NancyBall Finally Found True Form With Deal That Brought Amundsen
By JEFF RUETER Jeff Rueter covers soccer for The Athletic.
Malte Amundsen began the 2023 M.L.S. season expecting to keep the Columbus Crew from winning the M.L.S. Cup. Instead, he sealed the deal on their third league title — and he won’t feel remotely bad about that.
The left back was a starter for a new-look New York City F.C. side that bore little resemblance to the roster that won the M.L.S. Cup just two seasons earlier. Amundsen had played only a small part in that 2021 win over the Portland Timbers, entering the game in stoppage time and not taking part in the decisive penalty shootout.
Meanwhile, the Columbus Crew was feeling good about their left flank. The new coach, Wilfried Nancy, had unlocked something special in Will Sands, who was only 22.
Nancy’s team still had some kinks to work out as the season neared the month of May. Its freeflowing soccer bore glimpses of promise in the early weeks of the season, but a 1-1-2 record entering an April 22 match at Charlotte had it tied for 18th in the league standings.
In the seventh minute of that match, Sands tore his anterior cruciate ligament. Two days later, the Crew moved to replace their young starter, and New York City F.C. decided that $500,000 of allocation money was more valuable toward its rebuild than a starting left back, sending Amundsen to Columbus. Amundsen had experienced success in the league, was still just 25 years old, and had a fairly modest salary of $338,700.
And 229 days after that, Amundsen was back in an M.L.S. Cup final — this time among the starters. With one meticulous prod of the ball, he set up what would be the decisive goal for his new team as it held off the defending champions.
Mere minutes after Columbus had taken a lead on a penalty kick, Amundsen sent a perfectly weighted pass spanning 115 feet, threading the defense, to Yaw Yeboah.
“I think we’ve seen that a couple of times this year, Malte playing that pass,” midfielder Aidan Morris said after the game. “I’ve been out there a few times in training after, like doing a drill, and seeing him work on it with Yaw, just them two out there. I think their relationship is amazing.
“Every single time, actually, it surprised me like, ‘wow, he went for it.’”
After beating L.A. goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau one-on-one, Yeboah buried a shot from just over 8 yards out.
“We know that anyone who gets the ball can score,” Yeboah said. “We always want to attack, we always want to go, and that’s what we’ve been doing the whole year. We’ve been scoring a lot of goals. I just found myself to be in a good position and a good pass from Malte. For me, it was an amazing goal for me to score.”
It’s a popular convention to term a coach’s approach as “(Surname)Ball.” In Europe, prominent examples in recent years include SarriBall’s brief heyday with Napoli and Chelsea, BielsaBall at Leeds’ best or AngeBall in Tottenham’s newly installed leadership. The shorthand itself takes some inspiration from the book “Moneyball,” but the intended message is the same: You’ll clearly recognize this coach’s philosophy by even casually viewing their team in action.
In M.L.S., however, it’s seldom applied with a serious tone of respect. In part, that’s because it’s hard to find truly singular ideologies in a league with so many teams that try to keep a solid defensive shape and capitalize in transition.
In that sense, NancyBall feels truly revolutionary on these shores. Here’s a tactician who wants the ball in an era of counterpressing (which, of course, still did wonders this year for teams like St. Louis City S.C.). Rather than focusing his team’s movement on tracking the opponent’s passing patterns, he’s emboldening his players to dictate the flow of the game. Players are constantly in motion, floating like
The coach’s tactics seem revolutionary on these shores.
chess pieces rather than running themselves into the ground.
Although M.L.S. Cup celebrations are always full of jubilation, this year’s afterparty felt even more intrinsic. Even players who were brought on late to ice the game or didn’t take the field at all were queuing up to gleefully hug their coach.
“That’s what Wilfried does,” the captain Darlington Nagbe said. “Knowing the tactical side of the game and planning and everything like that. Making sure he’s managing guys right, putting guys in the right mind frame to go out there and compete every single time.”
It’s a copycat sport. The way this team played with style may inspire other teams to dream of being more than counterattacking opportunists. More coaches may want to be associated with a certain brand of soccer like Nancy has become, rather than prioritizing the pragmatic hunt for results over allowing players to joyfully take to the field. Everyone grows up wanting to win, but that ball from Amundsen? That’s the stuff of playground dreams for kids around the world.
Perhaps it’s the dawn of an M.L.S. era with greater tactical variation across its teams. Only time will tell. Until that answer is borne out, however, we’ll have this Columbus Crew: the most entertaining team in the league. And now its champion.
New York Times