Match previews

Preview: Union at Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Studio

This will be a bit of an abbreviated preview because it’s a busy week for the Union. Wednesday’s opponent, Columbus Crew, is what you might call a bit of a known quantity. They are going to play a 4-2-3-1ish shape and they are going to work the ball out of the back come hell or high water. Last season, the Crew scored a ton, and allowed nearly as many. This year, they have fewer points than the last place team in the west and they just notched their first win since May by knocking off a vacationing New England Revolution side.

Oddly, there is little that has changed from 2015 to 2016 in Columbus, with the most important personnel move being the introduction of a 6’0” Norwegian to the lineup.

Norwegians everywhere

No, not Ola Kamara, though he does fit the bill. Instead it’s Nicolai Naess, a 23-year old Norwegian signed during the summer transfer window to shore up the Crew’s troublesome defense. Playing at left center back, Naess has six incomplete passes across his two starts, and he has flourished in two very different matches against NYCFC and New England. In the former, Naess was aggressive, as David Villa hung toward Michael Parkhurst and left the debutant defender freedom to step forward and attack loose balls. In the latter, he played with a lead for 82 minutes and was content to play simple, box-protecting defense.

Below, Naess shades toward Kamara, which is probably a good tip someone gave him. But he’s quick to react when a run comes across in front.

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These may seem like small adjustments, but it points to a player who reads the game around him well and can handle being exposed, which is vital given the space Columbus’ broad attacking shape can leave in transitions. Indeed, those transitions are the best way to get at the defending Eastern Conference champs because their defense gets stretched and the attack becomes too direct and can’t get multiple bodies into the box. This may have been less of a problem last season when Kei Kamara went all Katie Ledecky in the box, but the current Kamara doesn’t quite have the same strength and ability to separate. He’s excellent, but Kei’s 2016 was special because he was able to score even when he was outnumbered.

Naess has also shown elite passing at times. One of the reasons Michael Parkhurst fits Gregg Berhalter’s system so well is that he can pass quickly, he can pass accurately, and he switches fields well (let’s call that vision, for lack of a better term). Naess looks like he has a similar skillset. Below, you can see Columbus form two triangles down the right, which draws seven (!) New England defenders. Wil Trapp, being awesome, recognizes that it’s time to get out of that zone and plays the ball back to Naess, who casually guides a lengthy first time pass in front of a defender to his fullback.

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Philly response

Is Naess going to shut down the Union offense? No, of course not. He’s a help, but he’s not a savior. The Crew still have some big problems in their defensive rotation, particularly when Tony Tchani is out of the lineup. They weren’t punished last weekend because New England is currently playing like a bunch of TV show characters who didn’t get scripts in the mail. The Union should do better.

Below, you can see New England shift the ball to the right, where Hector Jimenez is quick to close down. Kelyn Rowe pulls Naess out of the center, but nobody (coughKeiKamaracough) steps into that gaping hole. This isn’t over, however. Wil Trapp (in a rare moment of not being awesome) overcommits to Andrew Farrell, essentially doubling up the Revolution right back in a low danger area. When Farrell moves the ball across to Scott Caldwell — which he can do because Federico Higuain isn’t checking to see if he’s shadowing the crossfield pass — Mo Saied quickly steps forward, even though Trapp is out of position on the wing. At this point, the Crew midfield is disconnected from the defense in the middle. Teal Bunbury receives the ball in position to take advantage of this gap, but with very little pressure on him he decides to recycle play (seriously, what is up in New England right now?)

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This was not an isolated incident, and if the Crew leave gigantic holes in the middle of the park, the Union will punish them. Below you can see Columbus again leave a big gap between their lines. Lee Nguyen’s determination to play only through the channels means he doesn’t cut into that hole but instead sits on top of Teal Bunbury, and the chance is lost.

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Tranquillo Barnetta is a central winger, and he is apt to turn and run at a defense if he can get behind his defender. Without adequate support (Tchani should help), Columbus will find their back four retreating early and often. Even with Naess, that will not be sustainable against the Union’s attack.

Not the problems they expected

When the Crew traded away 22 goal scorer and designated player Kei Kamara for throwing a child-sized hissy fit during and after an adult soccer match, the clear question was where the goals would come from. Gregg Berhalter had a solution in 26-year old Norwegian striker Ola Kamara, who has scored at approximately the same rate as the man he replaced (Ola: goal/123min; 2015 Kei: goal/125 min).

Ola is a big striker who can score with his head, but his best feature is his movement. Whether it’s far from goal or heading into the box, Ola Kamara makes himself a threat with angled runs and intelligent placement. He can’t bully his way to goals like Kei, but he is strong enough to finish when he gets in good positions. Additionally, he has shown better situational awareness as he has jelled with his teammates.

On the Crew’s opener against New England, the ball starts with Steve Clark and flows all the way up to Justin Meram in a 1v1 situation. Meram is very, very good in the open field, and he creates a yard of space to drive at the endline. Ola and Ethan Finlay are both driving toward goal, but Ola pulls up for a cutback and opens a lane for Finlay at the backpost. Delivery. Goal.

After the match, Berhalter said, ““The ball starts with our goalkeeper and it ends up in the opposing goal. That’s what kind of attacks we like to create . . . It was the culmination of good movement, good execution and good planning.”  

