Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Mapfre Stadium
When: Saturday, April 25 at 7:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Whistle: Chris Penso; Linesmen: Gregory Barkey, Mark Cahen; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

Jim Curtin took the words out of my mouth in his press conference: “[The Crew] have a great team, a true system. Top possession team in the league for me. They build out of the back and there’s no secret. They stick with it and there’s no change to their game plan.”

“True system”

The most important line there is “a true system.” And Curtin is right, Columbus has one. Off-the-ball movement, a tight formation, pass and move, pass and move. A well-coached possession team disguises its creativity with coordination: Ball movement appears pre-determined because it is near-impossible to imagine how else players could so consistently find their teammates in space. Columbus is by no means an elite possession team, but they are as good as MLS can deliver. And it all starts deceptively slowly with short passes in the the back.

There are two keys to a possession offense: First, overload the area around the ball with moving parts. Moving does not mean running away, it simply means drifting around near the ball and forcing the opposition to follow players rather than play the zones that are favored by an organized defense.

Second, always have an outlet. Possession teams will rarely walk upfield playing hot potato with the ball and march straight on goal. Instead, everything will move to one side until the defense rotates. Then the ball will be recycled and pushed to the other side. Rinse and repeat until a creative player ends up with enough space to look up and pick out a run. It looks and sounds simple (until you try to implement such a system on your rec team) yet unstoppable, but the truth is that most teams will only have one or two players capable of consistently turning that extended possession into good chances.

Higuain's first 34 mins vs OCSC (pre-Ramos red card)

Higuain’s first 34 mins vs OCSC (pre-Ramos red card)

Higgy in the middle

The Crew, of course, have one of the best possession creators in MLS in Federico Higuain. The Argentinian midfielder is averaging almost three key passes per match, and that statistic ignores all of the passes that have sent Ethan Finlay into enough space to set up a chance from the wing. Higuain is so dangerous because he can come deep and release runners with long balls or arrive as an extra man in tight areas and play short passes until inevitably picking out a man in space.

Players like Higuain are often measured by statistics like key passes or centrality, but there is no method to truly capture how much easier Higuain makes the game for his teammates. Wil Trapp has completed an astonishing 18/22 long passes this season. His replacement, Mohammed Saeid, is an equally impressive 16/19, and even defender Michael Parkhurst is 34/50. These players are granted the time required to pick out successful long passes because teams simply cannot ignore Higuain. Giving Trapp or Parkhurst time to pass can be dangerous, but stepping to them and leaving Higuain alone is not an option.

Last March, Philadelphia’s midfield did well to force Higuain into more back passes than he would prefer, following tight on his heels when he checked in. However, by the middle of the match, Columbus was simply moving their deep-lying midfielders forward and forcing the Union to play zone on Higuain, and the playmaker set up shop in the right channel.

Higuain’s influence can be seen in how different the Crew look without him on the pitch. Ben Speas, a fine player in his own right and Higuain’s direct replacement, sees the ball about half as much as the Argentine over the course of ninety minutes.

Tchani and Saeid first 34 mins vs OCSC. Note how deep they come to pick up the ball.

Tchani and Saeid first 34 mins vs OCSC. Note how deep they come to pick up the ball.

Taking what he’s given

Emphasizing Federico Higuain’s role in the Columbus offense can be a little misleading. He is not equivalent to Cristian Maidana or Vincent Nogueira, nor is his game analogous to someone like Kaka in Orlando. The Crew do not lean on Higuain for offense, they build around him. Behind the playmaker, Trapp, Saeid and Tchani are mobile, technical players who, until Tchani joins the offense with late runs, typically stay within ten yards of each other. The central defenders move wide on offense, allowing a midfielder to join the back line. At times, the Crew will have all three central midfielders in their own half simply to create the numbers necessary to keep the ball on the ground going forward.

