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Frenchman Nancy's journey reaches MLS summit
Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy had a modest playing career as a journeyman in the lower divisions of French football but now, as a coach, he finds himself one game away from a place in Major League Soccer history.
In his debut season in Columbus, Nancy's brand of attractive, possession football has taken the Crew to the final of MLS Cup where they will face defending champions Los Angeles FC on Saturday.
The 46-year-old from Le Havre may still be little known in his homeland but in North America he has quickly built a reputation as a progressive coach whose team play a brand of football that has broken totally with the stereotypes of MLS as a league dominated by physical and direct football -- and American coaches.
"Their style of play is unbelievable, impeccable. They are not just beautiful to watch but really effective too," says LAFC's former Juventus and Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini.
"They are very good and they have a fantastic teacher, or Maestro if you prefer, in coach Nancy," he added.
After the last stop of his lower division journey in France concluded in Orleans, Nancy ended his playing career in Canada, with the University of Quebec. While there he began coaching at a private French language school.
He eventually took on a role at youth level with MLS club Montreal in 2011 and came up the ranks, eventually working as assistant to Thierry Henry.
When Henry left the club early in 2021, Nancy was given a chance as Montreal's head coach and he swiftly set about putting his ideas into practice.
Last year, Columbus tempted him to leave the club and it was a move that has delivered instant results.
Nancy certainly has no regrets about his move, but is keen to ensure the credit for the Crew's run to the final goes to his players.
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"Without my players, I can’t do anything. They’re on the pitch writing the story we want to do. I'm so happy with the city, the fans, the organization and the players, we deserve it."
Nancy talks of "empowering" his players, but it is clear that like a lot of innovative coaches he demands much of them.
"Honestly, it's really intense. You have to be focused all the time with him," said the Crew's French centre-half Steven Moreira.
"You have to think a lot, a lot, be focused a lot. But that's very good," said the former Toulouse and Lorient defender.
Nancy's approach combines a strong defensive core to his midfield but as part of a fluid tactical system which he believes gives his players a platform to express their creativity.
Uruguayan Diego Rossi, operating as a "number 10" and roaming Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez have taken advantage of that freedom to cause problems for defences throughout the campaign.
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Nancy says he looks for players who can thrive in such an approach.
"The type of profile that I'm looking for is one, effort, two, brain, and three, audacity," he said.
"If a player doesn't have the effort, he cannot play well. Audacity, because the way we want to play, we have to be audacious.
"When we are trying to be high on the pitch, we have to defend a big space. And sometimes the players don't want to do that because they have to take care of the ball, but also they have to defend behind. So that's why they have to be audacious for that.
"And the brain, because the way I see my job is to give structure, but to give the possibility to my players to express themselves," he said.
Audacity is certainly something Nancy himself has shown with his decisions to leave France and move to Canada and then depart his first job to take on another new challenge in Ohio.
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"For me, there is one virtue really important for me in life. This is courage. Without courage, you can't do anything. So, it's been in my life.
"I wanted to be a coach, I didn't know where, but I knew I wanted to coach. I'm happy because I am able to see a different culture, to grow as a man and grow as a coach," he said.
"It's my passion but it's also at the same time my job. I'm happy, it's as simple as that."