Wilfried Nancy’s Columbus is in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final — Thierry Henry isn’t surprised

As Thierry Henry logs on to the video call, he’s seated in front of framed photographs with a theme that is impossible to miss.

Over his right shoulder is Tommy Smith and John Carlos, standing on the 1968 Olympic podium with their right fists raised in the air. Over his left is a towering and triumphant Cassius Clay (not yet known as Muhammed Ali), standing over Sonny Liston after claiming the heavyweight title belt in 1964.

They are iconic images of Black excellence in sports. A trailblazing sportsperson in his own right, Henry fields questions from The Athletic about another groundbreaking figure he knows well: Wilfried Nancy, Henry’s former assistant with the then-Montréal Impact who, in 2023, became the first Black head coach to win MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew.

“For him to be the first Black coach to win the MLS Cup,” Henry said, “I couldn’t have been prouder to be a little part of his journey.”

Henry’s own time as an MLS coach was brief, curtailed by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. On February 25, 2021, Henry stepped down as the rebranded CF Montréal’s head coach after just one season to be with his loved ones. Two weeks later, Nancy was appointed to his first senior head coaching role, replacing Henry.

On Saturday, Nancy will lead the Crew, to the home of CF Pachuca for the CONCACAF Champions Cup final. His rapid rise has come barely three years after he first took over for Henry.

“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Are you surprised?’” Henry said of Nancy’s ensuing success. “I said ‘No, I’m not surprised.’”

When Henry was hired ahead of the 2020 MLS season, he brought Kwame Ampadu to Quebec as a holdover from his coaching staff at AS Monaco. Montréal asked if he wanted to keep anybody from predecessor Remi Garde’s former staff. Nancy, who first joined the club, then known as the Impact, as an academy coach before becoming a first-team assistant in 2016, was already well-versed in the club’s operation.

“I kept him because I knew the brain that he has, and I knew where he wanted to go,” Henry said. “My philosophy is very close to his philosophy, so I knew it wasn’t going to be a clash or so right from the start. One thing that was very important for me was to keep the core of the club.

“I knew he was going to be important.”

Nancy was Henry’s assistant during his one-year stint with Montreal. (Photo by Vincent Carchietta, USA TODAY Sports)

After a round-of-16 finish in the 2020 MLS is Back tournament, played in an Orlando bubble due to COVID-19 restrictions, Montréal went on to qualify for the postseason, one of just two playoff appearances for the club in the past seven seasons. The two coaches found solace in their shared histories. Along with their paths crossing in years past, the frenchmen had some commonality in their lineage, with both men’s fathers hailing from the Caribbean. The music they listened to in their youth offered a needed reprieve and a lift to their spirits.

A first-round exit commenced a long offseason amidst the backdrop of the ongoing pandemic. In February, Henry left the club and returned to his family.

Nancy was appointed head coach, initially on a one-year guarantee with the club holding options for subsequent seasons. Although he is now admired by his peers, Nancy was almost a footnote as the focus was kept on sporting director Olivier Renard (who was dismissed earlier this month) and Henry’s departure.

Still, Nancy sent a powerful message to those who paid attention.

“What I like is my players to recognize the moments to defend or attack,” Nancy said on March 8, 2021. “I like when everything is clear and simple for the players and when they’re able to express themselves within the structure.”

That foundation didn’t just lead Montréal to its best season in club history — it laid the groundwork for Nancy’s instantly impactful head coaching career.

Montréal did not qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs in 2021. Still, there were promising signs, and the club signed Nancy to a one-year extension after just seven games. Henry cited similarities between both his and Nancy’s philosophies on how the game should be played, which provided players some measure of continuity amidst the switch.

“Wilfried was happy because of my philosophy, we played with a back three,” Henry said. “Wil will tell you the same thing. I battled it at Montréal — they were like, ‘You play with a back five,’ I said ‘I play with a back three because I want to be on the front foot.’ The philosophy and their understanding took a little while.”

By 2022, the players knew exactly what Nancy was hoping to achieve. The team finished third in the broader league table, their highest finish since entering MLS in 2012. Although it wasn’t exactly executed on a shoestring budget, Montréal was among MLS’ middle class, ranking 15th in salary expenditure among 28 teams — $12.9 million guaranteed, or 61.4% of top-spending Atlanta United’s outlay.