Intelligent wing play

As the ball moves upfield, the wingers rarely run away from the play. And if they do so, they are moving at angles. As Jim Curtin noted, Ethan Finlay has given the Union a headache cutting through the channel between the left-sided defenders.

Central defenders and all three central midfielders first 34 min vs OCSC. Note the gap around the midfield circle because Tchani and Saeid were not pressured and, strung 15-20 yard passes vertically to Higuain.

Central defenders and all three central midfielders first 34 min vs OCSC. Note the gap around the midfield circle because Tchani and Saeid were not pressured and, strung 15-20 yard passes vertically to Higuain.

Finlay has added another trick to his arsenal — one that Tesho Akindele often uses for Dallas — by cutting inside until the ball is played to an advancing fullback, at which point the winger makes a run across the opposition fullback then heads to the corner, where he will often be able to isolate a central defender.

On the left side, Justin Meram tends to leave the wing and drift into a hole in front of the defense. Unlike Sebastien Le Toux, who often arrives in similar spaces for Philly, Meram is looking to play one-twos with Higuain or, if nobody steps to him, turn and run at the defense.

Importantly, both Meram and Finlay rarely make vertical runs until the Crew have established possession in the opposition half. The Crew keep an incredibly tight formation both offensively and defensively, with the goal not only to control space but also to control time.

The Columbus offense operates at a slow pace coming out of the back, but once a vertical pass is made to Higuain, all the other pieces go in motion. Kei Kamara is immediately peeling off a defender while Meram and Finlay move central to pull in the fullbacks and open space for Waylon Francis and Hernan Grana. The desired result is that Higuain does not have to dictate play but instead simply respond to it. There is less looking up and making eye contact and more trusting that teammates are making reliable runs and understand what the defense is giving.

Kamara vs VAN (top) was able to leave the middle, while New England (bottom) limited his involvement outside of the middle.

Kamara vs VAN (top) was able to leave the middle, while New England (bottom) limited his involvement outside of the middle.

Kamara acclimatizing

Early in the season, the Crew often sought out Kei Kamara at the end of these moves, looking to use the striker’s height and strength to directly threaten goal. Recently, however, Greg Berhalter has recognized that Kamara’s physical skills are best utilized as a function of his movement.

Asking the big man to play a traditional big man’s role was a fair request, but Kamara flourishes as more of a free roamer, moving into wide areas and checking so deep that he has time to turn and act as playmaker. Against Vancouver, Kamara ranged across the pitch and took up spaces in the center and deep on the wings. A week later, New England successfully kept the Sierra Leone international in the middle of the pitch and severely throttled the Crew’s offense.

Columbus pressures from the top - Kamara forces the ball back where it came from, Higuain arrives quickly, pushing OCSC into a Meram-Tchani trap.

Columbus pressures from the top – Kamara forces the ball back where it came from, Higuain arrives quickly, pushing OCSC into a Meram-Tchani trap.

Union response

To combat the Crew, Philly will likely go into a full-on defensive shell from minute one. Without Vincent Nogueira or Zach Pfeffer, the Union are likely to rely upon Michael Lahoud and Brian Carroll to build a wall in front of the box and push the ball wide. Executed well, such a system has the ability to frustrate Columbus for extended periods of time. The evidence is there from Kansas City: Philadelphia can look organized and defend the box (except on set pieces).

The part where it all falls apart, however, is easy to guess. The Union need to find outlets when they win the ball. Booting it upfield is a waste of time against a pair of central defenders that read the game as well the Crew’s duo, and the real soft spots in the Columbus defense are perfect for swift counterattacks.

As talented as Michael Parkhurst and Emanuel Pogatetz are, they remain central defenders. Which is to say, they would very much prefer not to be isolated against, well, pretty much anyone. Philadelphia has two wingers that, in 2014, were more than just anyone: They were actual, dangerous goalscorers.

