Match previews

Preview: Union vs Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Columbus Crew
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: Wednesday, June 3 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Whistle: Jorge Gonzalez; Linesmen: CJ Morgante, Kathryn Nesbitt; Fourth Official: Mark Kadlecik

Fun fact: Since the last time Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew played, a match in which the Union spent 15 minutes playing soccer and 75 minutes doing team charades to express the verb “to wither,” Jim Curtin’s men have more points than the Crew. In fact, in the Eastern Conference only Toronto FC and DC United have more points in their last five matches than Philadelphia.

Look familiar? Columbus plays the tight defensive shape that the Union have adopted the past three weeks.

Look familiar? Columbus plays the tight defensive shape that the Union have adopted the past three weeks.

Nogueira and a tighter shape

Before anyone is seduced over to the bright side, let us dwell for a quick moment on that April 25 match between these teams. The Union midfield featured two of the three players likely to start on Wednesday. With Vincent Nogueira joining Brian Carroll and Cristian Maidana in the center, Philly will have a potential counterattack that did not exist in April.

The Union’s offense, sans Nogueira’s link in the transition game, never touched down in Columbus in April. Eric Ayuk’s consolation goal was the only shot on target aside from Cristian Maidana’s speculative third minute effort. And keep in mind: Philly had the entire second half to at least put pressure on the Columbus net. Down three goals, the Union had every reason to throw bodies forward. They just… couldn’t figure out how.

Nogueira’s return has provided a point of transition from defense to midfield and from midfield to attack, however the French midfielder is one caution away from a suspension.

And it may be that, above and beyond Nogueira’s health, a change in defensive tactics — from an attempt at high pressure to a deeper, more disciplined setup — has been the real impetus behind the Union’s changing fortunes since the last time these teams met.

Late goals conceded

As the Union have slowly sorted out their issues on both sides of the ball, the Crew have been going through a very odd series of second half swoons. Gregg Berhalter’s side have allowed six second half goals in the past four matches. Even stranger, a team that had given up only one goal in the final fifteen minutes of a match (and that to Clint Dempsey with a two-goal cushion) has now conceded late twice in a row, letting four points slip away in the process.

Certainly there is a caveat here: Last weekend, the Crew nearly left Orlando with three points despite playing a man down (after a dubious goalline handball call) most of the match. But there are also clear danger signs for one of the better teams in the east.

In three of the four matches Columbus has tied, they have given up a second half lead (the fourth draw was a scoreless affair with New England). Even more worrying, each of the four times the Crew have allowed the first goal, they have gone on to lose the match. And only once did they even draw level for a period after going behind.

In short, Columbus Crew show all the signs of a club doing a careful balancing act. When the first team is healthy and they grab an early lead, say goodnight. But if they are knocked back early or missing a player through fatigue, injury, or homesickness, Columbus can suddenly look more like a team that refuses to adjust its tactics to fit the game state.

But that stubborn refusal to change how they play despite venue or opponent is what makes the Crew such an interesting team in the Eastern Conference. Out west, Real Salt Lake and Seattle have traveled the country imposing their game on other teams for years while the closest analog in the east has been Houston’s relentless physicality under Dom Kinnear. Columbus is going to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, and they are going to do it by building from the back with possession. If teams can put the Crew in situations where such tactics are less than ideal, they can frustrate the Crew and take points off of a very good team.

Philly's weak response in the April 25 loss to Columbus.

Philly’s weak response in the April 25 loss to Columbus.

Who will travel?

After traveling to Philadelphia, the Crew return home to face Montreal. Gregg Berhalter should be looking for six points from these two matches, but he may settle for four given his team’s schedule. Following Montreal, the Crew hit a turbulent run in which they meet LA, New England, RSL, and Red Bulls. Entering that stretch with a healthy squad will be paramount for the Crew, so it is quite possible that key players will return to Columbus rather than traveling to Philly after a weekend in Orlando.

One player who will be forced to the sidelines is Michael Parkhust, who will be serving his red card suspension. Tyson Wahl is likely to deputize Parkhurt with Emmanuel Pogatetz alongside. Pogatetz was scheduled for a rest before Parkhurst’s red card, though he was inserted for Federico Higuain in the 19th minute, meaning the dangerous Argentinian playmaker will be fully rested for tomorrow’s match.

The Crew get men in the box well, freeing up big men Tchani and Kamara.

The Crew get men in the box well, freeing up big men Tchani and Kamara.

