The Columbus Crew’s ‘6 out of 10’ won MLS Cup. Their encore could be scary

LEESBURG, VA - MAY 10: Head coach Wilfried Nancy of the Columbus Crew talks to his team during a US Open Cup game between Columbus Crew and Loudon United FC at Segra Field on May 10, 2023 in Leesburg, Virginia. (Photo by Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images).
Wilfried Nancy led the Columbus Crew to the MLS championship in just his first season as head coach. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images). (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF via Getty Images)

Wilfried Nancy was a couple weeks into his preseason masterclass, and a couple months removed from lifting MLS Cup, when he uttered words that should startle the rest of Major League Soccer.

In less than 12 months, he’d transformed the Columbus Crew from mid-table commoners to champions — but, Nancy explained, they actually hadn’t absorbed all his teachings just yet.

“Last year, in terms of concepts,” Nancy said, “we reached ... a 6 out of 10, in terms of level.”

This year, his second as Crew head coach, they could be even better.

But “better,” in Nancy’s book, does not necessarily mean more points or trophies. It means “more creativity,” more flexibility, more player autonomy, and more ways “to manipulate the opposition.”

“The way I see football,” Nancy explained to Yahoo Sports, “it's all about cues and concepts.” About decision sets, harmonize movements and split-second choices.

So no, he isn’t worried about the pressure that sometimes burdens reigning champions. He hasn’t had to prepare any grand speech or nuanced motivational message. His message, ever since his very first team meeting in Columbus, has been consistent. “Yes, everybody wants to win,” he said back then. “But how are we going to win?”

“The scoreboard,” he’d later say, “is not important. What is important is what we want to do with the ball and without the ball.”

He talks about competition, and concepts, and joy, but never about results — so there is no need to live up to last year’s.

“The winning mentality,” Nancy says in his customary philosophical tone, “does not come from those who win, but from those who always seek to improve.”

Leveling up

The “NancyBall” revolution took hold in Columbus faster than anyone could’ve predicted. The Crew didn’t just win MLS Cup; they did so playing perhaps the most audacious and entertaining soccer in league history. They scored the most goals in 2023, and created the best chances; but the most wondrous part was how. They attacked to attack and attacked to defend, “to try to win the ball back as soon as possible,” as Nancy said. When they won it, they held it, courageously, luring opponents in to create space they could exploit.

Those are the concepts Nancy began instilling last January. And at the time, for “maybe three, four weeks,” he says, his team was stuck on “simple exercises.” Nancy, whom the club had poached from Montreal that offseason, had to re-train players’ soccer brains to align with his.

They forged ahead, into the season, with 6/10ths of the foundation laid. This winter, they have gone further. After one week of 2024 preseason, Nancy said, they’d already graduated from simple exercises to complex ones. They reviewed basics, then enrolled in the masterclass.

It’s a masterclass Nancy developed by “trial and error,” methodically, via travels throughout Europe, and in Montreal. He eventually covers tactical systems and shapes, but the curriculum is assembled around layered concepts, with each lesson building on the last. And the pace of the course depends on the students. In 2023, they got to Level 6. In 2024 — at Levels 7, 8 and 9 — Nancy has been equipping them with “more creativity within the structure.”

What he means by that is more off-ball movement, which creates more options for a player on the ball. Options translate to freedom, and more potential routes through, over or around helpless opponents, to goal.

“The idea is to put more doubt on the opposition. This is the next level,” Nancy says.

He likes coordination and synchronization, but never rigidity. “I like when we are able to create organized mess,” he says.

So he’s been teaching them how to create it; how to read pressing triggers; how to interpret an opponent’s body shape or a teammate’s subtle step. He’ll occasionally instruct his players to complete a training drill in silence, so that each can learn to read and react to every little movement — every “cue” — with his own two eyes, without verbal assistance.

This, he says, is “the future of football.” It’s “not about the system, or anything like that. It's all about cues.”

He speaks about empowering his players, to understand the cues and then “express themselves.” And he trusts them, in part because knows them; all 11 starters have returned from December’s MLS Cup triumph. The roster, if anything, is better than it was a year ago. And the club, in theory, is more aligned — from academy all the way to first team.

Or, rather, it’s been aligned, intentionally, by the league’s most advanced sporting department. Their “One Club” philosophy — the idea that curriculums and styles are consistent at every age group and level — is actively instilled in every new hire, and reinforced in meetings everyday.

COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 9: Darlington Nagbe #6 of the Columbus Crew and the rest of his team cheer as they raise the trophy after the Audi MLS Cup Final game between Los Angeles FC and Columbus Crew at Field on December 9, 2023 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Zach Sanderson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
The Columbus Crew cheer as they raise the trophy after beating Los Angeles FC in the MLS Cup final. (Zach Sanderson/ISI Photos/Getty Images) (Zach Sanderson/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

And it’s already bearing fruit. Two starters came directly from Crew 2, their reserve team — perhaps, in part, because Crew and Crew 2 are more stylistically similar than any other first-second team pair in MLS.

Tim Bezbatchenko, a three-time MLS Cup-winning executive, oversees the whole operation. But Nancy, of course, is the grandmaster and public-facing professor. His stock rose more than any other on the MLS Cup run. He is 46, entering just his fourth season as a pro head coach, and eyed with intrigue in Europe.

When asked in January about a potential jump to Europe, he said, in part: “The most important [thing] for me is to live in the present moment. And I'm really happy to be in Columbus. … But, I like to challenge myself. So, I don't know where I'm gonna be in 2, 3, 4, 5, 10 years. But I know that I will challenge myself. So, we'll see.”

A few weeks later, I asked him whether his rapid rise had sparked a wave of outreach — not from foreign clubs and potential employers, more so from coaching peers hoping to learn.

He laughed, and began: “I don't want people to think I have a lack of humility."

“But it's true that, yes, people from overseas and in MLS contacted me to discuss,” he said. “To discuss about the way I teach my players. Or the way I do practice, how I can transmit my message, how I can convince my player to be more courageous, and all these things.

“But also,” he continued, “I do the same. I like to ask questions with a lot of coaches. Coaches from soccer, but also from all kinds of sports. Because it's really important for me to learn.”

Staying ahead of the game

Nancy is an early riser, a cherisher of morning “freshness,” and the peaceful moments before his kids wake up — “because when they're awake, this is a tornado at home,” he says with a chuckle. He loves them, of course, and also cherishes family time. But, he says, “I like to have a few moments to read.”

He’ll read books or articles, perhaps something that catches his eye on the internet. And his curiosity will drive him deeper. “Deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper, to understand, and to learn a little bit more,” he says.

He talks, and listens to CEOs, to non-soccer coaches, to leaders. He wants to refine his ability to be both caring and demanding. And he sees unexplored lessons in sports like rugby and American football, so he watches.

“It's fascinating, for me, to see how the quarterback has to be composed, knowing that he's gonna be destroyed,” Nancy says. “And he has to trust, also, his teammates to be able to protect him. And the calls of the coaches.” He also plays golf, and zeroes in on “emotional control.” He sees applications to soccer.

All of which is to say that Nancy’s approach to life mirrors his team’s approach to soccer. They are not trying to repeat or replicate. They are trying to improve, to grow.

And yes, they know they will face an array of new tactics, new gameplans to counteract their distinctive excellence. They know they’ll face new players, including a particularly famous one in Miami.

“This year, teams are gonna be better,” Nancy says. “And me, I want to be, all the time, ahead of the game.”