And maybe playing against a possession team that pushes its fullbacks so far forward is exactly what Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux need. Stay-at-home fullbacks like Eric Gehrig and Jalil Anibaba have taken such good care of Wenger that they probably burped him after the game. Hernan Grana has been sensational at right back for Columbus, but he prefers to play his soccer deep in the opposition half. Wenger may continue to sit in favor of CJ Sapong, who will have every chance to run at Michael Parkhurst alone. Sapong, who has looked a lively and willing mover, must do more than Wenger has when granted space.

What to build on

Although the Union conceded almost all possession in the second half against New England, they actually spent more time on the ball than their opponent for five of the nine five-minute intervals of the first half. Steven Vitoria and Maurice Edu were efficient with the ball, with Vitoria completing all but three passes. Ahead of them, Michael Lahoud had a stellar half playing a simple passing game. Zach Pfeffer and Cristian Maidana were active, though only the latter found enough space to pose a threat. It was an even half, and not for any reductive reason like, “New England sucked.”

In the first half, the Union were able to get out of the back following turnovers. This simple statement is the foundation of Philadelphia’s success and the most glaringly obvious explanation of the team’s failure. In transition, the parts are all still there for the Union to pose a threat against teams that want to pin them deep.

There are a multitude of reasons why the Union have been unable to consistently connect off turnovers. The league-wide realization that Andrew Wenger is bound by ancient magic to the left touchline has turned last year’s best outlet into a black hole. Sebastien Le Toux is so intent on making his mark that he often abandons his role in the transition and heads straight upfield and, like an overbearing parent, has unrealistic expectations about his teammates’ ability to play perfectly lofted passes onto a depressingly vertical run.

But the wingers’ issues aside, Philadelphia may need to focus more on what to do with the fullbacks. Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams have been total non-factors going forward this season because they rarely have passing options. Yes, the wingers may take some blame here, but one can also argue that the fullbacks are consistently in poor positions based on how the Union play. Gaddis and Williams may need to either stay deeper to offer simple options for the center backs or move further upfield to recover the second ball when Philly plays long. Currently, the fullbacks step to the touchlines about 5-10 yards ahead of the central defenders and are immediately isolated when they receive the ball. This, needless to say (but here I am saying it anyway), is a problem.

A lineup built to bunker.

A lineup built to bunker.

Prediction: Crew 3-1 Union

The way Columbus sends bodies forward, the Union should be able to find a few threatening counterattacks. However, with a likely midfield of Carroll-Lahoud-Maidana, the counters will have to run perfectly to generate real opportunities.

If Philly goes behind, look for Jim Curtin to consider moving Maurice Edu into midfield simply to add dynamism to what will likely be a very conservative setup.

Understatement time: This will not be an easy match. And Columbus surely feels they can build on last week’s demolition of short-handed Orlando by coming out hard against the a Union defense that has conceded the most goals in MLS. A stout defensive effort will do a lot to restore the Union’s confidence. But more importantly, it will be an indicator of how much the team is still responding to Curtin as they seek some glimmer of hope in an increasingly bleak landscape.


  1. The Black Hand says:

    I’m so sick of sucking this bad, without an ounce of progress. This tactic and XI is no different than that 2012…Well, there is a difference…it is worse than 2012.
    I’m predicting our first sub-30% possession match…think about that.

    • el pachyderm says:

      Even Cordoba ekes out greater than 30% possession against Barca.
      If the numbers are 70-30%, the team is essentially saying we have no use being on the field against this competition. We are not good enough. It is damn near impossible to achieve 70-30% numbers. I am fairly certain, the team has offered up 67-68% on at least three occasions this season – could be wrong.
      It does not matter if you win the game 1-0. If the other team, time and time again has 68-70% possession – go play in NASL. The rest of you who argue it does matter if you win the game 1-0, giving up these numbers, I say, ‘bollox.’ It is not a strategy. It is not a, “true system.” It is failure.

