Cucho Hernandez was named the Player of the Match after Columbus Crew’s win on Saturday night in the MLS Cup Final, but it’s the performance from left-back Malte Amundsen that has the soccerati talking.
The defense-splitting pass from Amundsen in the 37th minute was easily the most exquisite through-ball played in MLS this year. There was nothing flashy about it. Amundsen received the ball in the center circle, then delivered a low, crisp pass upfield.
But that simple ball play neutralized six LAFC players as it traveled one-third of the field to find the feet of a Yaw Yeboah running at the goal. Yeboah controlled the ball with one touch, then scored with the next, logging what would prove to be the title-winning goal.
Usually, it’s the scorers who get the headlines, but the piece Jeff Reuter wrote for The Athletic correctly looked at Amundsen’s “iconic assist” as not just the key moment in this specific game, but as an example of why Columbus lifted the MLS Cup in their first season under head coach Wilfried Nancy.
This isn’t a book report on Reuter’s piece — you should go ahead and read it for yourself. Instead, we’ll use it as a jumping-off point. The article opens with a simple statement of fact: Amundsen started the season not with Columbus but with New York City FC, where he struggled to find minutes under head coach Nick Cushing. A regular starter for NYCFC in 2021 and 2022, Amundsen didn’t play a single minute under Cushing in the nine games he was with the team in 2023. Zero starts, zero substitutions, zero minutes: The player who was instrumental in the Crew’s win never stepped on the field for New York City this year.
Amundsen had lost his spot to Braian Cufré, a 26-year-old Argentine on loan from Mallorca, and when he was traded to Columbus for $500,000 in General Allocation Money in April, it must have come as a relief. Nancy needed a replacement for the injured Will Sands (who himself is a product of the NYCFC Academy and the brother of New York City holding midfielder James Sands), and Amundsen knew he was going to get the chance to show he deserved to start.
He did more than that. Amundsen flourished in Nancy’s free-flowing system of overlapping attacks, scoring three key goals for his new team.
The truth is that Amundsen was never a great fit at NYCFC, where he was brought in to compete for left wing-back. Amundsen is a solid player, but he didn’t quite have the speed or technical skills to flourish in that role. He often found himself isolated when he made flanking runs, or caught out of position when New York City lost possession.
He didn’t perform much better as a defender, to be honest. Amundsen didn’t distinguish himself in the air, or in ground duels, or in defensive actions.
But Nancy didn’t want a left wing-back. He wanted a left-footed center-back in a back-three anchored by Rudy Camacho in the middle.
Amundsen had to make adjustments under Nancy to grow into the position. Fortunately, Nancy is a patient head coach. It helped that the gaffer had a jacked lineup: Columbus were a complete squad, with strong players at every position. That lineup played to Amundsen’s strengths, and compensated for his weaknesses. It worked. Amundsen scored three goals in 22 appearances for Columbus, equaling the three scored by Yeboah and Darlington Nagbe. That put him in the 98% for goal-scoring defenders in the league.
He never became an elite defender, but that didn’t matter in Nancy’s system. His ball movement, and his interplay with midfielders Yeboah, Nagbe, and Aidan Morris, made Amundsen one of the Crew’s key players.
Which prompts the question: Could Amundsen have made the same impact at NYCFC?
Possibly, but the exceptions at the club this past season wouldn’t have allowed him the time to develop and play a different role. An NYCFC that was without a striker or a clear starting goalkeeper was talking about finishing higher in the table than last year’s third place, and there was no room to change the system.
Amundsen arguably could have stepped into the left center-back position vacated by the offseason departure of Alex Callens, but the club didn’t see him filling that role in a back-four or a back-three. Instead, they chose to reposition the right-footed Maxime Chanot on the left, and wait for the left-footed Birk Risa to become available in the summer transfer window.
The 2024 preseason officially started today, and now we can look back on how these transactions played out. NYCFC received that $500,000 in GAM, and didn’t have to cover Amundsen’s $338,700 salary. Instead, New York City paid Cufré $757,000, which means that NYCFC might have saved a little pocket money on the transaction.
Then again, Cufré played just one minute in the final five games of the season after he lost the starting position to the more attack-minded Kevin O’Toole. Those final five games also represent NYCFC’s best run of form all season: With three wins and one draw, the team took 10 out of a possible 15 points.
Cufré is back with Mallorca now that his loan is over, and NYCFC are presumably in the market for another left-back to compete for the Starting XI.
As for Columbus, there’s no question which defender Nancy is going to start on the left when the 2024 season opener rolls around.