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: Saturday, September 12 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick
Whistle: Jose Carlos Rivero; Linesmen: Corey Parker, Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho; Fourth Official: Marcos De Oliveira

Last year, Columbus Crew swept the playoff rug out from under a high scoring Philadelphia Union side that never quite figured out defense. This Saturday, the Union look to make the Crew’s 2015 playoff push a little bit tougher.

A fairly clear divide has developed between the playoff haves and have nots in the Eastern Conference. Although the Union are only one point behind Montreal, the Impact have four games in hand and a 1.29 points/game average compared to Philly’s 1.07. That’s, um, a big difference (for comparison: first place DC averages 0.28 pt/game more than Montreal).

Nogueira and Lahoud stayed close together and stayed central, preventing San Jose from running at the defense.

Nogueira and Lahoud stayed close together and stayed central, preventing San Jose from running at the defense.

All Philadelphia can do to stay relevant in the playoff race is keep winning games and hope someone else collapses. But to beat Columbus, the Union will have to break a three-game home winless streak while containing one of the league’s best offenses.

Concentrate on Kamara

It all starts with Columbus up front. Look at the quotes after last week’s loss to Dallas and you see a team struggling to explain what Kamara brings to the table. Certainly there is his size, speed, movement, and finishing. But there is something else that is more difficult to articulate that guides the Crew offense when it is in full flight.

Kamara is that rare blend of player that can be both the battering ram wearing down defenders and the light-footed dribbler, finding an extra yard of space to play a teammate in. Beyond that near-inimitable skillset, Kamara has become more of the conductor of the Crew attack as the year has progressed. Federico Higuain may still be the nominal playmaker, but it is Kamara’s runs that dictate the Crew’s movement. Once Kamara picks his spot, Ethan Finlay, Cedrick, and Justin Meram shape up around the big striker and pin the defense deep. Into that space strides Higuain and Tony Tchani, with Wil Trapp healthy and spreading the ball to all fields from deep. It really can be beautiful.

The problem for head coach Gregg Berhalter has been that the defense has let goals in at about the same pace the offense scores them.

A huge soft spot for Columbus has been defending set pieces. Opposing teams have scored 15 goals off of crosses, corner kicks, and indirect free kicks this season. Even the Union, hardly the most reliable set piece guardians, have only allowed 13.

Such a statistic may lead Jim Curtin to move Conor Casey into the starting lineup alongside CJ Sapong, with Tranquillo Barnetta shuffled wide. But don’t count on it. On Wednesday, Curtin mused that his roster might simply be better suited to a compact counterattacking style compared to an aggressive pressing defense. Such a system is far better suited to a five-man midfield than a 4-4-2 with Casey. The big man will surely get a few minutes considering how flawed the Crew’s aerial defense has been, but he is unlikely to be on from the start.

Despite having less possession, the Union (L) played the ball in the middle of the pitch more than the Quakes (R) because they finally had three midfielders in that area.

Despite having less possession, the Union (L) played the ball in the middle of the pitch more than the Quakes (R) because they finally had three midfielders in that area.

The true trio

And as good as Casey was against San Jose, he was able to make a winning contribution because the three men in the midfield did a spectacular job shutting down the center of the pitch all match. However, short-handed San Jose is a far less menacing prospect than full strength Columbus. Whereas Matias Perez Garcia was content flitting around the wings, Federico Higuain will put more pressure on Michael Lahoud and Vincent Nogueira to communicate and stay close to each other.

Jim Curtin – and Berhalter, for that matter – has talked about continuity in the back line as a priority because players start to intuit the movement of their teammates. The same principle applies in midfield, where Nogueira’s nagging injuries have kept him from bonding defensively with Lahoud or Carroll.

Nogueira looked noticeably more comfortable in a deep-lying, counterattacking setup against San Jose than he looked in the press-oriented tactics employed against New England. The Union are all but certain to adopt a similar strategy this weekend, especially since the Crew looked bereft of ideas when Dallas went to five in the back and parked the bus on Sunday.

Columbus ran out of ideas against Dallas (above), who simply sat back and cleared anything that came close to the box.

Columbus ran out of ideas against Dallas (above), who simply sat back and cleared anything that came close to the box.

Crew response

What can Columbus do differently to have more success against tight-packed defenses? The issue is not so much that the Crew can’t score – they have Kamara up top, after all – it is that they have fewer ways of doing it. Justin Meram is fantastic at slipping into the holes between midfield and defense and drawing multiple defenders. On the other flank, Ethan Finlay has already made Fabinho a victim of his darting, angled runs this season. These players are so effective because the midfield trio behind them consists exclusively of above-average passers. Tchani and Trapp can take up deeper positions, stretching any pressing defense and playing balls through the resulting holes.

The Crew push the ball forward on the ground, then dish it wide to a cutter or a crosser. Sitting deep forces the ball wide earlier and allows the defense to shape up before crosses are delivered. Columbus can respond by sending more runners through the midfield. Tchani fits the role well, though he tends to pick and choose his spots. The big midfielder needs to be a bit less selective to help the Crew disrupt a well-organized defense.

When Columbus dismantled Philly earlier this season, the Crew were relying on the passing and leadership of Michael Parkhurst alongside the brute force and intelligence of Emmanuel Pogatetz. The latter has since lost his position, and Tyson Wahl is likely to start in his place this weekend. Wahl was badly exposed by Dallas’ speed last weekend, but the Union do not have the motors to engineer the type of swift counterattacks that allowed Dallas to run away with that match. Instead, Philly will have to test Wahl’s positioning by sending Barnetta and Le Toux through gaps and forcing the Crew back line to track multiple runners.

UnionCLBPrediction: Union 1-2 Crew

Without Cristian Maidana, the Union have the perfect lineup to play for a point against a stronger Columbus side. But a point will not do. Philly can sit deep to start, but they will have to create a few first half chances to avoid getting pinned back so long that they become worn down and vulnerable. Key to the Union counter will be finding Nogueira early out of the back and getting the Frenchman into the box to finish plays. It remains difficult to overstate Nogueira’s importance to the Union’s success, and he should be at the center of any offensive fluidity on Saturday.

Additionally, Tranquillo Barnetta needs to build on his strong performance last week. Although he has rarely been asked to be a reliable goalscorer in his career, that is the role Barnetta must adapt to in Philly. His movement and defensive work have been superb, but he cannot simply be a good player that passes well. He was brought in to be a difference-maker, and like it or not that means goals and chances created.

One final note: Philly must look to be aggressive attacking Columbus on the dribble and challenging Kamara in the air. Both the big striker and Tchani in midfield are one caution away from a suspension, and Berhalter will want both available next week against conference leaders DC United.


  1. Union win 3-0.

  2. The Union are awesome at confounding expectations. They follow strong performance with weak, and solid road sallies with home flops. One can only anticipate a flat performance and a 2-1 loss here, because Union.

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