Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

What: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew

Where: Columbus Crew Stadium, which is round on the ends and high in the middle

When: 5:00 pm EST

Watch: Live Well, UniMas, MLS Live

Fast Facts

  • The Union have never earned a point in Crew Stadium.
  • Five of the Crew’s six goals have been assisted.
  • Both teams will wear special shoelaces to raise autism awareness.
  • The Crew haven’t lost at home since a July 14, 2012 shutout against Kansas City.
  • The Crew beat the Union twice last year with late goals – in the 95th and 87th minutes.
  • Of the Columbus team that took the field last time the Union beat the Crew, only Chad Marshall and Andy Gruenebaum are likely starters tomorrow.

In the 2011 season that saw the Philadelphia Union earn the franchise’s first playoff berth, no team in the Eastern Conference earned as many road points as the boys in blue and gold. That said, Columbus Crew have turned their home stadium into a fortress of late, and they ride a 10-game unbeaten streak into their meeting with the Union.

New Crew

Last year, the Crew relied on a pair of mid-season additions to lift them into the playoff hunt. Head coach Robert Warzycha spent the winter looking to make his team more dynamic and, thus far, the results have been impressive. Six goals in three road games would be enough to serve notice that this Columbus team can score, but it is the distribution of production that truly stands out.

Right back Josh Williams leads the team with two goals, and all four regular front players have chipped in to round out the scoring. To steal a point or more in Ohio, the Union have some clear objectives on both sides of the ball. And we say the Union, not the players, because it all starts with John Hackworth.

Changes in the midfield?

Remember when Justin Mapp was on the wing and, instead of playing defense, he would sit high and wait for an outlet pass? Remember how Peter Nowak said that was the strategy?

Those … were the days?

Under Hackworth, nothing resembling a midfield strategy has yet materialized. Danny Cruz still hasn’t caught that butterfly he’s been chasing, Michael Farfan is trying so hard to make plays that he forgets to get into good positions to make them, and the strikers are checking back so far into the midfield that they’re hailing cabs to get them back to the front line.

There are two short-term solutions: Either the ball starts moving through the middle much quicker, or the team makes a commitment to short passing and moving forward as a unit. Thus far the plan has been slow side-to-side movement and lots of space, which even Guy Fieri can tell you is a recipe for getting your fullbacks isolated and dispossessed.

What worked last year

Columbus has given up four goals in the last three games and they remain susceptible to the long ball over the top. With fullbacks that push forward and central defenders that push high to support the midfield, playing quick and creating depth may be the best way for the Union to go tomorrow. In their final match against the Crew last year, the Union fought back by using McInerney and Hoppenot’s speed to stretch the game and keep the Crew from consolidating the midfield. With Le Toux joining McInerney up top, the Union can again opt for a dump and follow plan, though they must go all-in on it. Cruz is never going to pick his head up, and Michael Lahoud is going to continue acting as an advanced defender on the wing. The Farfans, Keon Daniel, and Kleberson should be in the selection mix, with the goal being fast, forward movement in possession.

Where does this leave Brian Carroll?

The Union captain’s passing range has been as accurate as a cable news pundit this season. Keeping things simple should resolve this issue somewhat, but that simplicity must be complemented by a drastically increased speed of play. Lateral ball movement is only difficult for a defense to handle if it is done with tempo.

Time to get crazy?

There are three things the Union can focus on defensively to control the potent Columbus offense. The first was harped on in this very column last week, and since it did not happen, I can only conclude that the technical staff is not following the Philly Soccer Page as closely as one might assume. Organized pressure is, of course, the topic at hand. A key moment in the New York match came when the Red Bulls were able to string together enough passes to move from the half line to the top of the box. The Union midfield chased the ball instead of defaulting into a good shape, and only the scrambling work of Parkugo neutralized the threat. High pressure is a good system for the modern game, provided there is a goal in mind. Running willy-nilly at the ball carrier is a strategy for dominance in U-8 rec leagues, but once the other team figures out the whole passing thing, a more nuanced defensive approach should be designed.

The second goal is controlling the Crew’s wide backs. Tyson Wahl and Josh Williams help Columbus play a possession game and work with the team’s fast wingers to create holes in the defensive lines. These holes are exactly where the talented Federico Higuain pops up and wreaks havoc.

