National Writer: Charles Boehm

Mentality Monsters: CF Montréal show mindset for success in playoff opener

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In some ways Wilfried Nancy sounded more like a professor than a soccer coach as he analyzed CF Montréal’s 2-0 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs win over Orlando City SC Sunday – as if the tetchy, tenacious Lions were not so much a foe to be overcome as a math problem for him and his players to solve.

“I'm really happy with the goal,” the Frenchman told ESPN in a postgame sideline interview, referring to Ismaël Koné’s opener and eventual winner, which capped a slick eight-pass move that had immediately been preceded by an 18-pass buildup sequence that pushed and pulled Orlando all over the Stade Saputo grass.

“Because the way we manipulated the opponent was really interesting. I'm really happy also with the emotional control from my players.”

This is the Nancy way, a cerebral, collectivist sort of approach to problem-solving on the pitch, as he later explained in his postgame press conference.

A mental game

“The way we created the environment with my staff is, we face an opposition. We don’t face a team, we face an opposition,” he said, praising the “mental intensity” of his players. “So the objective is to try to maintain what we've been doing during the year. And the more we are challenged, the more I like it, because I can push the boundaries of all my players, and they enjoy that.

“Today, the objective was to mentally be able to sustain, knowing that we're going to have big adversity. But they [the players] did it well. Again, next game is going to be another story. We'll see how we're going to be able to do it.”

Of course, picking such locks is a great deal easier with the tools he has at his disposal.

Influential playmaker Djordje Mihailovic and Koné, the 20-year-old box-to-box midfielder whose desirability on the international transfer market seemingly ticks upward with every passing match, rode the punches and found the breakthroughs needed to keep their club moving forward in the postseason bracket.

“We just had to stay patient throughout the first half, and the second half, just to allow ourselves to get a goal, and that’s what we were able to do,” Koné told ESPN postgame. “I have the platform to move wherever the play is right for me to move. So with my coach, he gives me the platform, so I’m free to move. So it’s good for me: Sometimes I can drop a little deeper, I can move a little higher, I can come into the midfield. It’s good for me to have this platform because I like to have the ball and create for my team, so I’m thankful.

“I made the run and with Djordje’s quality, it’s easy for me. So he passed it to me and I put it through the net.”

Adapt and execute

Oscar Pareja and OCSC gave their hosts plenty to think about, shifting their shape and imposing their own particular identity – rugged, confrontational, at times nasty – on this tense encounter on a cool autumn night in Quebec. According to Nancy, the Floridians shifted their shape to neutralize CFM’s 3-4-2-1 formation and frustrate Mihailovic, and they seemed to relish the challenge therein.

“They played with a back five,” said Nancy of Orlando. “I think this is the second time or the first time that they start in a back five, but they did it, and so we need to get a man up on the side. So the objective for the second half was to change the shape to free up Djordje, and to create 2-v-1 or 3-v-2 on the side. So they did it perfectly, and this is something that we've been working a lot also, to change a bit and to find the space and the time to unbalance the opposition.

“The objective was to begin to recognize the moment to slow down, because when we slow down we are able to find the opening, and [then] recognize the moment to speed it up.”

The Nancy way is working. Sunday’s triumph extends the substantial momentum Montréal generated with their 11W-1L-3D record in the final months of the regular season, and underlines what a tough out they’ve become, particularly on home turf, where they will host the winner of Monday’s New York City FC-Inter Miami match next Sunday.

As vital as Mihailovic, Designated Player center-mid Victor Wanyama and other regulars have been, no one has come to epitomize CFM’s steady rise like Koné, the diamond in the rough who’s risen from unknown teenager to Canadian international, potential World Cup debutant and subject of seven-figure transfer bids from England and elsewhere in Europe.

“Last year we weren’t able to make the playoffs, we had a couple of things that we needed to work on, and this year I think it’s working for us,” the Ivorian-Canadian told’s David Gass. “We trust in the process, we trust in the project and we’re just a unit. We’re working for each other every single play, we’re out there fighting for each other on the pitch, so I think it shows. It shows that we’re a real team and we’re able to go further in these playoffs.”