Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew
What: Columbus home opener
Where: Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH, USA
When: 6 pm, Saturday March 22
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Referee: Ted Unkel; Linesmen: Jeff Hosking, Mike Kampmeinert; Fourth official: Chris Penso

One game into 2014 and, so far, the new-look Columbus Crew appear pretty doggone familiar.

Jairo Arrieta and Federico Higuain on the scoresheet. A solid, disciplined midfield. That’s the Crew that has been taking the oomph out of MLS matches for years on end.

And against DC United, two early goals meant the Crew could showcase their ability to control a game with good technical players in all ten outfield positions. Not that DC United put up much resistance. After going down two goals, the rebuilt offense could not find a way through the pesky Wil Trapp and the physical Tony Tchani.

Right now you may be thinking: A central playmaker in front of two mobile holding midfielders that keep things simple? Is Columbus simply a poor man’s Portland? Far from it. While they were able to dominate possession against DC United, the Crew look more likely to be a direct attacking team with speed on the wings and a well-protected back four. The Union took four out of six points off Columbus last year. Replicating those results will be a difficult task.

Soft spots and early shots

Arrieta and Higuain. Higuain and Arrieta. They are the focal points of the Columbus attack, and anyone that fails to gameplan for them might as well turn in his or her coaching badge now.

DC United tracked Higuain with Perry Kitchen and largely let Arrieta roam the midfield free when he checked deep. The Union are likely to employ a similar strategy to the one that was so effective in Portland: Bracket Higuain with Carroll and Edu and force Arrieta to come extremely deep to get involved.

The Crew dealt with DC’s defense by attacking down the wings with their speed. This should worry the Union since this exposes the softest spot in the Philly defense. Both Gaddis and Fabinho are competent man-markers, but their positional sense is lacking and a tendency to follow a runner upfield leaves space in behind and disjoints the defensive line. Philadelphia has not met a team that could truly challenge the fullbacks with difficult-to-track overlapping runs. One such run led to the Crew’s opening goal against DC United, when Josh Williams caught the defense napping and laid in a fine cross for Arrieta to finish (click here to view the play).

Against DC, Josh Williams stepped up to overload the right side and give Federico Higuain space to create.

Higuain vs DC.
Josh Williams stepped up to overload the right side and give Federico Higuain space to create.

Williams was the more active fullback all afternoon, and he provided an outlet that allowed the Crew to maintain possession in the opponent’s half for extended periods of the match. From Federico Higuain’s passing charts, we can clearly see how right sided the Columbus offense was. With Austin Berry literally hamstrung, Fabinho and whoever occupies the left side of the center back pairing will have to be vigilant in tracking runs out of the back.

Additionally, the Union must consider Dominic Oduro. The speedy winger-forward returns from a one game suspension this week and could take up a position on the right to threaten Fabinho from the outset.

Columbus was able to dictate play against DC United by scoring early. This allowed first year coach Greg Berhalter to sit his midfield and pass around the narrow United diamond without pushing forward too hard. The Union must be prepared for an early spell of pressure as Columbus looks to assert itself at home. If Philly can get to the 30th minute without conceding, the Crew will have to commit either Tchani or, more likely, Trapp to a more vertical role. Finding space around those two players is essential for Vincent Nogueira to exert his impact on the game.

Give ’em a scare

The Columbus defensive system is designed to isolate strikers. With two midfielders protecting the back four and Michael Parkhurt tracking angled runs, the Crew are content to give up some protection in wide areas if it means securing the center of the park. The double-holding middie system also allows them to play a bit deeper defensively, since they do not believe a player can sit in the space in front of the back four without Tchani on top of him.

To counter this, the Union need to replicate two important facets of their midfield play against Portland. First, they need Nogueira to drag Trapp and Tchani out of the middle. Second, they need Maurice Edu to fill space and provide real support for Jack McInerney. Nogueira’s ability to collect the ball in wide areas and facilitate play will be absolutely essential to breaking down the Columbus back line. Berhalter’s system is less afraid of crosses than of space in the midfield, so dragging Trapp and Tchani outside is the first order of business on the agenda of success.

Both teams will be looking to give each other an early scare so the opposition fullbacks play a bit more conservatively and hesitate to join attacks. For the Union, this means involving Nogueira and involving Maidana and Le Toux in the short passing game early.

The last piece

Finally, the Union must find a way to get behind the Crew back four. DC’s Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, two strikers that time runs very well, were closed out of the match in Week One. The two combined for 46 offensive half passes, of which only six were forward. This indicates the strikers were well-tracked and not given time to turn. Further, the three offensive midfielders for DC United connected a combined 8 passes to their two strikers. Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, and Davy Arnaud were simply unable to release the two big finishers.

Connecting Jack McInerney to Nogueira, Edu, and Cristian Maidana will be best way for the Union to get Columbus on their heels. McInerney needs to vary his runs and work hard to get the ball in deep positions. Even if he finds himself isolated with the ball, proving that he can get involved will force the holding midfielders to be more conservative and bring the center backs out of the middle of the pitch.

Plus, McInerney in wide spaces mean the Union are attempting to break down the Crew with possession, not crosses. And with so much talent in the middle of the pitch, that is what this year’s team should be doing.

Revert or remain?

After last week’s man of the match showing, the question must be posed: Should Leo Fernandes remain in the lineup?

No. Not for this match. The Union need Maurice Edu’s mobility to add bodies to attack and fill spaces when Nogueira is wide. This means returning Brian Carroll to a holding role to monitor the high-level threat that is Federico Higuain.

But Fernandes’ performance should cause John Hackworth to rethink his go-to substitution: Hoppenot for whoever. While the energy Hoppenot brings can be a threat when teams are pushing, Fernandes showed that he can be another technical pair of feet in the midfield that can help re-establish possession when the Union get stretched later in a match.

