The Crew hopes ‘freshness’ after off weekend leads to success in another congested stretch

Prior to an off weekend last week, the Columbus Crew face its first tight schedule of the 2023 season. The Crew played three games in an eight-day span, losing both in Major League Soccer play and squeaking by USL Championship side Indy Eleven 1-0 in the U.S Open Cup third round.

By nature of MLS’s unbalanced schedule, the Black & Gold then got some respite with no game last Saturday. It was a needed break and one that was taken by Columbus.

Following Saturday’s 2-1 loss at Field to Inter Miami, the Crew did not return to training early in the week but rather was off until Thursday. Head coach Wilfried Nancy intentionally gave his team the time off, even with the recent struggles, in order to provide a mental reprieve as much as a physical one.

“The idea was to give them the freshness to think about something else, to think about some else than football, soccer, because we’ve been behind them all the time and giving them a lot of information,” Nancy explained on Tuesday. “And I believe that, as a human being, you need to rest your brain. So this is what they did.”

And it wasn’t just the players who had time off as well. Despite back-to-back MLS losses, Nancy believed his staff also needed to get away from work in one of the few opportunities to do so throughout a season.

“Really important,” Nancy said of rest for his coaches. “Because again, the difficult part in our job is we want to control everything and we can’t and sometimes emotionally, it’s difficult. So the more I’m getting older, the more I believe that freshness also for us is really important. It doesn’t mean that we don’t work hard. We work really hard. It doesn’t mean that we relax all the time. No. We work really hard. But at the same time, to be able to be efficient, to be good also on the pitch, to have a clear mind, to have good ideas and creativity about what we want to do, to try to figure it out, freshness is really important. So for the staff, it was the same.”

Freshness was a word used frequently by Nancy when speaking to the local media on Tuesday. It’s something the team should have coming out of the off weekend but it may not last all that long.

On Wednesday, the Black & Gold travel to Leesburg, Virginia for an Open Cup Round of 32 matchup with Loudoun United FC of the USL Championship. Columbus is back home on Saturday for an important MLS match against Orlando City SC. The following Wednesday, the Crew welcomes the LA Galaxy to Field. 

It’s another three games in eight days.

This is once again a congested schedule for the Black & Gold and one the team will have to navigate. It also is often a more preferable schedule for many players rather than training for five days between games.

“I think I prefer to play games back-to-back,” wing back Mohamed Farsi said on Wednesday. “I think it’s in the game that you learn more. But it’s hard to deal with when you play Saturday-Wednesday, some hard games and especially our style that we run a lot on the pitch. But I think we have a good staff. After the game, we recover well so we’re ready to go game after game.”

The Columbus players and staff have made it clear that they don’t view any competition as secondary. The Crew at least says the team wants to win each game. Therefore, Nancy won’t rest players just to rest players in certain matches, which was apparent in the Open Cup game against Indy when the Black & Gold had as many as six players who could argue are first-team starters in the opening 11. 

But in order to play the way Columbus wants, with movement and energy, Nancy needs his team fresh.

“We need freshness to be able to be good,” he said. “And what does it mean? It means I’m going to rotate. I’m going to rotate. I don’t know how, how many players. But for sure, in terms of the idea is to be able to repeat the style of play that we want to put in place, and for that, we need freshness.”

Because of this, the Crew’s approach to training is less about certain players doing certain things, although that is also a factor, and more about concepts. Starters and backups work together in practice, rotating in different groups to make sure any player is ready to step in and execute when needed.

From there, Nancy and his staff look for specific profiles that they believe will be successful against the next opponent.

“That’s why yes, we like to change, we like to modify, we like to put players in other positions because the more they’re going to do it on the pitch, the more they’re going to be confident to do it also in the game,” Nancy explained. “So that’s why this is the main topic. This is not the players. This is the ball and the concept. This is for me, the most important.”

What will make this difficult over the coming week with three games to play is the unknown. The Black & Gold coaches can hope to play certain players for certain minutes or make substitutions at a certain point in the match, but they can’t predict how a game will go. There can be a minutes restrictions for certain players, as there was for forward Cucho Hernandez against Indy Eleven, but injuries, unexpected fatigue or a match not playing out the way Columbus expected can quickly change a plan.

It will once again be up to Nancy and his staff on how to handle this next week and players to be ready to go when their number is called upon in three matches in eight days.

“This is the process that we have to be good and sometimes it’s not easy,” Nancy said. “And again, I can change. But sometimes also, because I don’t know, the game will be the way, I can stay also with the same team. So it depends, it really depends. But the idea is freshness and do we rotate or not depending on what we want to do.”

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