Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew
What: Regular season game
Where: Crew Stadium
When: 4 pm, Sunday, Oct. 26
Watch:  TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Ismail Elfath; Linesmen: George Gansner, James Conlee; Fourth official: Mark Kadlecik

After they play Columbus Crew Sunday afternoon, Philadelphia Union will fly to Philly, take end of the year physicals, talk to coaches, and, soon after, leave for the year. The Crew, however, have a lot more a stake in the season’s final match.

If Columbus wins or ties against Philadelphia, they can leapfrog Kansas City and finish third. The two teams are currently tied, but KC holds the first tiebreaker (total wins). So if the Crew win, they need KC to tie or lose against New York. If they tie, Columbus needs Kansas City to lose.

Amusingly, if the Crew lose to Philly they would start rooting for KC. A Crew loss paired with a Red Bulls win would see New York hop over Columbus into the fourth playoff slot.

In other words, the Crew will be motivated: A third place finish gets them into the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Berhalter learns from Curtin

Columbus is coming off one of their best games of the season. Not only did they beat a direct playoff competitor, they got breakout games from key players. Aaron Schoenfeld, despite playing at least 20 minutes in all but two games since July 4 (and starting all games since August), finally scored his second and third goals of the season. Tony Tchani also put in another stellar shift, and the Crew absorbed New York pressure without giving up shots. That is exactly how a low playoff seed sneaks into the big game.

Finlay vs NY (first half only)

Finlay vs NY (first half only)

But earlier this month, Columbus looked much less organized and assured against Philadelphia. The Union, as you surely remember, were the better team for most of the game last these sides met only two weeks ago. The manner of the Crew’s comeback boosted confidence, and it taught them a lesson about how to set up tactically.

Columbus has been using their wingers wide and letting them cut inside to threaten defenses. Against New York, Greg Berhalter showed that Union fans are not the only ones who have noticed Andrew Wenger’s strong play. The Crew manager played Ethan Finlay — like Andrew Wenger, a college standout that took a few years to find his feet in MLS — in a wing/striker hybrid role very similar to the one Wenger has occupied for Philly the past few months. Finlay was quickly on the scoreboard, and the depth of his runs pushed back the defense, creating room for Federico Higuain in the final third.

Columbus’ ever-improving midfield trio

Higuain was his typical, brilliant self against the Red Bulls, notching four key passes in the first half before settling comfortably into a deeper role as the team absorbed New York’s pressure. Columbus is always a different team with Higuain in the side, but last weekend may have been the most balanced the midfield has looked in months.

The key — and what Philadelphia must monitor closely — is Tony Tchani’s ability to move the ball on the dribble. Tchani has been having a breakout season, and he has been unstoppable the past few games. The Union’s pressure two weeks ago unsettled Columbus, but it also gave their coach insight about his team’s talented midfield trio.

Wil Trapp has dropped deeper and deeper over the course of the season. Ostensibly, the young midfielder is hiking back to collect possession. But in truth, Trapp has been playing in a classic defensive midfielder’s zone, with Tchani slightly higher in the type of advanced destroyer spot Jermaine Jones played for the US National Team during the World Cup.

The results have been mixed. The depth gives Trapp the room he needs to start attacks, but it has also creates gaps that an opposition midfield can quickly exploit. What Berhalter learned in Philadelphia is that he can absorb pressure and keep a tighter formation if he leaves a winger high, pushes Higuain into the wide space, and opens up the middle for Tchani. The big man can dribble. And while he is no Yaya Toure, Tchani has been doing a fine imitation for some time now (watch Tchani casually ignore Dax McCarty before setting up Finlay’s goal against New York).

Higuain vs NY (first half only)

Higuain vs NY (first half only)

Union midfield adjustments?

That tactical adjustment worked well against a New York team that only presses when it absolutely has to. Philadelphia, on the other hand, found success with high pressure last time these teams played and is likely to go back to the well on Sunday. Berhalter will get to see how his tweaks handle the type of high energy defense New England or DC could use to close down the Crew’s midfield in the playoffs.

At PPL Park, Philadelphia played with Maurice Edu and Amobi Okugo behind Vincent Nogueira. Jim Curtin said that Nogueira’s recurring achilles tightness is back, but he could be available on Sunday. The Frenchman has had a fine season, but if he is feeling any injury that could get worse he should sit and let Edu and Okugo fill space behind Cristian Maidana. This has less to do with Nogueira than with Philly needing to see what they really have in Ethan White while they still can.

