Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 1-2 Columbus Crew

The nagging problem that lies at the heart of Philadelphia Union’s rough season is this: Not only does the whole team have to play well for them to win, the opponent also has to play, well, poorly.

Columbus Crew were far from poor Saturday night, particularly in the first half. Gregg Berhalter was troubled by how his team handled Dallas’ deep defense last week and he promised to have them ready to break down the Union.

And they were.

How they did it

Switching fields. Then switching back. Then switching fields again. The Crew had Philly chasing from the opening whistle, holding over 70% of possession through the opening 25 minutes. That… is extreme (especially for a road game).

Truth be told, though, Columbus was not creating many opportunities. They simply wore the Union down.

With Trapp between the centerbacks, Columbus switched the ball side to side with speed.

With Trapp between the centerbacks, Columbus switched the ball side to side with speed.

As long as Wil Trapp dropped into the back line to build, Philly seemed to struggle with defensive shape. Trapp quickly moved the ball to the central defenders near the touchline while the fullbacks trotted upfield, pinning the Union wingers deep. If Le Toux or Ayuk stepped to the ball, Columbus played it wide to the fullbacks. If the wingers stayed and a midfielder stepped, the ball went to Justin Meram or Ethan Finlay, who enjoyed space whenever the Union followed Federico Higuain on a deep check.

It was nothing novel or unique, but the Crew’s execution was largely excellent. Players were constantly on the move, and the fullbacks positioning seemed to throw the Union into disarray as the wingers struggled to figure out the correct response when the ball went to a center back.

One extremely interesting aspect of Columbus’ plan is how much it relied on Kei Kamara to be dominant in the air. The ball was often moving side to side so quickly that Tchani and Higuain rarely had time to get into the box. Kamara was often the only man in the area, with a winger arriving late at the back post.

But it worked. Give fullbacks enough chances with enough time to pick out crosses to one of the league’s best finishers and something will end up in the back of the net. Philly found this out when the teams first met and Waylon Francis delivered a gorgeous assist from the left. This time it was Harrison Afful lofting a deflected cross to Kamara then rolling a ball across the box for the big striker to finish.

Switch play, attack space, find Kamara. It was that simple.

Barnetta facilitated possession early against San Jose. He was shut out in the first twenty minutes by Columbus

Barnetta facilitated possession early against San Jose. He was shut out in the first twenty minutes by Columbus

The real trouble

Dallas beat Columbus by relying on two things: Luck and speed. Philly was stuck with no luck and moderate speed. Oddly, though, the problem for the Union was not on the wings, where they have struggled to create for most of the season but have decent speed. It was through the middle, where Barnetta could not apply the final ball and the holding midfielders were far too reticent to step into counterattacks.

In fairness to the Union, the Crew guarded heavily against the counter, sitting Tchani deeper than normal to snuff out trouble in front of the back four. Barnetta in particular found little space early on, with the Columbus midfield nipping at his heels. This forced CJ Sapong to drop deeper to facilitate play coming forward, with Sebastien Le Toux tucking inside to help. Sapong and Le Toux combined for the Union’s first chance of the game, but the Frenchman’s advanced positioning would become a problem as Columbus lured him out then found Afful in space, with Finlay keeping Fabinho at bay.

Barnetta's shot chart looks far too much like a Mario Balotelli shot chart.

Barnetta’s shot chart looks far too much like a Mario Balotelli shot chart.

Last week against Dallas, Columbus tried to play vertically through the middle, acceding to Jack McInerney’s incisive cutting runs. McInerney had chances, but in general the Crew ended up playing away from their strengths, as Dallas collapsed centrally, forcing Tchani to step into the attack and leave space for Michael Barrios to counter (and boy did he ever).

The real takeaway from Saturday’s game, then, was how quickly the Crew were able to make and implement tactical changes in their offense. Berhalter’s front six moved in very coordinated ways, drawing the Union fullbacks away from the wings so the fullbacks, who took up very advanced positions, would have room to pick out Kamara.

On the other hand, Philly never managed to adjust to the Crew’s ball movement. Jim Curtin said in the post-match presser that he gave his guys ten minutes to start the second half to see how they would adjust. They didn’t, and a dedication to the long ball arrived in the form of Conor Casey.

Not only did Columbus move the ball well, they had a plan for dealing with Union counters. If the ball was lost high up the pitch, the fullbacks were willing to take a foul to slow things down.

