Wilfried Nancy’s gonzo Columbus Crew are deserving MLS champions

<span>Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Diego Rossi, Julian Gressel, Malte Amundsen, Rudy Camacho and Christian Ramirez played their parts. But the key transfer for the Columbus Crew, the move that turned a team that missed the playoffs in the previous two years into the 2023 MLS champions, was the capture of the head coach.

Whatever the Crew paid Montreal in compensation a year ago to hire Wilfried Nancy, it was worth it. First Nancy shaped Columbus into the league’s most effervescent team. Then he molded them into its biggest winners.

Related: Columbus Crew hold off LAFC to win second MLS Cup in four years

The 46-year-old was a lower-league defender in France who became an academy coach for Montreal in 2011, rising to first-team assistant in 2016 then head coach in 2021 after the departure of Thierry Henry. He exceeded expectations by leading Montreal to the playoffs last year as Eastern Conference runners-up but reportedly fell out with the owner, Joey Saputo. Tim Bezbatchenko, the shrewd Crew general manager, pounced.

Nancy quickly made Columbus the most gonzo outfit in MLS: fierce pressers, committed attackers, top scorers and the most possession in the regular season, but liable to squander winning positions, as if locking down represented a betrayal of ideological purity, a failure of nerve. They shrugged off the midseason departure of their talismanic midfielder, Lucas Zelarayán, and believed in Patrick Schulte, a rookie 22-year-old goalkeeper.

Against Los Angeles FC in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, the Crew played as they looked in their black-and-gold kit: swarming like wasps over lemonade. It was the kind of swift, aggressive, multifarious and irresistible attacking display that a former Crew coach, Gregg Berhalter, would love to deliver in a major tournament with his US men’s national team.

Overwhelmed in the first half at Field, LAFC failed in their bid to retain the trophy, losing their third final of the year following defeat in the Concacaf Champions League and the Campeones Cup.

“The performance that we had tonight was spot on,” Nancy told reporters. In the league’s 28th season he became the first Black coach to win MLS Cup. “I’m so proud of that because there is a lot of work behind that,” he said. “There was a lot of courageousness behind that. But I’m not happy at the same time because it’s not normal. Simple as that.”

As the MLS founder members won their second title in the past four seasons and third overall in front of a raucous sell-out crowd at their smart new stadium, it is worth recalling that it is only five years since fans successfully rallied to save them. The team’s previous owner, Anthony Precourt, plotted to relocate the franchise to Austin, Texas, where it is easier to sell corporate sponsorships to tech companies and the booming local economy means more fans can afford to pay $14 for a beer.

Related: Rain, pageantry and a golden goal: Remembering the first MLS Cup final

“Crew SC is near the bottom of the league in all business metrics,” the MLS commissioner, Don Garber, tut-tutted in 2017. Fan-shaming, though, was misdirection to deflect from deficient ownership. Having essentially green-lit a move to Austin before the Crew were acquired by the owners of the Cleveland Browns in 2019, with Precourt getting a team in Texas anyway, Garber was, as usual, keen to accentuate the positives in a half-time interview on the Fox broadcast on Saturday.

“Columbus is a great story,” he declared. “Out of challenge comes opportunity, a lot of courage and vision that built what we have here, this incredible fan base and a team that’s performing so well on the field. Everybody’s got to pick their path.”

Not everyone is persuaded that the sporting equivalent of attempted murder was really a valuable learning experience, when you think about it. Garber was booed by the incredible fan base before the trophy was handed to the captain and four-time champion Darlington Nagbe on a rainy night in the Ohio state capital. At least there was little else for them to complain about.

After an interminable and unfathomable playoff format that saw 18 teams play 28 games over 46 days, two from the middle of the league’s payroll pack had reached the showpiece. For all their ability, the Crew perhaps owed their place to the irresponsibly effusive personality of the Cincinnati defender, New Jersey native and former New York Red Bulls player Matt Miazga, who was suspended for the Ohio-on-Ohio Eastern Conference final.

Miazga entered the referee’s room amid a brouhaha in an earlier round that followed his second yellow card for blowing kisses and making a heart-shaped hand gesture at livid Red Bulls fans after scoring in a penalty shoot-out. Without the MLS defender of the year against Columbus, a makeshift Cincinnati defense blew a 2-0 lead late on and conceded late in extra time to lose 3-2. Love hurts.

The predictable pattern of play on Saturday was a contrast from last year’s sensational final, a penalty shootout victory for LAFC over the Philadelphia Union following a 3-3 draw that added layer upon layer of ever more absurd plot twists.

This time the rope-a-dope tactics that saw a pragmatic LAFC past a wasteful Seattle Sounders and a toothless Houston Dynamo in the previous two rounds were ineffective and made Steve Cherundolo’s side look strained and straitened against inventive and buoyant opponents.

LAFC had 31% of possession away to Seattle and 30% at home to Houston, so holding the ball 38% of the time against Columbus was an improvement. Still, so battered and befuddled were the visitors, so outmatched in midfield, that they were unable to switch out of counter-attack mode and take the initiative after going two goals down.

Cucho Hernández, signed for $10m from Watford in 2022, scored a 33rd-minute opener from the penalty spot after a Diego Palacios handball. A handsome pass from Amundsen four minutes later set Yaw Yeboah clear to double the lead. Denis Bouanga replied in the 74th minute but the climax was relatively serene for Nancy’s side. Bouanga and Carlos Vela, in probably his farewell game for the club, rarely threatened up front for LAFC. The 39-year-old Giorgio Chiellini valiantly tried to hold the defense together in potentially his last game before retirement.

“Did Columbus deserve to win tonight? Yes, they did,” Cherundolo, the LAFC coach, told reporters. “They played a fantastic game. Do I think they’re better than us? No, I think they were better than us tonight and we made a couple of errors defensively that led to their two goals. And that’s pretty much it. And that’s how these games are decided.”

That assessment does the Columbus coach a disservice by ignoring the context. Cherundolo set up his side to snatch a goal. Nancy built his team to seize the day.