National Writer: Charles Boehm

How Wilfried Nancy's CF Montréal became an MLS Cup Playoffs contender

Wilfried Nancy MTL

Wilfried Nancy was characteristically philosophical – with an endearing dash of blunt humility – on Thursday when reporters asked him about the honor of being a finalist for MLS’s Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award.

“I am a human being above all, so there is pride, of course,” said CF Montréal’s head coach in French. “But I'm not alone. There is a staff behind me, and there are above all the players.

“Because we may have put a system in place, but if the players don't adhere, I'm in deep s--t.”

Don’t get distracted by the mildly salty language. There’s more depth in that remark than might appear.

The collective

The unassuming 45-year-old led CFM’s drastic turnaround from missing the Audi 2021 MLS Cup Playoffs to legitimate trophy contenders this year by crafting a happy, egalitarian collective while also instilling one of MLS’s most intriguing tactical identities, a methodical approach to possession buildup that seeks to draw out opponents, frustrate, then expose them.

“It was difficult coming to this system,” wingback Alistair Johnston told media after winning the club’s Defensive Player of the Year award on Thursday. “And the coaching staff was very clear with me. They said, ‘You're going to have to forget how you were taught to play, to a certain degree.’

“Because especially as a defender, you're instinctively taught, how fast can I move the ball forward? Whereas here, it’s like, how long can you wait, until a striker steps on your toe, before you pass the ball? So for me it’s just getting rid of some of those subconscious tools that you’re taught … It took some time.”

As 38-year-old striker Kei Kamara told on Friday, the fluid play that powered CFM’s dominant 11W-1L-3D run down the back half of their schedule is the product of meticulous preparation at the training ground.

“The coaching staff needed to really, like, make it so easy for us. So when we're on the field, people might see some things look easy. But that's not because it is,” said the ageless MLS veteran, who compares Nancy’s tactical nous to the Sporting KC and Columbus Crew sides he played for under Peter Vermes and Gregg Berhalter, respectively. “It's because we work so hard at it, repetitively, over and over.”

Like their bustling, incredibly diverse city and the Francophone province that surrounds it, CFM are an outlier in MLS, in multiple contexts. Under the guidance of a coach who, in his own words, “came to Montréal with my backpack in 2005” to start a new life, they’ve embraced that.

“It's just amazing to see the connection between all the players,” noted Kamara, who joined CFM as a free agent last winter and finished as the team’s second-leading scorer in the regular season with 9g/7a, nudging him into third on the all-time MLS scoring list with 139 career tallies and counting.

“Usually you don't want everybody to like each other. But you're in this place where everybody likes each other. Because the way that we've changed so many individuals in our starting lineups most of the time, but everyone is so positive to come in at any time and do the job. And that energy really just spreads between everyone.”

Replacing Thierry Henry

The squad reflects the experiences and ethos of Nancy, whose father was a member of the French navy, thus the family lived at various ports of call across the globe during Wilfried’s childhood. As his own playing days in France’s lower divisions wound down in the early 2000s, he turned his focus to the coaching craft, and a visit to Montréal convinced him Canada was the place to build that second career.

“I was struck from the first weeks by the openness of people,” Nancy told a journalist in 2020. “In France, we were used to having preconceptions about others, because we were brought up like that, unfortunately. I realized that everyone had a chance here.”

He worked his way up the youth ranks, joining CFM’s academy when the program launched in 2011 before joining the then-Impact’s first-team staff in 2016. There he remained, demonstrating his value even as bosses Mauro Biello, Rémi Garde and Wílmer Cabrera came and went.

Thierry Henry’s arrival in 2019 represented the highest-profile coaching hire in club history. Yet when the French legend chose to return to Europe for family reasons just before the start of the 2021 MLS season, vice-president and chief sporting officer Olivier Renard saw Nancy, rather than a bigger name, as the best successor for their fledgling project.