      • The Black Hand says:

        I’d accept a 3-0 drubbing, if the Union went into the match with the mindset of trying to play Columbus. It’s this ‘turtleshell” TACTIC that kills me. We have no intention of trying to play these guys…we are simply going to try to get in the way of some shit. This is not a counter-attacking philosophy…it’s dog-shit with socks on.
        NASL clubs would beat us.

      • el pachyderm says:

        but that Open cup run….. TBH.

      • The Black Hand says:

        and our pre-season championship. They can never take these things away from us!!!!

      • el pachyderm says:

        Yes Yes, let us never slight beating London FC.

  2. el pachyderm says:

    Funny, the “true system” comment by JC is exactly what stuck out to me in his presser.

    • Me too. I long for the day when someone will talk about the Union in glowing terms such as “true system” and “plan in place,” rather than

  3. lefthalfback says:

    Well, I read online that C.Ronaldo wants to come to the US after his Real contract dies ib 2018. Doubtlessly he’ll be wanting to play in Chester.

    As for the current U- really, it is like the Varsity scrimmaging the JV most nights. There is no real point in having possessio/build-from-the-back players if they are not actually good enough to do that against half-good competition.

    The choice is clear- get better playerts or go “….Full-Stoke…” with different types of players.

    • exactly, if you want to play 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 route 1 footy…… least get the personnel to execute that system….we have a mix of guys who are suited to possess and a mix of guys that are north/south runners…….if you want to play Stoke ball…..go full throttle Stoke then. Stoke, year in and year out, has the biggest and strongest team in the Prem……..why? They don’t shirk from what they do…….and get players that suit the style! Clubs HATE going to the Britannia!

  4. As I’m looking at the lineup, I can’t help but realize that we simply don’t have options. I don’t want Carroll in there, but you can’t move Chaco to a holding role, or play Ayuk or McLaughlin there.
    You could move pieces around to force the issue, but nothing is truly appealing.
    What I would like to see is this team start attacking. The bunker mentality is both ineffective and unappealing. It works for Chelsea, because they can buy the best players in the world. Until we are purchased by a Russian oligarch, we aren’t likely to sign those players.
    Get out of the shell. At this point, we should be trying to win games 6-4. We may lose them, but we’re losing anyway. We may as well have some fun in the process.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Even if Daddy Warbucks bought us, there is the salary cap and the DP limit..
      We are paying many of our starters “top dollar” under the league’s salary formula/ae. Hence our bench seems VERY limited. Consider Le Toux. Sentimentally I want to see him retire here; analytically, with roughly a quarter of the season gone he has not been worth a quarter of a million dollars under a – completely guessing based on thin air – three and a half million dollar salary cap. His salary means his back-up of necessity is a minimum salary player.

      • There is a DP limit. But Kaka made more last year BEFORE THE TEAM PLAYED than our entire roster. Actually, I believe he made twice as much as our entire roster. So, Daddy Warbucks could actually help.
        How much do you think LA is paying for Keane, Gonzalez, and Gerrard?
        NYCFC: Villa and Lampard.
        TFC: Bradley, Giovinco (ok, they may not be the best example).

        Money matters. We don’t have it.

    • el pachyderm says:

      John – any solution is better than the bunker solution when the bunker solution isn’t actually working. It is an insult on top of an insult. I’m ready for anything if this continues to prove ineffective. go with a 3-4-3 3-5-2 something- play with 12 men on the field – pull the goalie – who cares.
      Once again, Chelsea bunker only when they have to – otherwise their style is imperious. To hell with bunkering – “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.”

    • I’ll take a 6-4 loss. At least “Own Goal” won’t be our team’s second leading scorer any more….

  5. el pachyderm says:

    Can anybody recall Le Toux’s productivity once JC became manager? Wondering if it is a poor fit for him. I do not remember if he was good at end of last season.

    • Well, he did do a lot of the ‘dirty running’ so all is good.