Not only did Columbus move the ball well, they had a plan for dealing with Union counters. If the ball was lost high up the pitch, the fullbacks were willing to take a foul to slow things down.

Columbus counters the counter

Again, this match was less about what the Union did wrong than it was about what Columbus did very, very well. For the first twenty minutes of the match, Philly sat deep to absorb pressure and break. But during those same twenty minutes, the Crew barely put a foot wrong.

Something telling shows up on the Columbus defensive chart from that opening phase of the match: Both Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis picked up multiple early fouls in the Union half.

The Crew had a plan to push those fullbacks far up the pitch, but they were wary about the counterattack. So whenever they lost the ball, there was a coordinated retreat effort, one facet of which was taking a foul to prevent a breakout.

The second facet was to prevent Tranquillo Barnetta from getting on the ball. Look at Barnetta’s touches in the first twenty minutes against San Jose, where he was a reliable outlet on both sides of the pitch. The Crew took this away by bracketing the Swiss international and gambling that the Union would struggle to advance the ball without him. Not only did the gamble pay off, it also seduced Sebastien Le Toux to push higher and more central, which, as noted above, opened space for Afful to become a key player in both Crew goals.

In the first half, Columbus forced Gaddis to play into Ayuk's feet (with the teenager's back to goal) and kept Fabinho from putting balls into the box.

In the first half, Columbus forced Gaddis to play into Ayuk’s feet (with the teenager’s back to goal) and kept Fabinho from putting balls into the box.

What can the Union do better?

Coordinated defense. It looked so bad against New England, then, strangely, so good against San Jose that commentators were declaring that Steven Vitoria and Richie Marquez could keep Maurice Edu out of the lineup.

But let’s put this to rest. The reason Edu should slot back in as soon as he is healthy has less to do with goals allowed than with the future direction of Philadelphia Union as a club. Since Edu arrived, he has shuffled between the midfield and backline putting out whichever fire happens to be raging most noticeably at any given moment. This is not a good example of how to build around a star. Certainly, Edu is functionally flexible. But he is also going to get better and better at defense the more he plays there. Because, y’know, he’s pretty good at soccer.

The Union made the defensible decision to recruit a midfielder in the transfer window. Not a central defender, not a goalkeeper, not a fullback. A midfielder. And they want to play him in the middle. This has not been a season in which many players have made a strong case to have their names inked on the lineup card, but if anybody has, it is Vincent Nogueira and some combination of Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud.

In the first half (L), Columbus forced Nogueira to play from deeper positions, and often backward. This is about as bad as it gets for the Union offense.

In the first half (L), Columbus forced Nogueira to play from deeper positions, and often backward. This is about as bad as it gets for the Union offense.

In other words, Nogueira is the best Philly has right now. But given how much the Union struggle to hold the ball against quality opponents, he needs a dedicated defensive midfielder to free him up to check wide and collect the ball from fullbacks who have consistently been targeted in possession. Mo Edu is many things, but it is hard to make the case for him as a dedicated defensive midfielder. When placed in the role, he has looked torn between staying central and using his athleticism and skill to catalyze the offense; he wants to do more than break up play.

So to answer the question ‘What can the Union do better,’ perhaps Philly should look to their opponents. During their best run under Jim Curtin, everybody knew what the Union wanted to do but nobody could stop them. That identity — and the confidence it bred — is long gone. Getting it back starts with recruiting players to fill systemic needs and giving them time to succeed or fail in those roles.

Passing in the first twenty minutes for the Union (L) and the Crew.

Passing in the first twenty minutes for the Union (L) and the Crew.

Final thoughts

And Curtin deserves credit here: He stuck with Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux on the wings despite their disastrous start to the campaign. Le Toux has rewarded that patience; Wenger has not.

But even with his best eleven available, Curtin has been unable to install a coherent system that has clear objectives when the team wins the ball and when they lose it. The coach has leeway this season because, honestly, he has navigated the club through the treacherous waters of a poorly assembled roster and a goalkeeping fiasco the likes of which will never be seen again in Major League Soccer.

But Columbus laid bare the truth on Saturday: Even with all the chances and half-chances generated, even with Maurice Edu and Cristian Maidana available, the gap in intent would still be evident. The Crew have a plan to win, and they execute it with more or less precision each week.

