Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What the 2023 MLS season meant for Columbus Crew


How it started:

How it’s going:

It was pretty well understood around league circles that Wilfried Nancy and CF Montréal ownership had fallen out hard in 2022 despite what was an all-around excellent season, and that Nancy was looking for a new home. So president/GM Tim Bezbatchenko and, presumably, Crew ownership got on the horn with Montréal’s decision-makers, an agreement was reached and history was made.

Nancy had at least another year left on his Montréal contract and nobody is certain what changed hands among the teams that allowed him to move to Columbus. Whatever it was, 1) it was obviously worth it and 2) it broke new ground – MLS teams have not traditionally gone after each other’s coaches. What’s commonplace elsewhere (if Barcelona want Girona manager Míchel after this season, they will get him) was unheard of here.

It was the best move any team made last offseason. Full stop. Nancy is a culture builder, a player-builder, an aesthete, an entertainer and now, officially, a winner.

And the way he won… well, I’ll just say that I desperately hope he spawns imitators throughout the league.

“So this is a day-to-day work, this is a lot of video, this is a lot of interaction also, because I believe that to convince the player to do something – or to convince a human being to do something – he has to try things. He has to make mistakes,” Nancy said this summer to my colleague Charles Boehm. “He has to be comfortable in the uncomfortable situation. So this is something that we do all the time on the pitch: repetition, with clear situations, and also a structure, a defined structure. But within the structure, a lot of creativity within that.

“Because I believe that if we are able as a staff to give a good structure to the team, the players, they will understand if they need to dribble, if they need to pass the ball, if they need to take the ball, if they have to keep the ball – it depends. We are really, really, really, extremely demanding with the structure. But within the structure, the players have the freedom to pick and choose what is the good option.”

They were one of the half-dozen (or so) most beautiful teams I’ve seen in MLS, and probably the most beautiful to win MLS Cup.

What a year.

Formation & Tactics

The structure is a 3-4-2-1 and the main principle undergirding it is to be brave on the ball. Nancy wants every player on the team to take the extra time necessary – up to and including just putting their foot on the ball – to bring the opponents upfield, then beat them and go.

Here it is in all its glory:

Columbus led the league in possession and by a mile in field tilt. They were also second in touches, first in box entries, first in expected goals and third in average time per passing sequence.

They adored the ball, kept it and used it to crack open team after team after team, time and time again.

A lot of modern soccer is about imposing your ideology upon your opponents. Generally speaking, it is easier to do this by playing against the ball than it is by playing with it. A team that tries to build out every time? One bad touch sets off a failure cascade and suddenly you’re questioning the value of the whole thing.

We heard it from the punditocracy all year any time something went wrong for the Crew. “Oh they need to simplify, they can’t always try to be pretty.”

Nancy never wavered. The players never wavered.


Nancy said he knew the Crew could win it this year after they beat the brakes off of Club América in the Leagues Cup group stage, a 4-1 blowout. (Las Aguilas lost just once in the Liga MX Apertura and just punched their ticket to the Liguilla final, by the way – this is one of the best Club América teams in years).

Under normal circumstances, I’d drop that in as the highlight because a milestone win against the biggest, most successful club in North America is really, truly, it.

But then they scored the most beautiful goal in MLS Cup history so…

They made it to MLS Cup and then imposed their will on a very good LAFC team, scoring two goals that came directly from Nancy’s book of soccer philosophy.

Just a complete, across-the-board validation of the game model and ethos.


I think Crew fans would probably point to the 4-3 late-summer loss down in Orlando, in which Columbus blew a 3-1 lead and young goalkeeper Patrick Schulte looked out of his depth any time he had to come off the line and control his box.

I look at it a different way: It was a loss the Crew needed in order to sharpen the knife for the stretch run and the playoffs. In their 12 subsequent games, they lost just once.

The real lowlight, by my reckoning, was the PK shootout loss vs. Minnesota following the thumping of Club América. Now, to be fair, the Loons were on a heater.

But Columbus never should’ve let that game get to penalties. It was an opportunity missed.


Some young players winning jobs, others leveling up and veterans hitting their apex… there are too many to choose from here. How about a list?

  • U22 signing Alexandru Matan had no goals or assists across his first two years in Columbus and the Crew were ready to move on from him last winter. Nancy said “nah, keep him around, I think I can work with that.” Matan had 3g/13a across all competitions in 2023.
  • Schulte had his ups and downs, but he won the job from Eloy Room early and kept it through MLS Cup. He became the youngest Cup-winning ‘keeper in league history.
  • Malte Amundsen and Steven Moreira are career fullbacks. Nancy turned them into center backs – overlapping, attacking center backs. That’s Amundsen with the unreal assist on Yaw Yeboah’s goal above, and Moreira justifiably got some Defender of the Year votes.
  • Christian Ramírez came back from Aberdeen and earned a spot as a clutch goalscorer.
  • Cucho Hernández played at an MVP level, first as kind of a playmaking second forward, then as a true No. 9 and in between as a sort of hybrid winger thing.

Nancy is rapidly earning a place among the best talent developers in MLS history. You could make a strong case for him at No. 1 already.


The ACL injury to left wingback Will Sands, who had won the starting spot and was playing very well, is really the only thing that could fit here. Nobody on the roster undershot their potential.

2024 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Cucho (FW): He was maybe the best player in the league post-Leagues Cup, and banged home five goals in the playoffs. An MVP candidate heading into next season.
  • Diego Rossi (FW/W/AM): Much more well-rounded than he was during his LAFC days; Rossi and Cucho had instant chemistry together.
  • Matan (AM/W): A dynamic ball-progressor who still has another level to hit with his around-the-box decision-making.
  • Darlington Nagbe (DM): The ultimate safety valve in possession has grown into a shrewd reader of the game defensively.
  • Moreira (RCB): Was excellent all year long and especially in MLS Cup when he, more than anyone else on the Crew, set the tone.

Offseason Priority

Drink a bunch of beer and champagne, probably.

There will be pieces added (I don’t think Julian Gressel will be back, so right wingback is a spot to focus on) and maybe subtracted (it wouldn’t shock anyone if there was a can’t-turn-this-down offer for Aidan Morris, who hit a level this season I didn’t think he had in him), so it’s not like everything is going to stay the same.

But the biggest advantage of having a coach like Nancy is that improvement from within is built into the whole thing. The Crew will likely be better next year because the players will be better by being in this culture and system that demands they improve, and then gives them the platform to do just that.

It’s worth noting, though, that Nagbe’s new deal is structured so he doesn’t have to take up a DP slot next season. So they’ve got the flexibility to go out and spend big if they want to.

My guess, however, is if that happens at all, it won’t be until the summer window.

One more note: A looming priority has to be succession planning for Nancy’s ultimate departure. At some point, a Ligue 1 team is going to knock on the door. When that happens, Bezbatchenko et al have to be ready to make moves.