Traversing the unknown terrain as a first-year MLS head coach is tough enough as is, but the lack of top-flight senior managerial experience was the least of Wilfried Nancy's concerns. He had more pressing hurdles that required his focus.
Nancy was replacing the legendary Thierry Henry, a difficult transition made all the more arduous given the move was only made official mere days before preseason. When he walked out to the training ground for his first CF Montréal training session, half the bodies in front of him were academy players; most of the first team was awaiting travel or on international duty. He didn't conduct a practice with his full squad until days before his first MLS game. They only had two friendlies to put his ideas into practice, instead of the typical five. Then it was showtime with an April 17 opener against Toronto FC, a 4-2 win.
Oh, yeah: Most of all, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the club to set up camp in Florida. All of Montréal’s "home" games have been in Fort Lauderdale at Inter Miami CF’s DRV PNK Stadium.
With all of the obvious challenges, and widespread preseason projections putting the team near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, Nancy and CF Montréal have performed well ahead of expectations in the season's early goings.
“It was a big challenge, but I got used to it,” Nancy told MLSsoccer.com. He joked that no one was complaining about the early-March weather in Florida, at least. “As a person, I try to adapt to all situations. This is just how I am. In this job, you need to adapt. I’m confident in the way I want to teach my players to play. I have a good group of young players who want to learn, want to be open-minded, which makes it even easier for me. It’s only eight games, but I’m satisfied in what we’re doing. This is only the beginning, but we’re in good spirits.”
The French-born Nancy had a 10-year playing career, which ended in 2005 after being named MVP of Quebec’s university League with the UQAM Citadins in 2005. He stuck around in Canada coaching locally before joining Montréal’s academy in 2011. He rose to the first-team assistant by 2016.
Nancy has long desired an MLS head coach post. He told sporting director Olivier Renard as much in meetings last winter, even before Henry departed. Not that he was in a rush, just that he wanted to be transparent with his long-term goals.
It happened a bit quicker than both expected.
“I was proud, football is my passion," Nancy said. "I mean, I was not a great player like Thierry Henry. But I knew it would happen, I just didn’t know when. I was happy. I thank Olivier for his belief and desire in me.”
Nancy has set his team up in a 3-4-2-1 formation, not too dissimilar to Henry’s regular formation in 2020, though Henry altered the tactics and set-up more than a few times in search of the right combination. In Nancy’s system, offseason trade arrival Djordje Mihailovic is thriving with creator-in-chief responsibilities after joining from Chicago Fire FC. Young forward Mason Toye has flashed his potential once more despite a difficult first half-season with the club following his trade from Minnesota United FC last year. Meanwhile, the defense has held sturdy despite being without the since-departed Luis Binks, who was Montréal’s top defender last year. Center back Aljaz Struna, acquired via an offseason trade with Houston Dynamo FC, has helped considerably.
The end result is 11 points from their first eight matches, hovering right around the Audi MLS Cup Playoff line in the Eastern Conference.
“Me and Thierry had a similar philosophy in how we saw football,” Nancy said. “It was easy for me to work with him. We had a long debate about style of play. But I had my own ideas for what I believe. This preseason, I tried to prioritize my ideas because I didn’t have a long time to prepare the team.”
Nancy noted the ideas he prioritized centered around keeping possession better and improving in defensive transitions, thus being able to play higher up the pitch. So far, the numbers support those desires.
Montréal are 13th in MLS in average possession percentage (49.5%) compared to 18th last year (47.9%). They’ve looked to win the ball higher up the field, up to 13th in possession won in the final third, while they were 21st in MLS last year. They are 8th in chances created from open play in 2021, after ranking 21st last year.
“I’m happy,” Nancy said of the first eight games. “The first meeting I had with my players, I talked to them about how we wanted to play. These concepts, they’ve done them. I’m happy with that. We are a little bit frustrated about the results, we could have had more wins, but we didn’t. This is the way it is. Nothing is easy, so this is the next phase for us to improve.”
Montréal’s decision-makers are happy, too.
Nancy was given a one-year guaranteed contract for 2021 with a club option for 2022. On May 28, long before the club had any need or expectation to make a decision, Montréal announced they had exercised Nancy’s 2022 contract option.
“It means a lot,” Nancy said. “Olivier and the owner decided to give me one more year because every day they see me on the pitch doing my job. (Renard) told me in the beginning: Yes, we have to make the playoffs, but if I see the players improving with a clear style of play, maybe I’ll pick up the contract earlier. So I thank the club for their trust in me.”