Match previews

Preview: Union vs Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Columbus Crew
What: MLS Regular Season Game #15
Where: PPL Park
When: 7:30pm
Watch: CSN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Silviu Petrescu; Asst. 1: Gregory Barkey; Asst. 2: Kevin Klinger; Fourth Official: Jose Carlos Rivero

The Columbus Crew have been jealously looking up the table at the Philadelphia Union all season. How can they trail a team that has given up 11 more goals than they have? How many times can this team steal away points at the end of a match?

And how do you stop Jack McInerney?

When Philadelphia trundled over to Columbus on April 6th, Jack McInerney was still considered something of an amusement to much of MLS. The pesky little striker that couldn’t stop chances from falling into his lap. Against the Crew, Danny Cruz found a willing dance partner in Tyson Wahl and promptly spun him around the floor, assisting on McInerney’s goal and providing a delicious opportunity for Conor Casey to show the camera where just a few of the empty seats in Crew Stadium gather to watch games.

That first half miss would come back to haunt the Union when Dominic Oduro—he of the higher goal/SOG percentage than Jack McInerney—flashed a shot inside Zac MacMath’s near post.

Since the teams last met the Union are 3-3-3 while the Crew are 2-3-3. Philly holds a two-point advantage in the table after playing one more match than Columbus.

Indeed, Columbus and Philadelphia are joined by New England in a firmly established mid-table grouping consisting of “teams that score about as many as they let in”. Subtract the odd, high scoring win over LA from New England and they are about even. Slice off the extra insurance goals from the Union’s season and you see a team that is going to score and be scored on often, and at about the same rate.

The lessons from European soccer apply here: Everybody is likely to do about the same, overall, against non-similar teams. It is your record against teams near you in both the standings and in ability that you must conquer to leap that small hurdle into the next bracket.

Crew report

Columbus has been fairly adept at following the script. They have topped cellar dwellers like Toronto and DC United while going even against the Union and earning a sneaky point against Houston, New York and Montreal. These results suggest the Crew may be slightly closer to making the desperate leap into that upper bracket than the Union, who have yet to show they can hang with the big boys of the East.

Surprising productivity from Dom Oduro has been aided by another solid season from Federico Higuain. The Argentinian has four goals and three assists, and seems fully capable of dominating a match any time he is in space. He is a willing hub and a surprisingly mobile player who doesn’t need to be in his favorite area to feel comfortable. Higuain is a classic number ten in that he boosts the performances of those around him, with Ben Speas and Eddie Gaven the recipients of Higuain’s royal treatment. Gaven and his three assists are out for the season after tearing an ACL, but Speas is growing in confidence and looking to make a bigger mark on the league.

The Crew have proven to be every bit as dangerous on the road as they are at home. Ten goals in eight road matches makes them the only team outside of the playoff picture with a positive road goal differential (you’ll never guess the only team in the picture with a negative road goal differential).

Union update

A typical Union side displayed another disjointed performance against Toronto last weekend. Instead of seeing improvements from a team that has had plenty of time to get used to each other on the pitch, fans are being treated to an early season marching band practice with all pieces moving independently across the field.

Typical, yes. A disaster? Only if it doesn’t work. And though few would dispute that a ten-man Toronto team about as beatable as a friend’s Rock Band drum set when you’re drunk, the Union conceded first and needed MagIcnerney to save them.

Dropping points against teams like Toronto is troubling but far from a death knell. Entering a stretch in which the Union play Houston, New York, Real Salt Lake and Dallas, the team knows that the onus is on them to pick up three points at least once the two week international break ends.

Tactical thoughts

Speed. The key to a good transition is speed of play, and Philadelphia needs more of it.

Considering the swift players the Union can put on the pitch, the transition game remains labored in development. Amobi Okugo often looks for a quick break, but unless he puts a ball over the top, Philadelphia will rarely find the push to get from back to front before the opponent can respond.

An odd facet of the Philadelphia offense is a willingness to stretch themselves vertically in possession. When the ball is put over the top and run down by a dogged striker, the rest of the team shapes up to give lots of depth rather than to provide options in the final third. Instead of midfielders coming tight to make multiple options available – a central midfielder, a defender (within eight yards) – the team will settle for a spacious offense that requires the ball to move all the way to the central defenders before it can reach the other side of the pitch.

This may be par for the course when the opposition is particularly well-organized, but against most opponents, final third interplay should allow the ball to be moved side to side without regressing to the deepest defenders. It is this lateral movement that allows runners to sneak in at the back post even once the break has been controlled.

The Crew do have a well-organized defense, led by Andy Gruenebaum in goal. But, as the Union showed in April, get behind them and they will not recover well. Columbus needs to be mistake-free in the back to win, and against a timid opponent they often can be. Giving up high goal totals seemed to make the Union more cautious against Toronto, and Jonathan Osorio’s header certainly did not help.

However, a lack of depth likely means the Union will be back with the same defensive five this week, and they must, eventually, step up and organize themselves in front of a mercurial goalie who is still soul-searching for his own consistency.