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The problems they got

Indeed, Ola Kamara has scored, and played well. The problem has been the wingers.

The above goal was only Ethan Finlay’s fourth all year, and three have come in the past two weeks (one off a penalty that, to be fair, he pppprrrroooobably earned).

In the same match that Finlay finally got back on the scoreboard, Justin Meram broke a four month goal drought. Below, you can see Meram’s tally. And it’s pretty great because it’s a fairly straightforward cross-n-header, but it’s executed quickly and precisely, with Meram first creating the space Wil Trapp needs to spread the ball wide, then finishing the move.

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Pay particular attention to Trapp’s ball out wide. Given space, Trapp still plays very quickly, and puts the pass in an area that makes it easy for the fullback to collect and fire in a cross. This means the ball arrives in the box before NYC has finished their retreat to deeper positions. Meram makes an early run to pull a defender away from Trapp then hangs out while Finlay takes a turn at making a space-clearing near post run. Meram has all the space he needs to redirect the cross home. Again: All simple, but also all very precise.

This sort of off the ball movement what made the Crew to difficult to defend last season. Without a true holding midfielder (Tchani can play the role, but he naturally adopts a more box-to-box approach), Columbus needs to pin teams back with their passing and movement to prevent numerically disadvantageous transitions.

When it’s working, the Crew tend to look fairly unbalanced. Ethan Finlay probes behind the defense on the right while Meram drifts inside on the left. The overall look isn’t too dissimilar from the Union’s approach with Chris Pontius and Ilsinho, but it is a bit more extreme. Finlay’s speed in behind means he’s a constant threat deep, while Pontius needs to lure his defender in with some checking combos to become truly dangerous behind a defense. Similarly, Ilsinho can drift inward, but he tends to do so within ten yards of the opposition box, whereas Meram will essentially become another central midfielder if that’s where he feels the space will be.

When it works, it produces situations like the one below, where Meram is so narrow that he becomes an extra man in the middle, and plays a quick wall pass with Tchani that sends the big man in on goal.

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Again below, Meram finds a channel of space inside, draws the defense, and allows Columbus to quickly switch play. Finlay times his darting central run perfectly to clear the entire wing for Afful, who is a bit too slow to feed his winger. Note how the whole play is made possible by Tchani checking in close to offer a second outlet from the wing, something Philly struggled to do up the left last weekend.

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Prediction: Union 2-1 Crew

This is all very basic Columbus movement, but when it’s done in rhythm, it can be almost impossible to stop. With Federico Higuain healthy again and Finlay no longer forcing things to make up for Kei Kamara’s absence, the Crew are a dangerous opponent for Philly to face in the heat of the playoff race. Berhalter is very good at designing coordinated movements to get around pressure, and when his team trusts the system and plays quickly, they can pounce on a high press’s weak point.

That said, Columbus remains an unpredictable team. Are their last two games indicative of a turnaround? With the Eastern Conference sliding back toward them, the Crew could easily make up the five points that separate them from a playoff birth. They will need to keep up their intensity over ninety minutes, though, and even after the New England win it’s difficult to tell if they can do that. Against NYCFC, they should have had the match in the bag, but the play below let the visitors back into it. Just look at how much time Meram gives Pirlo on the ball. Pirlo! The Pirlo! Like, the guy who can beat you while under pressure with a pass from his own half! You can’t just let him hang out and draw mental portraits of David Villa in the style of seven different renaissance masters 25-yards from goal. It doesn’t — and didn’t — end well.

The Union will likely trot out a very similar lineup to the one that rolled over against Toronto, with Joshua Yaro almost certainly replacing Ken Tribbett in back. The only other move might be a start for Fabian Herbers on the right given that Ilsinho will be on short rest and potentially carrying a foot problem. Jim Curtin could potentially drop Charlie Davies into the lineup and move CJ Sapong to the wing, but that would be an odd move against a team that doesn’t try to play a particularly high line (especially since Davies probably could go 60 minutes max). Columbus will likely stick with something like the lineup that helped them finally get back in the win column, though Waylon Francis could return at left back, with Hector Jimenez making way.

It has become impossible to predict what type of performance Philly will put out week to week. All we can do is sit back and hope for an organized press that doesn’t leave the defense exposed. Because Columbus can score, and if the Union go down early, it’s very possible their eroding confidence could crumble.

One thing is for sure: The center back position is now Joshua Yaro’s to lose. The rookie needs to play big on Wednesday night.


  1. This was abbreviated??! We are so, so lucky to have PSP.

  2. I think the Union win. Berhalter will fall into the ‘We won? Play the same XI’ trap that Curtin does. Also, Steve Clark is overdue for a howler or two.

  3. 2-2 draw. Short rest after a hiding and on the road.

  4. It’s now just over 3 weeks. Why haven’t the photos of Bedoya, Davies, and Trusty been posted to the website roster?

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    Looking forward to another Tribbett start. Makes the game more interesting for everybody.

  6. Points. Just get points. Short rest on the road. A draw is totally acceptable. Hope Yaro shows up

  7. Big week; let’s start it off with a win. I’m sensing a Bedoya goal

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