© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Columbus Crew's Wilfried Nancy, the only Black head coach in MLS, looks to inspire as well as win

Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy directs his team.
Paul Vernon
/
AP
Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy directs his team against CF Montreal during the first half of an MLS soccer match in Columbus, Ohio, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023. Last season, Nancy's first with the Crew, he led the team to the MLS Cup championship. The 47-year-old Frenchman was the first Black coach to win it. On Saturday, the Crew will vie for another trophy in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final against Pachuca in Mexico.

As Columbus Crew coach Wilfried Nancy surveys the current landscape of Major League Soccer, it’s impossible for him to ignore that he’s the league’s only Black head coach.

To Nancy, that means the job is about more than victories and trophies — it's about leading by example and staying true to his values.

Last season, Nancy's first with the Crew, he led the team to the MLS Cup championship. The 47-year-old Frenchman was the first Black coach to win it. On Saturday, the Crew will vie for another trophy in the CONCACAF Champions Cup final against Pachuca in Mexico.

Related: Columbus Crew gearing up for Saturday's CONCACAF Champions Cup final in Mexico

"My definition of a success is, who do you want to become as a person, not as a player or as a professional person, but as a person?" he said. “So that’s why for me, the word fulfillment is a key word for me, because it means that I am aligned with my values, with my actions and, this is the most important for me, my thoughts. And because of that, I am at peace with what I do every day.”

The Crew had an impressive run in the Champions Cup, advancing on penalties after the two-legged quarterfinals against Tigres then embarrassing Monterrey 3-1 on its home field to win 5-2 on aggregate. Pachuca defeated Liga MX foe Club America 3-2 on aggregate.

In addition to a confederation trophy, the winner Saturday earns a spot in the FIFA Club World Cup, which will be feature an expanded field of 32 teams when it is next held in the United States in 2025.

Since his arrival last season, Nancy said, “the idea was to always focus on the next game, because every game is a new chapter, it’s a new story.”

Born in Le Havre, Nancy played as a defender across various French leagues before making the jump to coaching. He was a coach at the Montreal Impact Academy before he was promoted to assistant coach of the MLS club's first team in 2016.

Following the resignation of head coach Thierry Henry, Nancy was named coach of the team, now rebranded as Montreal CF, in 2021. He set a club record with 20 wins — including 11 road victories — in 2022 before taking the job with the Crew prior to last year's championship season.

Columbus (6-2-6) is riding a three-game winning streak this season in conference play and sitting in fifth in the Eastern Conference standings.

“I think he just does such a great job understanding everyone individually, what they can bring to the team, and not forgetting that they're human as well, and trying to connect with them that way,” Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe said.

Nancy points out that Major League Soccer is not an outlier when it comes to the lack of diversity among its head coaches. The Premier League had two Black managers this season, and just 11 in league history. There are no Black coaches in the top leagues in Spain and Germany.

Nancy said he's been working with MLS to address the issue of representation. In December 2021, the league updated its hiring policy to require “more robust consideration" of Black candidates. The third-tier MLS Next Pro league has 10 Black head coaches this season — an opportunity that could lead to senior team jobs.

“When you look at a team in general, in MLS or all over the world, there were a lot of Black players. Where are they now, when they want to become coaches? For me, I don’t have the answer," he said. "Because I’m trying to, at my level, to educate people, to inspire if I can."

Nancy is well aware that sports can be a force for change. He recounted a recent encounter when a man thanked him for bringing his family back together as fans at Crew games. It reminded him of the gravity of his position.

“This is a passion for me, and it goes beyond the winning part because we all want to win. You’re in your job, you want to win because you have a competitive spirit,” he said. “What can I do to change a little bit the mentality of everyone, because of what I do?"