Key matchup: Danny Cruz vs 4-4-2

Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel are out of form. The Union can either draft someone new to play on the wing or plug in Sebastien Le Toux in a more 4-3-3ish formation. In either case, Danny Cruz will have to show more discipline than he has in recent weeks. While showing an incredibly high work rate, Cruz has not been using his energy intelligently. He doesn’t take angles when applying pressures and he plays defense as a lone vigilante instead of as part of the midfield.

Defense is about structure and organization. With Cruz’s work rate, he should be able to get back into position and still be a useful member of the attack. If he can develop more discipline, it will help the Union immensely against teams like Columbus that have a playmaker who will happily move out to the wing if that is where the space is.

Key matchup: John Hackworth vs same-old, same-old

Should Philadelphia come out playing at the same level they showed against Toronto, John Hackworth needs to have answers ready at halftime. The late game, point-saving goals are becoming more and more miraculous, and the quality of chances created is going down. While the coach’s hand should be nowhere near the panic button, his ability to judge the readiness and form of his regulars is under fire after a series of plodding showings.

Hack came in with a reputation as a good developer with a strong eye for talent. As a head coach, he needs to look beyond talent to see form and confidence. Just as baseball players will get a day off when they’re struggling or hockey players will get a mental day up in the press box, Hackworth needs to know when to hand out breaks and who he can rely on to capably fill in when it’s time to ring in changes.

Giving McInerney and Okugo their shot paid off and earned the coach a lot of leash. More recent decisions have been less decisively positive. Hackworth is entering the toughest part of the season with the minutes spread among a minimum of players. How he mixes in the less prominent members of the roster will be a huge test for an inexperienced head coach.

Prediction: Union 0-1 Columbus

A loss to Columbus is the wake up call the coaching staff needs to show them this team needs, at the very least, a tactical rethink. Jack McInerney may yet bail the team out, but eventually a loss in a winnable match like this is going to open the eyes of those who think the current strategy is on course for success.

Suggested Lineup



  1. Michael Farfan at right back?! Really???

    • Adam Cann says:

      Two reasons, one much larger than the other: 1) He can cross well with his right foot, 2) There isn’t anyone else.

      • George H says:

        Farfan ably played at right back a few times during his rookie year.

        I like this proposed line-up a lot.

  2. Kenso Josh says:

    This line-up is Nowakian. We need a shake-up but not players out of position. I like the 4-2-3-1, tho.

    Gaddis, Okugo, Parke, Anding (Sheanon is out of form)
    Fernandes Carroll Torres Cruz
    Hoppenot, JMac

    • Sheanon is not out of form, He has no support in front of him due to Cruz. I like Cruz for his work rate but he is not productive. Keon shouldnt be starting over Torres. they lack midfield and that is what needs to be changed…the back line is fine and so if the front..but when there is no chemistry in the midfield the whole team looks bad.

      • I agree with everything you said except saying Williams is out of form. He looked really out of sorts last game

      • *not out of form

      • Jim Presti says:

        I disagree that Williams is out of form. He often struggles from a lack of outlet options and spends most games playing RB and RM, the higher Cruz pushes, the higher Williams pushes. Overall, Williams has been productive offensively. snapping up assists on the long throw-in.

  3. I agree with the sentiment that we need changes, but I don’t think anyone has hit on the right lineup yet. This is really the lineup I think we should see:
    Williams – Soumare – Parke – Cohraine
    Marfan – Okugo – Kleberson – Garfan
    JackMac – Casey
    These are our best players, and I’m really happy Hackworth was able to identify these needs and bring in these players in the off season. He really hit a home run with all his moves.

    • Yes, Cochrane (also known as the left-back savior). How did he look in LA’s recent 2-0 loss to the NASL Carolina Railhawks, or in the 5-0 stomping to the might NE Revs. In both those games Cochrane played the full 90. I just don’t get the obsession over this player. At best he is a career back-up LB at this level.

      • The obsession is that, without 20/20 hindsight, he was a touted LB prospect in a draft full of them when we had NO LB on the roster.
        Instead, our “manager” decides to stick a skillless, unremarkable 23 year old RB at that position instead.
        I don’t care if he’s had two bad games in a row. He is still better than fast RB learning the ropes at LB.

  4. Nice analysis. Crazy proposed lineup. Not sure Torres would be a good choice in this game. The key for me is to put a lid on Higuain, and Torres would leave too much space defensively for him to carve up our defense. Carrol has the smarts to neutralize Higuain. I’m hoping Klebersen is fit and can redeem hiself after his poor first 15 minutes against Toronto. This is the game for Farfan to step up. If he puts pressure on the Crew, they will sit back and give our midfield the space we need to transition. My prediction: U-3 : Crew-1 (McInerney with a brace, Le2 with the other). C’mon you boys in blue!

  5. Wasn’t keon supposed to go with his national team?

  6. Otherwise, any of the economic law of indifference and resistance during World War II is the best precedent.

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