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Breakdown: Union vs Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Philadelphia Union vs Columbus Crew
Where: PPL Park
When: 3:30pm ET
TV: NBC Sports (formerly Versus)

The Columbus Crew have six points. The Union have one.

Clearly, points don’t tell the whole story.

Not that the Union deserve many more points than they have, but Columbus fans must wake up every day going, Six? Us???

Columbus? Not very good.

In losses to Colorado and New York they have been outplayed in almost every way. Only Omar Cummings’ mastery at missing chances kept the Crew’s opener against the Rapids from turning ugly, and three weeks later Kenny Cooper and Thierry Henry had no such trouble putting a combined four into the Columbus net.

Then where did the six points come from? Three came from Mark Geiger, whose atrocious handling of the match between the Crew and the Impact handed Columbus a face-slapper of a penalty before dropping a strange red card into a game that hardly needed it. The other three points are from a win over lowly Toronto, on a fortuitous goal that popped off a defender and settled back at the feet of the attacker who misplayed it in the first place. It wasn’t pretty but that’s what happens when you challenge a defense (hint-hint, Union).

Aside from the Toronto blunder and the laughable Geigergoal, the Crew have only netted twice this season. The first came against 10-man Montreal on a fine cross from Shaun Francis. The second was a corner in the dying seconds against New York, after the Red Bulls had grown fat and happy.

To summarize, the good news is that the Columbus Crew are not very good. In fact, there is an easy way to beat them.

The bad news? It requires doing something the Philadelphia Union have not done in 2012.

The gaps will be gaping. Use them.

When a team gives up four goals, and starts giving them up before the fifth minute, it’s worth looking at what the other guys were doing. Kenny Cooper’s second tally is a great example of the major weakness in the Columbus side that the Philadelphia Union can easily exploit. Ostensibly, the Crew play in a diamond 4-4-2 with Kirk Urso sweeping the midfield. In reality, this is rarely the case. Against both Colorado and New York, the Crew midfield became a flat line that rarely supported the first defender. This leaves a clear gap between the midfield and the back line, and if a player can sit in that gap, or if a good move can beat the first man: Chaos.

Kenny Cooper’s second goal is a perfect example. Dane Richards skips by his man and finds… nothing! The back four had actually dropped back to the penalty spot even though Richards had a man in front of him. The two left-sided defenders desperately try to adjust and step up but can’t get out of each other’s way. Richards decides to shoot even though a simple low cross would have created a 3 on 2 at the far post. A fortuitous bounce off a defender combined with the entire back line turning off allowed Kenny Cooper to finish the move anyways.

Henry's first against Columbus

If you are thinking, “Take on and beat a defender, then take a shot?? That’s not the Union I know!” then you really won’t like this second scenario.

While it’s easy enough for Dane Richards to beat his man, it’s even easier to make a pass into the enormous gap between the lines. New York’s third came on an incredibly simple play that shows how vulnerable the Columbus back four are if you attack them on the dribble. The midfielder in the center of the park has made a run past his defender and the Crew defense can’t figure out how to close him down while keeping an eye on Henry (top left). Their solution is to steadily back pedal until Gandalf shows up to save them. It won’t work. An easy ball to the striker would send him in unchallenged for the third goal of the match.

Attack with speed

Now, while it may be easy to find the big flaw with the Columbus setup, that doesn’t mean they will be easy to beat. This is not a defense that will hand you goals Tim Ream-style. You have to attack them and force these issues out into the open. Not exactly Philly’s strong suit.

The Union are likely to welcome Freddy Adu back into the first eleven. Either wide or up the middle, Adu must move to the gaps behind the midfield when the Union attack. And this isn’t attack in the typical Philly sense, where the ball must travel 1300 meters and touch every defender’s foot twice before it can go forward; attacks must be made with speed.

To this end, I issue a plea: Somebody sneak Amobi Okugo onto the field. I don’t care if he lowers the pass completion percentage a few points. The team needs a central midfielder who can work the ball forward with short passes while keeping an eye out for the long cross-field ball. I do not doubt that Gabe Gomez could fill this role, but the man who dinked balls over the US defense for Panama has had instructions to be within touching distance of Carlos Valdes when Philly brings the ball forward. If Gomez is going to be an out-and-out defensive midfielder, so be it. But that has to open the door for Okugo to become the link player that allows Adu, Keon Daniel, and Michael Farfan to receive the ball on the other team’s half of the pitch. That means the ball can be pushed forward before it is pushed wide. Everyone knows the Union don’t drive forward through the middle. The team – and Okugo – can use that to their advantage.

About those misfiring strikers…

Ditch ’em. A few years ago, Luciano Spaletti’s Roma went on a tear playing what amounted to a 4-6-0. Totti was ostensibly a striker, but he dropped so deep that there was no clear leader of the line. The Union have the personnel to pull this off even with Roger Torres out for two months.

Congratulations Keon Daniel. Your poise on the ball has earned you the title of semi-striker in this new format. With Brian Carroll sweeping behind Okugo and Gomez, the Union can keep Marfan on the left and let Adu drift around on the right.

If the ball comes into the center, Daniel checks wide, the wingers check inside, voila! Instant runs! If the ball is wide, Okugo, Gomez and Daniel are flying into the box. Meanwhile, the Columbus back line has nobody to mark! Pandemonium!

Maybe it won’t work. But maybe it will. And it can’t be worse than what we’ve seen so far this year.