The Union have a plan to compete. And while competing each week is an admirable goal, it is also too low of a bar for a team that wants to bring home hardware.

Philly can still, somehow, make the playoffs by scraping out wins this season. But that is no formula for long-term success. What Columbus showed was one such formula. New England showed another.

What is the Union’s?

Player ratings (by Eli Pearlman-Storch & Adam Cann)

John McCarthy – 5

Could Blake have made a save on either of Columbus’ goals? Maybe, maybe not, but McCarthy’s footwork on both did little to help his claim to the starting spot. Showed strong, clean hands in the second half, while making the saves he needed to.

Ray Gaddis – 3

Bullied by Justin Meram throughout, Gaddis’ inconsistency with the ball at his feet was almost as glaring as his inability to get forward in support of the attack. To be fair to Gaddis, his performances have largely been symptomatic of the entire team’s struggles. That said, it would be nice to have an option off the bench to give the fullback a chance to catch his breath and rediscover the simple, defensive game that made him a starter in the first place.

Steven Vitoria – 4

Vitoria has reached the point in his Union career where simply breaking up play is no longer sufficient. Stopping attacks is critical, yes, but when the Union must endure their opponents coming in waves after Vitoria cheaply punts it back to them, it simply is not good enough. It probably speaks to Columbus’ evaluation of Vitoria that they felt confident sending Kamara into the box alone to challenge for crosses.

Richie Marquez – 4

Went straight at Kamara in the early going, challenging him to a series of physical duels. Showed off both his wheels and improving reading of play as he raced back to cut off promising attacks on a handful of occasions. Challenging Kamara is a bold move, and Marquez was beaten at least once when the big striker turned him near the endline. Like Vitoria, Marquez was too comfortable booting the ball up field rather than looking for a closer target in an effort to retain possession.

Fabinho – 3

Forced into far too many overloaded situations by Le Toux in front of him, Fabinho failed to be decisive when confronted with the runs of Finlay and Afful. In truth, Fabinho rarely has good options when he has the ball at his feet. To be very truthful, that is probably because opponents have realized that forcing the Union to play through the fullbacks is a good way to get the ball back.

Brian Carroll – 4

At his best when cutting off passing lanes and clogging up the middle, Carroll was forced to chase the game and was simple unable to keep up with the movement and pace of Columbus. Federico Higuain’s above 90% pass completion rate is fairly conclusive proof of Carroll’s inability to boss his zone on the night. The Crew were determined to draw Philly out of their deep setup, and once that happened, Carroll was left floating between the lines without enough support. He did well to keep the Crew from charging through the center and, in fairness, he was probably holding his position while others abandoned theirs.

Vincent Nogueira – 4

Looking uncharacteristically sluggish, Nogueira was not immune to the first half doldrums that struck the entire Union side. Picked the speed of his game up marginally in the second half, but it was too little, too late.

Sebastien Le Toux – 4

What Seba giveth, Seba taketh away. A rousing challenge on Tchani set up Sapong for the Union’s lone goal, but that aggressive desire to push the team forward often left Fabinho alone against an opponent that he has struggled to control in the past. The great part about watching Le Toux play is that even when he’s clearly out of position and chasing the ball, you know it’s because he desperately wants to contribute and win. Figuring out how to rein in those tendencies will make him a more complete player (as he was during Philly’s great run under Curtin last season).

Tranquillo Barnetta – 4

Created two excellent scoring chances for himself, a rarity out of the No. 10 channel for the Union, but was largely outplayed and rendered anonymous by the industry and precision of Trapp and Tchani.

Eric Ayuk – 5

Showed plenty of endeavor and energy when he was able to get forward, but failed to do so with sufficient frequency, as he was too content to win fouls off of Francis near the midfield stripe. His departure signalled the end of the guile portion of the evening, as Curtin switched to the brute force approach.

Sapong was forced to drop deep to get the ball, meaning Philly rarely had anyone running in behind to threaten the defense the way Dallas did vs Columbus a week ago.

Sapong was forced to drop deep to get the ball, meaning Philly rarely had anyone running in behind to threaten the defense the way Dallas did vs Columbus a week ago.

CJ Sapong – 6

Remains nearly unplayable in the air and continued to do what he could to hold up the ball and profit on a minimal amount of touches. His constant drive towards the goal led to another simply finished, but well built, goal.