“The way that we started to play with Thierry was already the way that we are playing now,” the Belgian told this week. “We tried to play [out] from the goalkeeper, we tried to play football, not kick and rush. And when Thierry decided to leave, I knew that I was looking for a coach that could make the progression of the players.

“We don't have the budget to take the player that is directly ready to play,” he explained. “Maybe I take a player with the potential to be 8 of 10, and I take him when he’s a 4 – but I need the coaches to make the progression with the player, like Kamal Miller, like Djordje [Mihailovic], like Alistair Johnston, [where] the potential is very high … I need a coach to work every day with the player to make him better and better and better. That's what I saw in Wil.”

Montréal Moneyball

Owner Joey Saputo and the front office had tasked Renard with fashioning CFM into a consistent competitor over the long term, with less need for splashy – but expensive and often ephemeral – signings past like Didier Drogba or Marco Di Vaio. Working with the Canadian currency and a metropolitan area modestly sized compared to the big markets down in the United States, the Quebec club sought to work smarter, and leaner.

“[Nancy] has seen big-name, high-profile players with this club come and go,” said Kamara. “So this ideology of respecting everyone and treating everybody equal has really helped. And that, again, shows how we connect together as a team collectively on the field, because there's not one guy everybody's just looking up to … that's a culture that helped the team this year.”

You could call it Montréal Moneyball: Identify undervalued assets and renewal projects, augment them with homegrown products of their vibrant local soccer culture, and unify it all via a positive locker-room environment. Renard and Nancy have adeptly crafted a cosmopolitan, technically-adept roster with just one Designated Player, few household names and a low overall budget in terms of both salaries and acquisition costs.

“The vision that we have is everybody's on the same page,” Renard said. “OK, we have Victor Wanyama, a DP, and also maybe the difference in the [upper end of] salary [budget]. But for the rest, everybody's on the same page. Everybody has the same rules in the dressing room. Nobody is sure to play every week. … If you deserve to play, you will play.

“And when the players feel that, it’s from that moment that you can reach the goal, that you have a team. When you have the team spirit.”

Renard utilized his contacts network back in Europe to dig up value signings. Assistant sporting director Vassili Cremanzidis helped navigate the intricacies of MLS’s mechanisms and regulations, and spot smart acquisitions like 2022 leading scorer Romell Quioto.

“I like to give a chance to the young people that nobody knows, or to give a second chance, like maybe with Djordje Mihailovic, like maybe with Kei Kamara now, with Romell Quioto,” said Renard. “When we make the trade for Quioto from Houston, everybody was telling us, ‘Ah, you take a crazy guy.' It's not a crazy guy. He has personality, and you need to manage him, to make him play the way that he likes to play.

“Like Djordje – Djordje in Chicago was more playing like winger, but for me Djordje was a No. 10. When I spoke with him to explain the project with him, I tell him directly: ‘Look, Djordje, I see you as a No. 10, you will play inside on the pitch, and you will play what I think is the best position you can.”

Playoffs time

After finishing 10th in the East last year, two points out of the playoff places, everything fell into place for CFM in 2022, far and away their best regular season since joining MLS in 2012. Though they recognize the playoffs are a very different sort of challenge, they feel ready for the test – and not just for the sake of chasing this year’s honors, but to continue to do so sustainably into the future.

That next step awaits on Sunday, when Orlando City SC visit Stade Saputo for their Round One clash, a No. 2-seed vs. No. 7-seed Eastern Conference matchup (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN5, TVA Sports in Canada).

“The regular season and playoffs, that’s two different things,” said Renard. “Every game that we played [during the stretch run] was relaxed, to have fun and to make pleasure for the fans, to make the record that we can make. But it's not the same pressure that you know that in 90 minutes you can be out. That’s different, and we know that.

“We know that Sunday will be a game with the pressure that, maybe the last 10 games or maybe more, we don't play with this kind of pressure. That's interesting for me, to see if my own team can react, and to improve year after year.”