Last time the Union and Crew met, Hernan Grana spent fifteen minutes chasing Andrew Wenger then 30 minutes showing the Philly man how a modern fullback functions in a possession game. The newly acquired fullback was a consistently dangerous outlet for the Crew, combining well with Ethan Finlay and the midfield to expand the field of play. Grana has left Columbus to be closer to his family, and a combination of Hector Jimenez and Chris Klute has yet to find a rhythm with the rest of the squad.

Finlay, on the other hand, has continued to break out in a big way. Even without his two-goals-and-an-assist performance against the Union, Finlay is averaging an assist every other game in 2015. He toasted Fabinho in a real low point for the Brazilian in April. Since that time, Finlay has continued at pace while the Union fullback has put together a series of bounceback performances that may earn him another shot at the Columbus speedster tomorrow. To slow Finlay down, Fabinho will need to communicate well with Richie Marquez and force the winger wide. Additionally, Fabi cannot get caught on Finlay’s outside shoulder when retreating. Simple positioning errors have disappeared from Fabinho’s game in recent weeks, but Lloyd Sam and Nick DeLeon are nowhere near as tricky as tomorrow’s opponent.

UnionCLBPrediction: Union 0-1 Columbus

The Crew are built to stretch defenses, and the Union are going to need all of their discipline to maintain a tight shape at home against a team that will come to PPL Park and hold the ball as long as they want. Even without Michael Parkhurst’s distribution, the Crew possess the type of size and speed that can quickly wear an opponent down on short rest. The Union will hang tough but struggle to defend set pieces and crosses.

In the end, this match should be as much about showing that April 25 was a fluke as it is about getting three points at home. Just over a month ago, the Crew embarrassed the Union, picking apart a defense that did not believe in itself and twisting the knife with a languid second half that served to emphasize both the gaps between talent and organization on the field and between talent and organization in the front office.

Last year, Columbus wiped out the Union’s playoff chances. This season, they nearly wiped out the entire fanbase’s confidence in their squad. A series of strong showings have restored some of that confidence, but now the Crew is back. And the Union need to prove they can compete.


  1. pragmatist says:

    First…this is the funniest line you guys have written in a very long time:
    “…and 75 minutes doing team charades to express the verb “to wither”…”

    I’m going to laugh about that for a long time.

    That said, I think Columbus may be the best team in the East when all is said and done. Too many weapons on both sides of the ball. They are in a rough patch, but they can slap 4 goals on anyone in this league on any day. I just hope we only have to endure one of those.

    I think we score on them, however. 1-1 seems reasonable, if Mo, Marquez, and Carrol can keep Kamara, Finlay, and Higuan somewhat contained (I know, easier said than done).

    I will hold onto hope until forced otherwise.

    • alicat215 says:

      I like their double holding mids……#8 and I forget the other guy’s #….they are the fulcrum and engine room of that squad and make everything else move….great players. I love how Columbus plays ball……..they and a healthy RBNY are the two top clubs in the east…….but screw RBNY! Having said that….Columbus looked pretty pedestrian against OCFC this weekend.

      • pragmatist says:

        The Orange Bowl is apparently a tough place to play. That place gets insane. Keep in mind that OCSC rescued a last-minute point and CLB was down a man for most of the game.
        This is a scary team. And Kamara is the scariest of the bunch at the moment.

      • The Orange Bowl, which was located in Miami, no longer exists. I’m sure you meant to say Citrus Bowl, which is home to the Orlando City squad.

      • pragmatist says:

        I stand corrected….and ashamed…

      • The Black Hand says:

        Go stand the corner!

      • John Ling says:

        I guess the fact that it no longer exists means Prag was right – it’s really hard to play there! 🙂

      • pragmatist says:

        Right…EXACTLY what I was going for!
        (I shall not go gently into that good night!)

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        It’s also pretty hot and pretty humid in Florida generally in the summer, see “snowbirds” and “why.”

      • Kamara is nasty…..and he always seems to punish the Union too

      • alicat215 says:

        I forgot Parkhurst got sent off in like the 29th or something like that……..

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    At worst a draw and win in the next two. They (the Union) are gonna string us along for another few months… and I will happily oblige. HA!

  3. Steve H. says:

    Taking the kids to the game tomorrow night. Hoping it is a better showing than the last meeting. But somehow it feels like it going to be more like hoping to see Frank Sinatra and ending up seeing Robin Williams sing like Elmer Fudd.

    I truly hope they surprise me and somehow win.

  4. Love the predicted starting 11. Totally agree with taking Wenger off in favor of Sapong. Yea Wenger had a decent game against DC, but we seem to be a better team offensively with Sapong on. Would love to see him and Fernando working together and receiving service from Nogs and Chaco, could see some long over due magic at PPL Park if this is the team Curtin rolls with.

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