Conor Casey – 5

Couldn’t replicate his magic act from San Jose, despite directing a header on target with his first touch of the ball. As the one guy who definitely, 100% needs to be in the box, the Union were oddly content with allowing Casey to roll out onto the wings, looking to create chances rather than finish them.

Michael Lahoud – 5

A like for like sub for Carroll, Lahoud used his fresh legs to move the ball more quickly. Aside from one fancy moment of dribbling, Lahoud stayed deep, looking to facilitate attacks up the flanks.

Fernando Aristeguieta – 4

Had a few clever touches in and around the box, but with both teams packing the area with their tallest trees, Aristeguieta was unable to find enough space to make the difference.

Geiger Counter – 7

This game came down to the players on the field, not Jose Carlos Rivero in the middle of it. That is about as high praise as a referee in this league has received in some time.


  1. Fat Uncle Phil from Urkel says:

    That was the best ref we’ve had all year at PPL, IMO. Made some blunders, but nothing outside of the usual wear and tear of being human.

    I also thought Barnetta played well. I’m starting to see why he’s so highly regarded. I think his field vision is great.

    • agreed on both counts and I’d like to add:
      Dear PPL Faithful,
      Your enthusiasm is almost always appreciated, but how’s about a little STFU when a Union player is whistled for a very obvious foul? I know you are in row Z and the ref is 5 yards from the play. I know you see it better than he does, but I’ll give you a pro tip: when our guy is running in behind their guy with the ball, and there’s contact, and the guy with the ball goes down, umm, that’s a foul, people. Sit down and take a drink from your cup of eleven dollar beer.

  2. Have to agree with most of what was written.
    Gaddis was horrible, especially his passing.
    I was OK with the Marquez-Vittoria duo for most of the game. They did what they needed to do. For the most part.
    You can’t leave the league leading scorer unmarked and not expect him to take advantage. You can’t leave the league second-in-assists room to pass to the league leading scorer and hope that it doesn’t result in the ball getting in the back of the net.
    More comments need to be made about the Union’s lack of urgency and desire to win. Everyone else in the stadium realized it was a “must win” except for the 11 on the field.
    I still believe in the Union, this loss stung, though. I’ve seen them play so well this year, but I’ve also seen them play poorly.
    Win the Cup, boys. Use that as impetus to change the team like DC did.

    • Please note my comment about the game after the coach was interviewed in Post Game Video and Wrap – would be glad to cut and paste here. Clearly you will see that the club was brought to task for exactly what you highlight here.

  3. 3s and 4s a spattering of 5s does not a good team make. Onion.

  4. While no calls decided the game, I thought the ref was very inconsistent (and both ways). There were several plays that he clearly missed whose ball it should be and one time he looked over at his assistant who just kind of shrugged his shoulders before one of them finally gave the ball to Columbus. Once you make it obvious that you have no clue, the least you can do is to give the ball to the home team so the fans are less upset with you.

  5. I thought repeat fouls were supposed to be addressed this year. Intentionally fouling on the counterattack is the soccer equivalent of the trap and holding in hockey in the 90s. There’s no place for it.

  6. In defense of McCarthy, GK is one position where stability works for both team and player. When your back line doesn’t know which voice will be barking out instructions on set pieces, it is hard to build their confidence. Nobody could’ve predicted the mess that was Rais M’Bolhi, or the injury to Blake. So I think that McCarthy should get some slack and be allowed to develop and that doesn’t happen when you go from the #3 guy to #1 in a week. Consistency yields confidence and confidence yields consistency. With a young player like this, a proper amount of time should be allowed for both aspects to develop before you can give him a fair grade.

    • I like McCarthy and agree that he should not be made into a scapegoat since he was brought in to be a #3 keeper in the first place.
      But if you are going to stick to and develop one of the young keepers on the roster it should be the one with the higher ceiling – Blake.

    • He can do that in Bethlehem next year. Play Blake.

  7. I think a paragraph here is the most efficient diagnosis of what is wrong with the 2015 Union:

    “The Union have a plan to compete. And while competing each week is an admirable goal, it is also too low of a bar for a team that wants to bring home hardware.”
    This team was designed to be “good enough” and to slip into a low-seeded playoff spot. But inconsistent performance, injury, bad tactics and bad luck conspired to keep this team in the basement.
    When things go bad for Seattle, they end up in 6th place, the ceiling for the Union if all went well.