What was a well-guarded secret in 2021 was suddenly universally known in MLS circles. Nancyball wasn’t just easy on the eyes — it was yielding results.

“It’s important to have your philosophy,” Henry said. “Wil has his philosophy, and it doesn’t matter what tactic and shape you have.

“Two things that are very important: never lose your identity or your philosophy, and the block needs to be tight whether you have it low or middle or you’re going to put pressure (high up the pitch). You can’t have any space in between the lines. Once your team is (stretched), it doesn’t matter where — there’s too much space to play in between. It’s difficult, but keep it tight where you are on the field.”

In Nancy’s second season as Montréal’s head coach, those tenets of play were on full display. At a time when MLS wingers were mostly inverted, cutting into the half-spaces rather than slinging crosses, Nancy had his wingbacks play level with his midfield to provide width down the touchline. His center backs were encouraged to break lines with their distribution, while a pair of attacking midfielders stayed in the half-spaces to create chances for the striker while affording the wing backs even more terrain to claim.

His system ensured that style was met by substance. No MLS team was stingier at allowing foes to venture upfield, limiting opponents to just 19 meters of progress per possession. His players claimed 56.2% of ball recoveries, third best in the league. In possession, his team averaged 269 passes in the opponent’s half per game (second highest of 28 teams) and a league-best 58.5 passes into the final third, which resulted in the league’s best field tilt (58.9%).

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It made stars out of several relatively unheralded MLS players whose careers benefitted from his tutelage. Canada international wing-back Alistair Johnston earned a move to Celtic for a reported fee of around $5 million. Attacking midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, a U.S. international, was sold to AZ for a reported $6 million. Homegrown midfielder Ismael Köne shone so brightly during his professional debut in 2022 that he was quickly signed by Watford, with the fee reported to be between $8 million and $10 million up-front.

However, Montréal left the door open for other suitors and Columbus acted quickly, signing Nancy and multiple assistants from the Henry and Nancy eras (Ampadu, fitness coach Jules Gueguen, and coach/video analyst Maxime Chalier) in exchange for some compensation.

“My whole crew is (with Nancy) there, by the way,” Henry said with a laugh. “Not even a joke, saying my old crew.

“He had his time at Montréal. I don’t know why they didn’t keep him, I cannot go into this type of discussion, but what I know is: a great brain with great players? You’re gonna be successful.”

Under Nancy in 2023, MLS veterans like wing-back Julian Gressel, striker Christian Ramirez and converted center back Malte Amundsen were entrusted to play key roles in the system. Columbus placed third in the East after finishing 8th the year before — sparked by an 11-point improvement.

“I spoke to him a bit before when he told me he was going to go (to Columbus) and I was like man, it’s a no-brainer,” Henry said. “This team will usually try to go for titles. I know they had a little pause for a while, but this team is battling to go for titles — and look: it happened.”

The Crew’s defensive strengths provided a bedrock for successful playoff soccer. Cucho Hernández flourished atop Nancy’s base 3-4-2-1, with midseason signing Diego Rossi keeping opponents honest in transition. MLS legend Darlington Nagbe displayed vintage form alongside homegrown midfielder Aidan Morris at the base of midfield.

Rather than doing what so many teams do and letting their shape gets stretched in the biggest game of the year, Nancy’s Crew stuck to what brought them to the final.

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In the 2023 MLS Cup final against defending champion Los Angeles FC, Nancy’s key principles were on full display. Amundsen played an assist for the ages on the eventual match-winner, a 2-1 triumph at Lower.com Field that earned Columbus its third league title.

Henry was hardly surprised to see his former assistant reach MLS’ mountaintop.

“You know when someone is waiting for an opportunity for a long time, you’re ready for a long time,” Henry said. “The only thing that now you need to have is a place that’s going to trust you, the team, facilities — it’s just outstanding when you think about it. I’m more than happy for them.”

