Match previews

Preview: Union vs Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Columbus Crew
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 7 pm, Saturday, Oct. 11
Watch:  TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Mark Geiger; Linesmen: CJ Morgante, Greg Barkey; Fourth official: Jorge Gonzalez

Must-win rarely means must-win. Usually it means: win-or-face-an-enormous-uphill-climb.

For Philadelphia Union, Saturday night’s match against Columbus Crew is the rare must-win that means what it says.

By dropping two points against Chicago (and that’s what it is when you give up a lead so late), the Union condemned themselves to being backed against the wall for the final three matches of the regular season. That means no rest for the weary, no room for error, and no chance for fans to exhale until the final whistle blows.

And on top of it all, any yellow cards in the next two matches will bench Maurice Edu for one game.

Trapp assist vs MTL (L); Tchani assist vs NE (R)

Trapp assist vs MTL (L); Tchani assist vs NE (R)

Looking for positives

With that anxiety-inducing preamble out of the way, let us transition to more positive developments. Columbus will be without playmaker extraordinaire Federico Higuain and stud left back Waylon Francis, both of whom are serving yellow card accumulation suspensions.

Higuain’s absence is, quite obviously, enormous. The Crew are as reliant on Higuain as the Union have been on Sebastien Le Toux this season. The Argentinian has made the attacking midfield role his own, often by leaving the space traditionally occupied by such players. Columbus has been successful when that hole behind the striker is filled by one of the deeper midfielders stepping forward. Higuain is such a dominant force that when he leaves the middle of the pitch, defenders follow. Wil Trapp and Tony Tchani, stepping up from deeper roles, have provided the Crew’s last two assists by playing balls through the space normally filled by defensive midfielders.

Columbus’ marked inconsistency this season has stemmed from Tchani and Trapp’s inability to fill that empty attacking space with regularity. Tchani is a lifelong subscriber to Inconsistency and Underperformance Illustrated, and Trapp is absurdly talented but still finding his niche in MLS. If you look at Columbus as a team that leans heavily on Tchani and Trapp to read Higuain, their ability to lose to Toronto then turn around and whip Los Angeles 4-1 makes a lot more sense.

Crew on the wings

While the midfield has waffled between dynamism and disappointment, Columbus’ width has undergone a significant, and more stable, shift.

Though the midfield has struggled to maintain top form, Columbus has undergone a dramatic shift in the wide areas. The team that beat Philadelphia early in the season featured Justin Williams and Waylon Francis flying up the wings, attempting to draw defenders wide so Higuain would have more room to operate centrally. Williams’ injuries and Francis’ up-and-down campaign led coach Greg Berhalter to relax the modern fullback tactic and turn to an approach that utilizes spacing over sending more bodies forward.

Early in the season, the Crew’s wingers would tuck inside, leaving gaps that Francis and Williams could fill with high-octane runs. Higuain would either step high or drop below the wingers depending on the defense. The emergence of Ethan Finlay – and the passing range of young Wil Trapp – likely encouraged the switch to a system that focuses less on maintaining possession in the offensive third and, instead, looks to create swift breaks through outlet passes to the wingers.

This adjustment has not solved Columbus’ issues, but it has given them more flexibility while creating a less complex way for Higuain to find space (as the Union have shown this season, a good counterattack tends to contort a MLS defense with ease).

68 mins of Speas vs 22 mins of Higuain vs Dallas on June 29.

68 mins of Speas vs 22 mins of Higuain vs Dallas on June 29.

The Speas Solution

With Higuain absent, Berhalter is likely to turn to Ben Speas in the center of the pitch. In the previous three games Speas started as playmaker, the Crew managed a single goal. In short, the North Carolina product is no Federico Higuain.