    • Middle of the pack IS the goal. Make no mistake. That, unfortunately is the business plan as of now.
      I’ve eluded in other posts that I am beginning to see and have a bit more faith in the long term Vision and Plan… but for now the short term goal is middle of the road.
      Good Cup showings.

      • I agree. And in hindsight, Curtin told us exactly this in the preseason. He knew he didn’t have the horses he needed to do anything more than hope for the 6th spot.

  8. Plain and simple, McCarthy doesn’t know how to control a back line, not his fault, he needs more time under a more experienced keeper, we also need a center back leader to work with the keeper that the rest of the line can feed off of (I.e. Mondragon and Valdez)

    We need someone playing defensive center mid that can free nogueira to go forward and create, I don’t know if lahoud is that man, but he’s doing a much better job than Carroll that just fell off the face of the planet again (he was doing good there for a while too!)

    We need to run maidana, barnetta, and letoux (as long as he keeps up good play) through the attacking middle, and please heaven help me, can we find a true threat up top that will scare defenders every time they have the ball (I.e. Kamari)

    We aren’t that far away, we just need to make good decisions to fix the little problems

    • I know a player who would have complimented Noguiera perfectly this season….
      would have provided leadership. a snark to his game. solidified the spine of team by playing in front of CB….helping the young keeper organize and learn how to keep a defense compact.
      yup I know the guy for that job.

      • WestmontUnion says:

        Okugo ? Yes, I agree. Now he’s sat on the bench not playing. Ona. related note, I posted this on Big Soccer forum. I am all about looking to next season (as I was 5 games into the season!), and think we need to use DC as a model to move things forwards and progress. We need to go after players within the league, players who are not being played but have talent or who are underpaid but performing at high level (attract them with bigger contract). We have failed time and time again to sign players from outside the league, and while we have Nog, Maidana and Barnetta (as examples of good signings), we could easily bring in another M’Bolhi or Vitoria if we keep only focusing on players from European leagues.

        Here’s a few players I think we should target this winter –

    • I am not convinced Nogueira will go forward and into the box, ever. And that is a problem when we play basically 6 defenders.

  9. I don’t care. Just get me a damn trophy and we’ll call it a wash.

    • sadly we can’t expect this team to string together anything resembling cohesion and vision ahead of the Open Cup Final. when i saw it would be 2 weeks later than last year, i though “great! more game to get something resembling confidence out there.” unless the Onion lose the match before the Final, we can’t win back to back apparently, it’s a hope and see approach. i see nothing reminiscent of a plan.

      • Don’t look for logic or a pattern. They look very good one week, then an adult rec team the next. Let’s just hope we get the former on the 30th.

  10. The most disappointing thing is knowing this system will not work over he long haul, and that we will spend money in the offseason to find players for it. The. It still won’t work, and we’ll be back where we started.

  11. As I was reading the text, before I got to the numbers, I thought Nick Sak had hacked Adam’s account and was writing an apology for Saturday night. The biggest problem is that the team lacks leadership and energy. There was no sense of urgency at all.

    On a related point, the reality of MLS is that the refs will ignore contact. this means that Aristegueita, Nogueira and Ayuk especially need to find a way to stay on their feet and not get pushed off the ball. LeToux basically shoved the defender with both hands on his assist.

  12. Generous for Sapong. I thought that he wandered in the first half, starting well too deep.

  13. Old Soccer Coach says:

    It has been a long time since I looked up the generation Adidas rules, but preserving Blake’s GA status is the only rational reason I can discern for not starting Blake. McCarthy will start for the USL team playing at Lehigh University next season. McCarthy has a clearly defined ceiling. Blake and Sylvestre both have higher potential. If I were MacMath I would decline to return to the Union.

    • I looked up the GA rules earlier this year. There wasn’t much in my google search, and what articles there were all started with- surprise!- “the rule is shrouded in mystery”. Bottom line was it’s (probably) based on minutes played, and there is no way Blake can play enough minutes at this point to pass the threshold based on past decisions. Not even close. Other GKs that graduated from program had well over 1,000 minutes played (I forget the numbers). I believe the decision not to play Blake was fully a Curtin preference call. Another strike against him to me.

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