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“This is the way”: Inside the mind of Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy

A recent 4-2 road win over CF Montréal was no typical day at the office for Wilfried Nancy. How could it be?

He and three members of his Columbus Crew technical staff were leading the home team at Stade Saputo just a few months ago. After arriving in Quebec in 2005 with little more than a backpack in hand, Nancy lived there for the better part of two decades before taking the helm in Columbus last winter, most of it with CFM, where he slowly, methodically rose through the club’s ranks from academy to first team staff, and finally, head coach in the wake of Thierry Henry’s unexpected departure just before the start of the 2021 season.

“Wilfried was my provincial team coach when I was 14,” Montréal captain Samuel Piette told reporters afterwards. “It was weird to see him on the other bench.”

Many of the home supporters at Stade Saputo gave Nancy a warm welcome when he strode onto the field before kickoff. Perhaps there was a more profound tribute, however, in the boos they directed at their own team as CFM trudged back to the locker rooms 45 minutes later trailing 3-0, thanks to some textbook examples of Nancy's expansive, intelligent game model.

"It was strange,” agreed Nancy in regards to what he called an “emotional” return. “Because life is crazy in a way. Sometimes it can be cruel.”

Growth in Montréal

Nancy met his wife in Montréal and became a Canadian citizen there; it’s where they welcomed their two children into the world. He found his calling as a coach and developed his playing philosophy there. And even after leading CFM to the best season in their MLS history, he says he never lost sight of the fact his profession would, sooner or later, force him to leave.

“I'm really grateful about Montréal, because it's been a long time that I stayed over there,” Nancy told in an extended sitdown earlier this year. “I knew that in my job, I'm going to have to move at one moment. So it was either going to be me or it was going to be the club that will fire me.”

There the Frenchman’s face creased into a laugh, a chuckle that hinted at not only the hired-to-be-fired realities of his line of work, but the particular context of the club formerly known as l’Impact. The Quebecois side have had nine head coaches in their 12 campaigns since joining MLS in 2012, one of the league’s highest churn rates, what many would consider to be a manifestation of the Italian sensibilities of owner Joey Saputo.

There was no trace of bitterness from Nancy, just a sense of gratitude at the luxury of having options.

“Listen, Columbus approached me, and I had a good decision to make for my future,” he explained. “When I was younger, I traveled a lot. So I knew that in my job also, that I will travel in the future. I had this opportunity with Columbus, so my family, we discuss about this, and because this is something new for my family – not for me, because I have two kids and my wife, she knows, she's from Montréal, only Montréal.

“It was a possibility to discover something new in terms of culture, in terms of city, country, everything – and football also, because it's a new challenge. How can I convince new players to buy into what I want to do on the pitch? For me, this is powerful. So I said, why not?”

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