A View from Afar / Union

Columbus match an early litmus test for Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

This Saturday’s home match against Columbus provides an early litmus test for Philadelphia Union.

Columbus comes into the game looking impressive on paper, at 2-0-0 and with a win over defending champs Toronto FC.

But as they showed in their Jekyll-and-Hyde performance last weekend against Montreal, they are vulnerable to a team like the Union. Now we’ll see if the Union can put Columbus to the sword in what could serve as an interesting litmus test on how good the home side is and can be.

Columbus exposed by Montreal

At home last Saturday, Columbus spent the first half slapping Montreal around. The Impact sat back and hoped to absorb pressure and kill Columbus on the counterattack.

Instead, center midfielders Wil Trapp and Artur spent the first half dropping dimes with perfectly weighted full-field switches. Absent defensive pressure, Columbus’s midfielders found plenty of time and space, as did their back five, who religiously played the ball on the ground and out of the back. Two Columbus set pieces led to goals that put them up 2-0 at the half.

Then Montreal head coach Remi Garde made a halftime change that laid out the playbook for how to pound Columbus.

Montreal began pressuring Columbus high up the pitch. Defensive midfielder Samuel Piette spent the second half as a bulldog attached to Artur and Trapp.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s attackers defensively closed down the Columbus back five, including goalkeeper Zack Steffen, as they continued playing the ball on the ground, even under pressure in dangerous spots. This forced turnovers deep in the Columbus half that gave Montreal the ball back in good positions.

In attack, inverted left winger Nacho Piatti and Montreal’s left back, Lower Merion’s own Daniel Lovitz, ran rampant through right back Harrison Afful and his right midfield compatriot, Pedro Santos. Lovitz looked like an all-star in that second half, consistently finding open space on the overlap to send in pinpoint crosses that eventually created a goal.

Montreal tied up the match, and only an unfortunate late penalty gave Columbus the win.

Potentially perfect weaknesses for the Union

All that bodes potentially well for Philadelphia. Here’s why.

First, defensively:

  • The Union like to press. (Maybe not to the degree of Kansas City and the Red Bulls, but it’s there.)
  • C.J. Sapong is as good a defensive forward as there is in MLS.
  • In Anthony Fontana, Fabian Herbers, and particularly Alejandro Bedoya, they have three players who will put in the defensive effort high up field. (Borek Dockal will play, but he probably won’t start.)

On the other side of the ball, Columbus’s right side is just asking for David Accam to run through it like a hot knife through butter. When they are inevitably forced to collapse with numbers on Accam, it creates space for Fabinho to overlap on the left, just like Lovitz did last week.

Now, the litmus test

That’s an oversimplification, of course, that doesn’t take into account Columbus’s strengths. In Federico Higuain, they feature the craftiest playmaker in MLS. Their fullbacks are outstanding in attack. Their center midfield is as good a group of passers as you’ll find around the league.

But every team has their strengths and weaknesses.

We’ll see Saturday whether the Union can exploit Columbus’s weaknesses while protecting their own.

The Union’s defensive weaknesses begin exactly where you don’t want them, giving the clever Higuain the league’s youngest pair of starting center backs, no true No. 6 destroyer to shield them, and questions on the left side. (David Accam was solid defensively against a 10-men New England side, but Columbus generally plays with 11. They will probably target Accam and Fabinho.) It’s not enough for just a few Union players to pressure Columbus. It has to be coordinated, with effort across the board. If Accam takes plays off defensively, Columbus will find that Afful, one of the league’s best attacking right backs, is a safe outlet from pressure.

After a very positive opening day and amid a fairly lenient schedule to open the season, this match provides an early test of how good the Union can be. Columbus is a good team, but they’re also a team made for beating by the Union.

Miscellaneous notes from around the league
  • Philly area products make good: Lovitz had an absolutely monster game against Columbus, and the return of Jeff Larentowicz to defensive midfield for Atlanta basically made the difference in turning that club’s fortunes around after their awful opening day. We didn’t hand out a Player of the Week award this week because the Union didn’t play. That was my call, and it was probably a mistake, because these two Philadelphia-area natives were absolutely deserving of recognition.
  • Gyasi Zardes comeback: Zardes has three games in two games for Columbus, but let’s not cue up the hype train just yet. His first goal against Montreal bounced off his leg and into the net as much as it was consciously directed by him. His second goal was a blasted penalty kick winner that Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush guessed right on but couldn’t stop. Zardes works best when he has a simple game to play, and with Columbus, he does, as they do a great job providing service to their center forwards, whoever it is. But he still has something to prove.
  • Champions League: You now have permission to root for the New York Red Bulls. Just saying.

12 Comments

  1. I fully expect Bedoya to take Higuain out of this match, unless the coaches decide he should be further up the pitch annoying their CM with the whole team doing a full court press. Probably depends on if Fontana starts or not.

  2. Great analysis, Dan. You promise Adam Cann isn’t ghostwriting for you? ;o)

    Even with all the potential offensive weapons, the U. will have to learn how to balance Dockal running the offense vs. Medunjanin running the offense. It will take some time to get that right, and it probably won’t go right this match, especially if Dockal isn’t starting, as you surmise.

    We are going to need Medunjanin — and Elliott — to try hitting a bunch of long balls to Accam in order to keep Afful honest and prevent him from getting too offensively aggressive. I think a potential problem for the Union is that Trapp is so good that he might just mark Medunjanin out of the game. If that happens, and Fontana is not studly beyond his years, there may be no one to get the ball to our wingers, Columbus’ fullbacks surge forward, and we got trouble.

    • Totally possible. If Trapp is marking Medunjanin, then we need to take advantage of the fact that the Crew will have 3 men basically up with out CBs and destroy them either over the top or with Sapong/CAM dropping into the huge space that will be vacated by Trapp. Definitely going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

    • You got this spot on. Trapp marking Medunjanin is my biggest fear for this game.

  3. Spot on, Dan. As I was watching the Crew match, the right side was on the attack during Columbus’ ascent, but Afful pushes so far up the pitch there will be a lot of space for Accam to find.

  4. Does it make sense to start Jones as a true #6 to try to take Higuain out of the game and provide more cover for back line, pushing Bedoya up to the wing to help Fontana?

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Myself, I would not think so because of the degree of offense sacrificed with Medunjanin off the pitch, wbev.

      • Sorry OSC, I also meant to push Medunjanin up to #8.
        Spine of Jones, Medunjanin, Fonanta/Dockal, with Bedoya and Accam on the wings.

    • I feel like we should do this in matches with teams with great midfields, because with just HAris and Bedoya back there we lack defense.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Most enjoyable to have you back writing, Dan. Hope it continues.

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