    • He actually went through somewhat of a ‘rebirth’ under Curtin. After June 17th he had 9g (2pk) 4a in regular season play and another 2g (1pk) 2a in Open Cup games. He only had 3g 3a with Hackworth, and I kinda remember him being in the doghouse somewhat by the time Hackworth was let go.

      Obviously we haven’t seen much of that yet this year (2a), but I think that is also a function of the way this season’s team has come together under Curtin’s ‘philosophy’ combined with the lack of the ‘new-coach-who-believes-in-me’ bump for LeToux.

      • el pachyderm says:

        nice work. thanks.

      • that because Curtin’s style does not require possession, just running. some players give you both, some just one. LeToux gives you running. I now expect his 1st touch to be horrific – anything else is a bonus.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    For the limited amount that the following observation is worth, in reference to Adam Cann’s projected bench (specifically McGlaughlin), the HCI preview of their Friday night match in Charlotte implies that Jimmy is with the City Islanders. The article mentions the offensive boost HCI has received from its Union loanees and points out that McGlaughlin is their statistical team leader in total points with a goal and an assist.

  7. Wouldn’t be surprised to see Fabinho in there for Williams this week. Williams really fell apart at the end of the 3rd game in a week. Could probably use a rest.

  8. Yhe Union can play possession. Any team in this league can play some possession. The player with the ball must have support on the right. left and a penetrating pass option upfield. Thus, The Union players NOT on the ball must work extra hard to put themselves in postion to recieve the ball. Thus a minimum of 3 players must react to the ball.If the ball is against the sideline (ie Wenger) He must immediately give it up to a more central player to re-establish the 4 v 2 type setup. The give and go must involve 3 players and not 2 as is commonly seen, Particularly along the wings. Wenger can be the beneficiary of the misdirected thru pass so he can attack the defender while on the run.If their fullbacks like to attack, the wide attacking players can cheat forward if the Crew attack stalls.All that is needed is someone who can quickly distribute (thats a lot to ask ,i guess)Slow buildup means you can press hard to win the ball along the edges (not in the middle) because 1/2 of all run of play goals are scored from defensive turnover. Go take a chance, what the hell

  9. Another thing, this goalie kid is a big liability.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    So after reading this, and these comments… do I even watch? I mean I will, but what the hell?!? I am SO TIRED of going into basically every match in a defensive shell with no shot to win unless a congenital heart defect fells three of their players in warm-ups. Something has to change. It won’t, I know. But something has to change. FREE THIS FRANCHISE.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Of course, we will watch…

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        We post, therefore we watch.

      • If we don’t watch, how do we know where to aim our pitchforks? And who is the next candidate for the rocket to the sun?

      • we sit on the cliff nihilistically waiting for the match Saturday night….as tumbleweeds drift behind us….like Lebowski……with hundreds of supporters huddled around a Sony 1990’s Trinitron….that only has a ten inch screen…..grasping our Union bibles…….

  11. I pretty much almost don’t want to watch the game if this is the 11. We are guaranteed to just boot it upfield over and over again. I can already see the graphic in the analysis of the giant hole in the middle of the field.
    How about taking a chance? How about taking off the players who are massively underperforming and give the other guys a shot?
    I go 4-4-2 with Lahoud/Maidana in the middle and Ayuk/Sapong out wide. Put Casey and Nando up top. I do NOT want to watch Brian Carroll again, and Le Toux needs a rest more than anyone with how he’s played. We are going to boot it, we know that, at least lets have two big bodies to collect the ball. Sapong and Ayuk are more than capable/willing to make the runs. Maybe Le Toux will have more luck coming in for Casey against more tired legs.

  12. Great analysis, Adam, I always enjoying reading your match previews for their analysis. You demonstrate a good understanding of soccer systems, possible adjustments the team can make, best use of players, etc.

    Any chance we can hire you to coach the Union? Please? Pretty please?

  13. Sell this franchise to a competent and financially competitive owner!

  14. It’s so frustrating to realize that I don’t think we’ve seen the best 11 players all on the field together so far this season. Depressing

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