Starting in back

White has emerged as a Curtin favorite. And though his distribution has been inconsistent, he has proved a capable defender. A revolving door of partners in back has made the Maryland product difficult to judge, and getting a clear view of White’s current status and ceiling is extremely important for Philly’s offseason. Carlos Valdes is going to be in back to start 2015, but whether a Berry/White combination beside him is enough for the long slog through a MLS campaign is not a question that can be left open-ended this winter. Let us not forget how 2014 began (additionally, let us not forget that White may not be protected from the expansion draft).

Okugo’s big challenge

Amobi Okugo will have the biggest job on Sunday, with his mark switching from the tame Ben Speas to the slippery Federico Higuain. Diego Valeri and Javier Morales may be just as good as Higuain at operating in attacking spaces, but absolutely nobody in MLS is better at finding those spaces. Just look at the offensive talent around Valeri and Morales compared to Higuain; the Argentinian is doing a lot with what he has at his disposal.

Higuain is the type of challenge Okugo must see as the next step in his development. Athleticism and a good sense of shape allow the Union midfielder to close down mediocre players and sit in the passing lanes of those that stay deep. Higuain poses a different threat in that his aerial passing is every bit as good as his ground game. So a defender must stay close enough to get tight on him before he can look up. It is not simply a matter of cutting off lanes to the strikers; Higuain does not make it that easy.

Injuries and changes

Along with Nogueira’s achilles, the Union are also monitoring the knees of Conor Casey and Carlos Valdes. Logically, it would not make sense to put either player in the lineup if there is a chance of exacerbating an injury, so perhaps Austin Berry and Brian Brown will get to make last minute pleas for future roster slots.

And, really, they should. Jim Curtin’s insistence on putting out his strongest side is only laudable if you take a short-term perspective. Indeed, players earning starting slots during the week is a defensible decision-making system when you are taking a season one game at a time. But that is no longer the case for Philadelphia. Now the coaching staff must step back and ask what they really want from each match. A win, of course. But a few more wins next season would be nice too. And one way to achieve that is by getting young players onto the pitch in games that — and there is no way around this truth – do not matter from a big picture perspective.

Looking down the road

The future of Philadelphia Union does not lie with Fred. Nor does it lie with Sebastien Le Toux or Danny Cruz.

The teams that will succeed over the next decade in MLS are those that can integrate homegrown players into a collection of well-chosen established talent. Columbus, New England, DC United, Kansas City, and New York have all given minutes to homegrown and drafted talent in 2014. And, most importantly, they have given young players space to fail. Wil Trapp has had peaks and valleys this season, Diego Fagundez and Andrew Farrell have similarly hit learning plateaus in New England. Matt Miazga was embarrassed by Conor Casey earlier this season, but he still saw more minutes than Richie Marquez.

The point is a simple one: Real games in front of real crowds against real MLS players are different than anything else a young player can face. Zach Pfeffer can dominate a field full of players his own age, just as Diego Fagundez could two years ago. Jimmy McLaughlin has stood out against more experienced foes in Harrisburg all season. These players need minutes against MLS competition. Possibly the only upside of missing the playoffs is that it affords the opportunity to let young players fail in a real, top-level environment. The Union need to see what they really have on the roster before it goes through a major offseason facelift.

Why not?

Why not?

Prediction: Columbus 1-0 Philadelphia

The Crew’s need to win will push them to victory as the Union play around with personnel and formation. Jim Curtin may want to see what his midfield looks like with Cristian Maidana staying more central to give the Union an extra man when Higuain drifts. Additionally, it will be interesting to see if Philly can still pull off the high press with Maidana instead of Nogueira in that attacking midfield role.

Regardless of outcome, it is important that the Union give full effort for ninety minutes. Previous seasons have seen a languid limp to the finish line, and the sour taste left by such conclusions is something the club cannot afford after all the upheaval in 2014.