Starting Lineups


  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Valdes, Califf, Garfan
  • MID: Adu, Gomez, Carroll, Okugo, Marfan, Daniel
  • FWD:


  • GK: Andy “Serkis” Gruenebaum
  • DEF: Sebastien “Le TwentyOne” Miranda, Chad “U.S.” Marshall, “Rhymin'” Eric Gehrig, Shaun “Steve” Francis
  • MID: “Captain” Kirk Urso, “Team” Edward Gaven, “Dodge” Milovan Mirosevic, Bernardo “Bernardo” Anor
  • FWD: Olman “Young Legs” Vargas, Emilio “The Mighty Duck” Renteria



  • OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion); MF Roger Torres (L knee MCL sprain);
  • PROBABLE: DF Danny Califf (L hamstring strain)


  • OUT: FW Ben Speas (sports hernia rehab); DF Rich Balchan (sports hernia rehab); FW Tommy Heinemann (L knee internal injury); DF Julius James (illness); GK William Hesmer (R ankle sprain)
  • QUESTIONABLE: DF Carlos Mendes (R hamstring strain); MF Danny O’Rourke (L ankle sprain)




  1. Carroll to Toronto for Ryan Johnson.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    Is this article written tongue and cheek? I sure hope so.

    • Why do you ask? Something not making sense?

      • The Black Hand says:

        It seems to me that our midfield has been our weakness so far this year. Mainly, the giant black hole between Carroll, and Gomez, and the forwards. Carroll, and Gomez, most often, seem quite reluctant to abandon their defensive posts. Gomez will roam a bit on attack, but mainly holds his ground. The problem being, that ground happens to be the same that Carroll occupies, making both players look confused and out of position. Adding Okugo to the mix just seems to further clog up the defensive middle of the pitch. Not to mention, Okugo brings very little to aid our severely gutless attack. Then you throw Adu, Marfan and Keon, (none of whom have finishing abilities), into the Center third, creating a midfield full of bodies with no passing lanes to escape with. The only game plan you are really left with is long balls over the top, hoping that someone can scramble free and track it down. We have tried this for three years, and it just doesn’t work. LeToux was super fast and got to a couple, but the majority just turned over possession. While I salute you on a truly Nowakian strategy, I feel we would be much better served by adding CAM (Adu) and abandoning the two back mid formation. It will spread out our midfield and focus more energy on the attack. That is if, (and that is a BIG if), Fred Adu shows up to play. If he does, we have found our missing link between the defense and attack. Marfan and Keon are quite effective on the flanks. We have skilled strikers that can finish, if they get quality balls fed to them.

      • I guess I would disagree with a few things. First, I argue that when Adu and Marfan shoot (or, in Marfan’s case, lob) they do possess decent finishing skills. Certainly Adu’s shooting on the U-23s is as good as anything demonstrated by the strikers this season. Second, as you can probably tell from the link in the piece, Okugo and Gomez would be playing slightly in front of Carroll and have the freedom to roam forward. Gomez in a more forward position is a dangerous creator for Panama (just as the US team) and Okugo’s ability to move the ball quickly (which he has demonstrated on the international level) is what I propose to solve the clogging up issue. Move the ball quickly to the wings, Keon checking back into that hole that we both agree needs to be filled… it’s not clogged, it’s opened up through movement. Putting players in the middle only stagnates play if they just stand there. Part of Roma’s success with this system came from confusion: Who does the defense mark? The Union’s strikers have been unable to create space for themselves this season. In a no-striker system, players must be moving into space up top rather than just standing and waiting. It’s a radical idea, but there’s evidence it has worked before. And it seems just as likely to work as Freddy Adu in the middle, since that never really has.

      • The Black Hand says:

        In theory, yes,I guess, it could technically work. However, the reality of the situation is; we don’t have players anywhere nearly as intelligent, or as skilled, as Roma had. It requires a lot of running off of the ball and “knowing” your position on the field. You, and I both, know that is not our strong suit, let’s be real. This is an extremely advanced formational scheme, that will leave our players running into eachother as many times as they will touch the ball. As far as who the defense would mark; they would implement a zonal defense and cover areas of the pitch and not the man. The Adu I have seen will shoot only as a last resort. Marfan, also, looks to pass before shoot. Keon has a lot of pace. I would trust in him to score more that a Jack Mac, but do you really think he would be a better finisher than Pajoy/Mwanga/Martinez? Also, Marfan and Adu provide no size to challenge crosses into the box. Keon has more vertically, but would easily be bodied off the ball. Pajoy, Mwanga and Martinez are better options offensively. We need to figure a way to link play to them, through the midfield, not disregard them completely. It just doesn’t seem realistic given our current state. It is drastic, and radical, but leaves a lot of talent off of the pitch. I don’t mean to pick at your formation. I am sure, given the talent and fine tuning, it could be quite effective; but we need to get three points on Saturday…bottom line. Now is not the time to wipe the board clean and start from scratch.

  3. I like this formation. Yeah it’ll require a little thinking from us but considering how we already kinda play with a little creative freedom to roam the field it wouldn’t be to hard for us to adapt to. It would be great to see Okugo breakout of his shell seems like hes holding back a bit when hes on the pitch. It really couldn’t hurt to try. If it doesn’t work then we go back to nowaks system of constant change. I think Keon has a hell of a shot. He ripped one the last home game and it was on target and had pace. I think given more chances and taking the chances he gets instead of passing he could be a quality finisher for us.

  4. I love that Adam somehow found a way to write a piece advocating a 4-6-0, and we’re not all thinking it’s crazy. Instead, we’re sitting here scratching our heads and saying, “Hmmm. It could … just … work. And he’s right, it couldn’t be worse.” Either Adam’s that brilliant, the Union have been that bad on the attack, or both.

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