Philadelphia’s fullbacks should be able to contain the Crew’s wide players – presuming they can keep them in wide areas. Finlay’s unique contribution to Columbus’ attack goes beyond his role as an outlet. If the Crew hold sustained possession, Finlay is a willing and intelligent runner, and he tends to sneak inside if not monitored closely. A particularly dangerous situation tends to evolve when Trapp or Tchani finds the ball in the middle of the pitch and the defensive midfielders back off to protect the lane to Higuain. Tchani has been more than willing to stride forward and attack a defense on the dribble, while Trapp can connect a long pass with a level of confidence that should make you shiver in Union colors but gleefully giggle in your red, white, and blue.

With Speas replacing Higuain, the Union midfield must maintain an aggressive approach with Tchani and Trapp. Trusting Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis to handle wingers without support is a must with the team’s offense already sputtering (bodies must get forward!), and a read-and-react defensive posture will invite the kind of pressure that has led to so many small, but unforgettable errors this season.

The Union approach

It is reasonable to ask: Should Philly really commit men forward when the team’s home defense is on par with Toronto’s and surpassed by only Portland and Chivas in terms of futility?


The golden days of the Dread Pirate Casey finishing every counterattack with cool confidence are a summer memory. Should they return, celebrations are in order. But planning for such an eventuality is like signing Michael Vick and expecting to win.

White returns?

If Ethan White is available… should he play?

Probably not. White has rebuilt his reputation this season, and the fact that he once sat behind Brandon McDonald on the DC United depth chart is the sort of thing that should raise eyebrows.

But the Union have given up two goals in just over two games since White went down, and only one of those goals can reasonably be placed on the team’s defense. Unfortunately for White, a return to the lineup would mean a spot on the bench for Amobi Okugo or Mo Edu. Edu ain’t sitting, and even Okugo’s detractors have to admit he has had a very good fortnight.


Predicted lineup

While it would not be unreasonable to sit Maidana (who is dealing with flu-like symptoms) or Nogueira after a string of below-elite-level performances, that simply won’t happen with three must-win games remaining.

Edu will remain in defense. Philadelphia will live or die with Amobi Okugo as the midfield anchor.

Prediction: Union 1-1 Crew

With winning the only option, Philadelphia has to force the issue. This means playing through Vincent Nogueira and moving well around him. It means attacking set pieces with urgency.

It does not, however, mean running for the sake of running. It does not mean vigilante-style aggressive defense that can cost a team its shape. And it does not mean shooting the moment an opening emerges, regardless of field position.

No, for Philadelphia Union Saturday’s match will take something new: Ninety minutes without a mistake, and an aggressive offensive stance. This team was not built to play that way. And they have done it successfully just once. But that one time was a cup final.

And with their destiny out of their hands, all the Union can do is win three cup finals and hope for the best.


  1. The man. The legend. Mark Geiger!

  2. Prediction: 1-0 Union

    I think the Union pull this one out with their backs against a wall and a Higuain-less Crew.

    Winning all three? I’m hoping for the best but the realist in me is saying we lose at least one of them – my guess is the KC game.

  3. With your XI & assuming away injuries, who are JC’s subs if we need to score? Move LeToux up when Casey leaves & add Hoppenot or Brown on the right. Tell Nogs to play like it’s a 65 minute game & swap with Ribeiro. If Chaco is gassed, put in White & move up Okugo & Edu. Or if it’s Wenger, then Brown. No Fred. No Cruz.

    • If the Union go down or are even after the 60-70 min, I would not be at all surprised if you see Ribeiro and Cruz, with Edu joining the midfield in front of a 3-man backline.

      • Not a must – win for Crew missing Higuain & Francis, but a scoreless draw at the hour mark shouldn’t be a surprise. If JC sticks to his usual subs, it could easily end that way. Out with a whimper or just nearly dead. Except for a month or so, that sums up the season.

  4. Jack Zebley says:

    It will be tough but… I think if the fans can come together as we did at the Cup final and make PPL truly the 12th player on the pitch it could happen. Based on what decisions (keeper especially ) Union Brass have made lately the fans may be lost until next year when once again we forget what we went through. I hope we finish strong bench MBoli start Zac & DOOP.

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