MLS teams have historically struggled in continental play. The CONCACAF Champions Cup has long been dominated by teams from Liga MX, with MLS claiming just three finalists and one champion (the 2022 Seattle Sounders) in the competition from 2009 through 2023.

The reasons are many, but some are self-inflicted. MLS has complex roster rules that are designed with in-league parity in mind, but those guidelines can come at the cost of roster depth and quality beyond the top handful of players on the team sheet. It makes for a terrific postseason each year, but when compared against teams in Liga MX and around the world, the comparison is seldom flattering.

The Crew has done plenty of work toward changing that perception, capably balancing league and continental play. After overcoming the Houston Dynamo in the round of 16, perennial continental contenders Tigres UANL awaited them in the quarterfinal. Columbus held its resolve to win a penalty shootout at the Estadio Universitario before defeating the competition’s greatest modern combatant: CF Monterrey, which has earned five titles since 2011.

Over the past two years, Nancy has often spoken about wanting his teams to play bravely. He echoed that sentiment after the win at Monterrey, adding that it was about “trying to be limitless.”

When asked about how he sees that line of mentality in Nancy’s teams, Henry sat forward in his seat and elaborated.

“The result does matter, don’t get me wrong,” Henry said, “Don’t fool yourself. Don’t cheat yourself. Don’t cheat the fans — meaning we want to attack, we want to be on the ball. We want to be brave. People always talk about being brave with ‘put your head in, put a tackle in, don’t shy away from a battle.’

“Being brave also is wanting the ball. Do you want the ball? Do you want to go forward? We said we’re going to play out from the back; now you’re going to play away against a Mexican team. That’s when you’re being brave. You’re two down; are you still showing up to ask for the ball? That’s also being brave. That’s what he’s talking about — not only putting your foot in. You need to be courageous and brave on the ball. … If we lose, we lose with our identity.”

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In 2023, Nancy led the Crew to a MLS Cup victory. (Photo by Kim Klement Neitzel, USA TODAY Sports)

In a results-based industry, Nancy’s teams do elicit more of an intrinsic, unified ethos. A winning team is often built to prioritize defending — pragmatism over panache. In this era, that usually means pressing high, keeping a stout defensive block, and exploiting opponents in transition. It’s been en vogue for MLS for over half a decade, but Nancy’s team provides a compelling alternative.His players are encouraged to trust their decision-making and read a game in real-time, working to exploit opponents as they reveal their faultlines. By keeping a majority of possession — their 58.4% rate in 2024 is MLS’s highest since the start of 2019 — they can simultaneously stretch an opponent’s shape and limit their ability to strike back.

“That’s why Wil is very important because he will live and die by that,” Henry said. “At the end of the day, when he finishes a game, it’s very important that he doesn’t talk about the result. He talks about the how.”

Henry provided some nuance as to whether Nancy could be viewed as a contender for jobs in leagues above MLS’s stature. He pointed out that despite being among the Big Five leagues, few French coaches have been hired and found success beyond their homeland in Europe’s biggest leagues, even after historic winners like Arsene Wegner and Gérard Houllier.

Besides, there’s still a lot of potential legacy writing to be done in Ohio — both on Saturday and in the years to come.

“It’s unfair for me now to talk about Wil maybe leaving or not because he’s at the club where he is,” Henry said. “I respect the MLS too much to put these types of headlines out and stuff like that. He’s doing a tremendous job. He’s already up there with the best coaches that Columbus had in history. Hopefully. he can now add more titles so he can be long there, or the greatest ever in the history of the MLS.”

Henry will be at his usual post on the Champions League desk of pundits for CBS Sports for the other continental title game being played on Saturday and is gearing up to coach France at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

He’s been cluing in his colleagues to what Nancy is doing in Columbus. To him, it isn’t a particularly tough sell for anyone who loves the game.

“You will have, now, a lot of people knowing what Miami does, Inter Miami,” Nancy said. “We know why, obviously, and rightly so by the way. I’m trying to say all of them, the most important thing is exactly this: you should watch the Crew play because they play good football. I don’t even talk about how they won the MLS Cup, they might win the Champions Cup or all of that.

“Just go watch them play.”

(Photo: Eric Bolte/USA TODAY Sports)

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