Prediction: Union 1-1 Crew

Philly is good. Columbus is more of an unknown. A full ninety choke hold on DC United, even on the road, doesn’t say much (and the penalty that took the air out of the game would rarely, rarely be given by a MLS referee).

But with Higuain over dead balls and Austin Berry possibly out, it is hard to imagine the Union shut out a talented Crew team at home. Aside from the threat of the Big Two, the Union will also face their toughest test yet on the wings, and there is no doubt that Sheanon Williams will be sorely, sorely missed in this game.

All that said, it’s time for Chaco Maidana to get off the mark. The Union stay unbeaten in the early going and Columbus gets a real sense of what it will take to succeed in this new and improved Eastern Conference.

Union vs Columbus Crew

Union vs Columbus Crew


  1. Yes please no Hoppenot this week. Hopefully he’s been told that last weeks performance and all those offsides in particular are not acceptable with this club. Riding the pine will show the seriousness of it.

    • And add in the poor defending at the end of the Portland match, and that’s two good reasons for somebody else to take Hoppenot’s spot this week. (And I like Hoppenot generally speaking.)

      • I’d like to see Jimmy McLaughlin get a shot there if he’s ready. Unlike most of our options, he’s actually a natural wide player.

      • buzzkill_ed says:

        He’s been loaned to Harrisburg along with Cristian Hernandez.

      • I didn’t know that at the time I made the comment. Guess he isn’t ready then.

  2. we’re gonna roll columbus

  3. The Black Hand says:

    Please, John Hackworth, please…put Casey in your XI. We have zero strike threat, with McInerney alone up top. Sit Letoux, to make room, as the Frenchman has not really been on the level of his fellow midfielders. If Carroll is starting, which all signs point to yes, we need the big man (Casey) to carry over fine midfield play to the final third. Our possession numbers will plummet, with Carroll at the DM, so we are going to need to capitalize on the chances we get in the opponents third. This is nothing against McInerney. He has been playing well enough. He just can’t get himself involved in the final third and is nearly invisible in our opponents box. (Check the heat maps and see for yourself). For as well, as many say, Jack has looked; he has hardly been playing striker. Casey will give us that presence in the box, that we have been missing, as well as free McInerney up to make his runs and hopefully get himself a good look at goal. Le Toux, in my eyes, is expendable. Casey is not. C’mon Hackworth!!!

    • Did you not notice the part where Columbus is best broken down on the ground with combo play?
      I love what Casey did for us last year and hope he can play a big role, but in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 which this will be, Casey would have more of a problem in the final third.
      Yes Jack is the lone striker, but in this system a lot of his job is pull the CBs out while another fills the void. This was Leo in the first half last week and if he adjusted, more goals would have come.
      And Mac isn’t an RM and we actually need BC for this matchup specifically (only time I’ll say that).
      The responsibility for goals falls on 1- Maidana improving, 2a – Jack pressing higher, 2b – LeToux making better decisions.
      3- Edu or Nog have to get into the box then.

    • But I agree with dropping LeToux and playing a Casey/Mac Fwd pairing…at home. But then Nog has to float wide.
      Our personnell isn’t really set up for a 2-man Fwd system, nor can we play an out-and-out 4-3-3.
      It’s set perfectly for a defensive 4-2-3-1 that can keep posession.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I see so much give-n-go potential with our entire attacking midfield and Jack pivoting off of Casey. Not to mention Casey’s own threat in the final third. Hack could add Casey, box the mids and use our outside backs for width. Casey is a strong target for crosses into the box and will take a lot of fullback attention off of McInerny. We haven’t had enough presence in our opponents third. Casey is a beast!!

      • I can’t agree more. Play the 4-2-3-1 but let Casey be the middle of the 3 and play a little higher. Edu and Nog are certainly capable of covering the middle of the park. Of course this would mean Carroll sits…

      • The Black Hand says:

        Not necessarily. LeToux would come off for Casey. They could play a four man midfield box, with Noguiera and Maidana high and Carroll (bad move) and Edu backing them. Fab and Gaddis would give the club it’s width. I think including Carroll Is a mistake, but inevitable. Keeping Casey off the pitch would be a bad move, given our struggles in the final third.

  4. Could this be a good 4-4-2 lineup to get Casey and Jack together? It’s a bit like Liverpool sitting an aging Gerrard deep (Carroll), but might require Nog to play a little more out wide then he would like. He and Maidana could swap, but I’m not sure Maidana has the defensive cover to keep BC from getting pulled out wide:
    What do you smart tactical guys think?

    • The Black Hand says:

      I cringe when I hear the Gerrard example, when speaking of Carroll. Gerrard has incredible field vision. Carroll can barely see his boots.

      • So I guess it’s just irony that we’re criticizing Carroll’s vision when last year’s game against Columbus started with Carroll brilliantly intercepting a Crew pass that led to his deflected goal.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I stand corrected.

      • It’s not even really about Carroll, he has his place. I think Casey provides a significant upgrade on the field over him or Le Toux. At the very least it should be experimented with this year.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Agreed. I think that the bottom line should be: put your best XI on the pitch. Whatever gives the club the best chance to win. Right now, we really don’t know what that XI is. The midfield has shown something, but the strike has been missing. Casey could help there. He was our BEST forward last year. Not considering him is ridiculous!

      • I wouldn’t compare Carroll to Gerrard, but Carroll’s field vision is very good IMO. He’s fantastic at reading lanes, and has a very good sense of where he needs to be at all times. His athleticism and passing ability are questionable, but field vision isn’t really Carroll’s problem at all.

      • ha! awesome. just said it more from a shape example. completely agree that they would not operate in the same fashion!

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