National Writer: Charles Boehm

MLS Cup formula? Columbus Crew ride highs, lows into Conference Semifinals

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Don’t look at the scoreboard.

These aren’t words you’d readily expect from the coach of a team staring at a must-win match with their season on the line, as was the case for the Columbus Crew on Sunday night.

In some sense, it’s bizarre. What could matter more than the score when you’re trying to survive and advance, the name of the game in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs?

Wilfried Nancy plays the game his way, however, and the Crew boss said this was his primary message to the squad before their impressive 4-2 defeat of Atlanta United at a rollicking Lower.com Field – with scarcely a mention of the high stakes of this win-or-go-home situation in the decisive Match 3 of their Round One series.

“I don't talk about that with my players,” Nancy declared in his postgame press conference. “It's me talking, we can disagree, but I try to teach them the scoreboard is not important. What is important is what we want to do with the ball and without the ball, and the more and more that they focus on that, the more it's easier for them to stay focused on the task. And this is what happened.”

This is the way

Nancy is the philosopher king among the eight sides still alive in these playoffs, a low-key ideologue whose system insists upon collective movements and commitments, who asks his players to show generosity with the ball to produce high-flying soccer – and professes to be unbothered when their efforts to do so occasionally lead to generous concessions in their defensive end.

“The first game [a 2-0 victory vs. Atlanta], and this game, we were brave. And for me, this is the big difference,” he said. “I tell my team that we fear no one but we respect everyone. And for me, this is really important, that they stick to that. And today, this is what we did. We were really good to be front foot. We provoked the mistake, and after that, with the ball we were more clean. We could have scored more goals, obviously. But yeah, it was a really, really good game.”

This has made Columbus – the league’s highest-scoring side in the regular season with 67 goals – a neutral’s delight, an entertaining watch regardless of the outcome. While conventional wisdom would suggest this is not a typical hallmark of a title-winning team, Nancy sounds ready and willing to thumb his metaphorical nose at all that risk aversion.

“I know that this is a do-or-die game,” he added. “My job is not to tell them again, because I know that. My job is to give them tools to be able to balance when they're going to have difficult moments, what do we do? And for me, this is what we try to do every time with my team, because we are really demanding with my team in terms of, what we want to do with the ball and without the ball and concept and so on.

“But also we know that they want to do well, and sometimes this is not easy. So yes, I suffer the last game, because I knew that my team was able to do better. But they didn't act, because they were too focused on something that they cannot control. So the idea was to go back on that and they did it today. So I'm happy.”

The how & why

Indeed, the Ohioans treated Columbus’ 16th consecutive MLS sellout to the full Wilfried Nancy experience in 90 minutes. First they ambushed their southern visitors with a ruthless opening frame highlighted by beautiful goals from Darlington Nagbe, Malte Amundsen and Alex Matan in the game’s first 33 minutes, then left the door open for a Five Stripes rally via unfocused defending that leaked a Giorgos Giakoumakis lifeline before halftime.

Even when Diego Rossi struck on a lightning-fast Crew transition to restore a three-goal advantage just after the break, another moment of heedlessness in the back handed ATLUTD another goal almost immediately. It was not hard to imagine just about everyone in the stadium wondering if the Yellow Football Team might let this one slip away down the stretch, mindful of the four goals they’d shipped in their 4-2 Match 2 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Tuesday.

Everyone, perhaps, except Nancy.

“Listen, this has been important for me since the beginning,” said the Frenchman. “When I met the first time with my players, this is what I said: I said yes, everybody wants to win. But how are we going to win? And for me, this is the most important, because I believe that in the long term, when you’re going to have bad moments, we're going to be able to get back about who we are as a team, instead of focusing on the result.”

Strikingly, the Crew did all this with one of their most important players, right wingback Julian Gressel, benched on the night, with 23-year-old Canadian Mo Farsi handed just his second start since August instead. Farsi vindicated that calculated risk, completing 88% of his 42 passes, going 3/4 on the dribble, winning 6/8 ground duels and drawing two fouls as he limited the influence of ATL winger Xande Silva and their homegrown left back Caleb Wiley.

“Depending on the game, depending what I see, I have to be cold with my decisions,” said Nancy of the swap. “That is my job, so I have no problem with that. The idea was to bring in Mo, because Mo, first of all, he trained well. He has been improving a lot and today I wanted the energy of Mo on the right side, to be able to make the run in behind, to be able to be front foot, and Julian is able to do it, but this is not the same profile.

“So that's why Mo for me, for this game, was the good profile because we knew that Atlanta sometimes with the ball is going to [possess] the ball. And we needed this kind of profile to be able to help us to win the ball back and to keep the ball also.”

Next up: Orlando

Can a team this open, this unconcerned about posting clean sheets really win an MLS Cup on Dec. 9? Those who follow the ‘defense wins championships’ truism will like stingy Orlando City SC’s chances on home turf come Nov. 25 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Crew, Nancy can assure you, will go about their business the same as always.

“Yes, I want to win MLS Cup – I never did it, so I want it,” the former CF Montréal coach said. “But at the end of the day is the behavior of each of my players, and that's why we like to challenge them and we like to support them, depending on the personality of each player. And this is not easy. Because we put ourselves as a coach, sometimes I am in uncomfortable situations. But I have to be like that at certain moments, to have this kind of moment like this.”