The Columbus Crew, when the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs begin next month, may stand among the favorites to be crowned champion in the Dec. 9 final.
Their league-leading 60 goals scored. Star striker Cucho Hernández mounting a late-season Landon Donovan MLS MVP push. Diego Rossi arriving mid-year to replace star playmaker Lucas Zelarayán. A breakout season for homegrown midfielder Aidan Morris. First-year head coach Wilfried Nancy implementing a bold, ambitious play style.
The bones, the pieces are there. Just ask midfielder Julian Gressel, one of four players the Crew acquired this summer.
“We know we all have qualities in certain types of areas, but at the same time, you have to kind of come together and go through experiences together to really be 100% on the same page.”
Gressel, an MLS Cup 2018 champion with Atlanta United, likened Nancy’s tactics to those he experienced under now-Inter Miami CF manager Tata Martino while at ATLUTD. And the compliment flows in the other direction, with Nancy comparing Gressel’s elite crossing ability to that of Miami owner and former LA Galaxy superstar David Beckham.
“This is my little Beckham. Why? because he's not fast. He's not slow. He's not a dribbler, but he's able to deliver good ball at the right moments in front of the line or behind the line,” Nancy said of Gressel, a German-born US international.
“But sometimes, no, we have to keep the ball. And we have to keep the ball, because we have to have the time to move together as a team and to control a little bit more the game and to organize when we have to attack in behind, or when we have to keep the ball.”
That last part provides a window into Nancy’s soccer vision, which flourished while leading CF Montréal’s first team from 2021-22. Then the Crew came calling last offseason, they compensated CFM for the French coach, and he switched Eastern Conference clubs as Columbus charted their post-Caleb Porter era.
What’s manifested in 2023 is Columbus playing some of the league's most attractive, free-flowing attacking soccer. Their DNA demands going for three points every matchday.
“We go forward every game, we try and impose our style every single game home or away,” said Gressel. “It doesn't matter where a lot of teams in this league, they're like, 'Okay, home games, we gotta win. And away, we kinda just gotta try and hold on for a tie and that'll get us into the playoffs.'
“But here it's really about – no, it doesn't matter. Home or away we go for it, we try and play our game, and that is something that I absolutely love.”
Will it all lead to another trophy for the Crew, who won MLS Cup as recently as 2020? Club president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko made the club's aspirations crystal clear.
"With the World Cup coming in a few years, we can really highlight this city," Bezbatchenko said. "And so the fan in me, it's not just the fan of the sport, but it's the fan of the city. So to answer your question, for us, it's MLS Cup, it's playoffs and getting that next star above our crest."
Nancy, when asked how the Crew will define success in 2023, and if they need a trophy to validate this rapid turnaround, struck a philosophical tone.
“No for me. Because at the end of the day, I believe the objective is to try to reach greatness,” said Nancy. “When we attack, can we be on the same page at the same moments? When we defend, the same. When we do the offensive or defensive transition, the same. And for me is to try to reach that.
“The fact that we're gonna be able to reach that, we're gonna maximize our chance to get a trophy and the consequence is gonna be the trophy, or to win. For sure, I want to have a trophy like everyone, but this is not my motivation. My motivation is how we do things every day and why we do what we do. And how we can, all the time, challenge the player to be better and also challenge the player or the person to be better also. This is for me, this is the way I think.”
For more on the Columbus Crew, check out the latest episode of Offside with Taylor Twellman.