And finally: There are 240,000 reasons to believe Zac MacMath is playing his last game in Union colors on Sunday. During his time in Philly, MacMath has gone from a hesitant, quiet goalie to an overly aggressive, punch-happy backstop, with many brilliant saves and boneheaded mistakes mixed in. But, importantly, he has cut down on the mistakes each season and developed a more complete game (despite the big error in the USOC semifinal against Dallas, MacMath’s growth as a sweeper-keeper has been exponential and surprising). MacMath’s continued development (remember: He’s still very young) will take place somewhere else next season. He has been a fine player and a model citizen during his time in Philadelphia.

Whether you think he has already plateaued or, like playoff goalie Chris Seitz, he needs a change of scenery to fulfill his potential, there is no denying that the circumstances surrounding MacMath’s whirlwind final season in Philly have been regrettable. The club drafted his future replacement then purchased his current replacement all while MacMath performed above replacement-level behind an ever-rotating central defensive pairing. Imagine yourself in the same position; imagine how hard it would be to retain self-confidence.

Yet, MacMath has continued to play well. In fact, he has played more than any backup goalie in the league since Rais Mbolhi arrived (then left again, returned, left again, returned, left again, rinse and repeat). This has been a season MacMath won’t soon forget. All the best to him going forward.


  1. Great article – especially the addendum tribute to Zac. True Union fans realize this guy has been given the shaft pretty much all season by Sakiewicz. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team sabotage their own player the way this team has. But Zac has handled it with class. And since he is so young he will be poised to stick it to his former employer for years to come – even when his biggest opponent is no longer employed here. But we the fans will get to feel the pay back. Our only hope is that we get a decent return for him when he leaves – but I don’t have a lot of faith that it will be much more than allocation money.

  2. old soccer coach says:

    An addition, perhaps, Adam, and then a question. In mid-September when I happened to browse carefully through the MLS website I ran across a listing of all homegrown Players. Listed under the Union was a name that took me by surprise, Ethan White. the MLS list stated in parenthesis that White was still playing under his DC homegrown contract. Were the expansion draft rules of the Vancouver/Portland expansion draft to apply this coming December, White would be exempt if his is in fact still classified as a homegrown player. You probably have better connections than I to find out White’s actual status. *** My question refers to Zac MacMath. You state categorically that MacMath is gone at the end of the season. Are you at liberty to give us any hints as to whether your assertion is based on the logic of the publicly known facts, or whether there is more behind it? If there is more I realize that as an ethical journalist you needs must protect whatever “more behind it” happens to be. I press the question because MacMath is a prime candidate for a loan and is eligible for same under league rules due to his youth, because he is a better number #2 than Blake who looked quite raw in his USOC games if a phenomenal athlete, and because the international obligations of Blake and M’Bohli mean a 3rd keeper is a necessity, altho’ a Brian Sylvestre could be a less expensive solution on a temporary call-up from Harrisburg.

    • To reply and add some things of my own… There’s no way we protect 3 keepers for the upcoming expansion draft and the Union is the only team in the entire league with 3 keepers that can start. You’d have to imagine that at least one would get picked. Additionally, M’Bolhi was just signed by Sak to a multi-year contract, no way would they let him go unless Sak is willing to admit he made a mistake (unlikely) AND Curtain doesn’t value him as much as the other 2 (with the interim tag still attached, it may not matter what he thinks if he doesn’t agree with his employers).

      This leads me to some of my own questions about the expansion draft. Is it ONLY Gen. Adidas and Homegrowns that are exempt? Or are there other groups as well like DPs? Blake is still on Gen. Adidas so he’s auto-protected, as are Pfeffer, McLaughlin, Hernandez, and maybe White(?). I think there is also some rule about having to protect 3 international players if you have 4 or more (Lord knows if that’s changed cause, you know, it’s MLS). I guess that would eat up 3 of the 11 protected? I suppose that would be Maidana, Nogs, and M’Bolhi though I’d very much prefer to keep MacMath and let M’Bolhi walk, but that’ll never happen.

      Here’s my list of protected 11, if all above is true and I had my own way, not what will most likely happen (and assuming White is still HG):

      Nogueira, Maidana, Valdes (3 internationals), Le toux, Okugo, MacMath, Williams, Gaddis, Wenger, Ribeiro, Edu

      I’d let M’Bohli be taken, or better still trade him or Blake to Orlando for good value AND a gentlemen’s agreement not to take any of our players.

      Unrelated but still interesting, what happens to the Chivas players at the end of the season (Torres would look great in Blue and Gold, no matter how improbable)?

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