just six weeks before the start of the season, Nancy led L’Impact to the Canadian Championship. Made permanent head coach the following season, Nancy’s playing philosophy, underpinned by domination of possession, started to come to fruition. Encouraging his players to be fearless on the ball and to use it progressively from deep, Nancy’s Montréal emerged as one of the season’s most exciting teams. Finishing in second place in the Eastern Conference, Montréal’s highest-ever finish, the club achieved eight new club records, including the highest number of points in a regular season (65). Nancy’s men also set two all-time MLS records for the most away wins in a single season (11) and most consecutive away wins (seven). Furthermore, Nancy underlined his coaching credentials, developing Djordje Mihailovic, Ismael Kone and Alistair Johnson along the way.

Europe calling for Nancy?

However, Nancy’s time in the ‘City of Saints’ abruptly turned sour after a dramatic confrontation with club owner Joey Saputo in the club changing room following a home defeat to Kansas. Columbus Crew were quick to pounce, paying Montréal an undisclosed fee to acquire Nancy.

And so, to last season. Nancy’s Columbus swept all before them in a devastating manifestation of ‘NancyBall.’ With a highly technical, intricate possession-based game model, featuring overlapping attacking centrebacks (Malte Amundsen and Steven Moreira), the development of breakout youngsters (Alexandru Matan and Patrick Schulte) and the rejuvenation of seasoned pros (Christian Ramírez and Darlington Nagbe), Nancy created a beautiful winning machine. The side’s superiority was confirmed with a 2-1 defeat of holders Los Angeles FC in the final. This season the Crew are currently sitting in fifth and, ominously, just two points outside the end-of-season playoff berths. Balancing league and Champions Cup duties, it would take a brave man to bet against the Crew hitting their stride once this weekend’s final is out the way.

In every sense, Nancy has come a long way in a brief time. Up to now, his exploits have gone unnoticed across the Atlantic, however, with a historic Concacaf Champions Cup within touching distance, it surely won’t be long until European clubs come calling.

GFFN | John Porter 

 

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