And Higuain is, quite obviously, the final piece of the puzzle. Controlling the playmaker is key to defeating the Columbus Crew, and leaving him unmuzzled is the equivalent to starting Porfirio Lopez in all four defensive positions simultaneously.

How to handle Higgy?

Do the Union drop Brian Carroll deeper than normal to shadow Higuain? Or do they stick to zones and hope to contain the shifty Argentinian? Kleberson’s status will answer these questions. If he plays in the center, Carroll must take on a pure midfield sweeper role.

If Kleberson doesn’t start, the Union may revert to the so-called empty bucket (though who knows what is in this bucket? Why can’t it just be a bucket? Is a 4-2-3-1 a full bucket?), which would allow Carroll to follow Higuain while someone else (likely Lahoud) stays more central.


Why even bother? Here is what will happen:

  1. The Union come out in a 4-4-2 and try to play from Carroll to the wingbacks to the wingers to the strikers. The wingbacks get isolated and boot it long. High pressure earns a corner kick, or the ball comes back the other way.
  2. The Union come out in a 4-1-4-1 and the striker gets so isolated he starts dropping back into the midfield, which makes Carroll’s clearances from the top of the box look like they’re aimed at nobody (which they aren’t … because nobody is up there). Eventually the fullbacks get some overlapping runs going on and a few shots from the top of the 18 go over the bar. Cut to frustrated faces.

The above options are not prescriptions for failure; just look at the Colorado and New England scorelines. Nor are they indicative of a team growing into an understanding of its capabilities. Where to be? Where to go?

Just getting Michael Farfan on the ball more often changes the complexion of a game. Whether Farfan is feeling it or not, the opposing defense is going to be a lot more cautious if he is looking for options than if Brian Carroll is over the ball. Understanding how to make these tactical tweaks to psychologically poke the opposition is the bare minimum that the coaching staff should be contributing between games. Let’s see if the Union can put together a full 90 tomorrow.



  • GK: Zac MacMath
  • DEF: Sheanon Williams, Amobi Okugo, Jeff Parke, Raymon Gaddis
  • MID: Michael Farfan, Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, Kleberson, Danny Cruz
  • FWD: Jack McInerney


  • GK: Andy Gruenebaum
  • DEF: Josh Williams, Glauber, Chad Marshall, Tyson Wahl
  • MID: Dom Oduro, Danny O’Rourke, Augustin Viana, Ben Speas
  • FWD: Federico Higuain, Jairo Arrieta


  1. JediLos117 says:

    Very good preview.
    It important to note that four of Columbus’ goals have come from set pieces…so the Union have to limit fouls in thier own half to a minimum.
    I’m looking for a single point from this game…4-2-3-1 may just get us a 0-0 scoreline.

  2. Does anyone know why torres is getting the macinerney treatment from last season? We all know what hopponeot can do, but does anyone know what torres can do?

  3. If they start a 4-2-3-1, I prefer Casey up top for his aerial prowess.

    • JediLos117 says:

      Casey def has that aerial prowess…but at this point he also has some questions surrounding fitness, do you think he could go +/- 70 mins?
      I would prefer and wouldnt be surprised to see Le Toux as the lone striker if we go with that lineup. He did have some success against SKC in that role and he can cover a lot of ground for 90.
      I like Adam’s lineup for the most part. I would switch Le Toux for McInerney and G. Farfan for Gaddis.
      C’mon U!

  4. I completely disagree with this lineup, we can’t concede that they’re way better and just sit back and hope a long ball connects.really though the most obvious point is that our forwards are actually a strength this year, and our midfield is horrendously bad. So why take off a forward and put ANOTHER middie on?
    That being said, I don’t think this lineup will happen because Hackworth wouldn’t start Letoux on the bench, just won’t happen. If you keep this formation, assuming the Union will take at least a semi cautious approach against a good opponent on the road, at least keep some offense in the game.
    Lineup: 4-2-3-1
    Williams, Okugo, Parke, Gaddis
    Kleberson, Carroll
    Letoux, Torres, Marfan
    I know Torres is on the missing persons report these days, but a guy can be hopeful right? Late in the game you bring on Casey for Mac, Hoppenot for Letoux or Martan, and Lehoud/Daniel for a middie. Just my 2 cents

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