Analysis / Tactical Analysis

Postgame analysis: Philadelphia Union 3 – 0 Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Philadelphia Union’s first win of the season came under the most unique of circumstances, with international call-ups, visa issues, and a last-minute suspension leaving the Union to battle for three points with only 16 players. Impressive individual performances, as well as a dynamic team effort, was ultimately the deciding factor in Philadelphia’s victory against a lethargic Columbus Crew side.

No strategy, no problem

The Union’s starting line-up did a great job of winning their individual match-ups against the Crew, both defensively and offensively. As a team however, it was clear that the last minute squad limitations prevented the Union from executing a cohesive strategy consistently throughout the 90 minutes. Head coach Jim Curtin stated as much in his post-match brief, sharing that the team had to drill four to five potential lineups throughout the week and ultimately had to play for the three points with raw effort more than with strategy. With Columbus approaching the match in a similar mindset, the Union was able to win the game going punch for punch.

From a tactical standpoint, the Union has discernibly traded the passing domination of last season in favor of long-balls and counter-attacking breaks. While it leads to scrappy and occasionally unattractive football, it’s hard to argue against it when it produces a result. Despite Columbus having 55% of the possession and better passing play, the Union was able to outshoot them on the goal by a factor of 5 to 1. The deciding piece for Philadelphia’s season will be whether or not they can find the same success against more organized and aggressive teams.

When the MVP list becomes a roll-call

The same mix of events that prevented the Union from drilling in a set and clear gameplan and line-up before the match against Columbus was also responsible for shining a bright spotlight on the individual players in the starting 11. At the end of the 90 minute match, nearly all of them had put in their best performance of the season so far.

First, the two wingers-temporarily-turned-strikers had the resounding performance of the night. Fafa Picault slid into the role typically filled by striker Corey Burke while David Accam was a winger in all but name. Picault was able to distribute the ball and put pressure on Crew defenders, while Accam single-handedly doubled the Union’s goal count for the season. The most impressive aspect of Accam’s play was that he perfectly filled the role that the Union’s new strategy has been needing. With all the talk of box-to-box midfielders, Accam was able to make the difference as a box-to-box winger; he had the most shots on the team, but even more impressively, he had the most tackles and clearances out of any non-defender. Going forward, Curtin should be looking for ways to incorporate Accam’s pace and work rate into the squad.

The Union midfield also exhibited impressive individual performances, not least of all from Haris Medunjanin. Under fire for several crucial defensive lapses at the onset of the season, Medunjanin put in a knock-out showing. Nearly half of the Union’s 11 interceptions were from Medunjanin, and his 74 passes outnumbered everybody else. He was dangerous offensively without leaving the team exposed on the backend. While Columbus did very little to truly test the waters, the ripples they were able to make were consistently quenched by Medunjanin, as well as by captain Alejandro Bedoya.

Finally, while the entire defense had a substantial performance, it was Kai Wagner that continued to stand out as a key piece of the Union’s transition to more dynamic football. He was responsible for 5 of the 6 crosses that the Union sent forward, while still winning the most tackles on the team. While Accam’s defensive work was certainly a major contributor to the flexibility that Wagner was able to exhibit, a lot of credit goes to Wagner for embodying the dynamism that the new Union philosophy is asking for.

The Union 2.0 to Union 2.1

When the Union started their season against Toronto FC, most fans knew to expect a rough start while the coaching staff and players adjusted to a completely new approach and philosophy, particularly as they played consecutive games against the top teams of the MLS. However, now that the seas have settled and the team has been able to get a feel for the new approach, a lot will be expected of them going forward. The Union should be expected to win most of their next 7 matches against middle-table teams. The difficulty of their season is front and back-loaded, so those points will be crucial for making playoffs. The Union’s victory against Columbus clearly showed that they have the players needed to make their approach work; whether or not they are able to consistently translate that into points on the table is the big question going forward.


  1. To the last sentence above, I have faith. It will be interesting to see who sits with Burke, Fabian and (possibly) Montiero available. I would like to see Accam and Aaronson back on the field.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      If Curtin is a “play the guy with the hot-hand” guy, and history seems to suggest that he is, expect Accam ahead of Burke in Cincy… and perhaps through the Gold Cup.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Given that Burke is likely to play tonight in the Costa Rican heat, I think it makes sense to not start him Saturday regardless.

      • It took Curtin HOW many games to move CJ out of the way for Burke last season?
        How quickly and completely did Fontana disappear after scoring in his first start?
        It would be easy to go on, but I think the examples have been obvious. It’s one of the primary Curtin complaints around here; playing guys long after they’ve proven they aren’t going to move the needle.
        Very definitely NOT a play the hot hand guy.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Harland, your assessment is totally spot not. I guess my qualifier ought to be that Curtin has shown himself to be someone who will play a hot hand and then not change his mind if that hand has gone cold. Sapong and Burke are great examples: Sapong was hot the year before so he got the start until he was so cold as to have disappeared, so Burke got the start. Burke got hot and kept his place, but now Burke has only scored twice in the team’s last 11 matches. Perhaps since Accam is “hot” now, he’ll usurp Burke in the lineup.

  2. 4-2-2-2
    Burke – Fafa
    Accam – Fabian
    Montiero – Bedoya
    Kai – CB – CB – RB

    • I feel like Fafa might make a better midfielder than a striker. He’s a better chance creator than a finisher. I’d swap his position with Accam. I’d use Aaronson to spell both Accam and Bedoya regularly, but I’m sure Curtin would prefer to run the captain into the ground. (And to be fair, I’m sure Bedoya would prefer playing every minute, too).

  3. By the way, the turf was coming up in clumps all game, seems kinda dangerous to the players. Hope the roots start to take in the spring?

    • When the ground temps come up, the roots will go down and all will be well. The crew has been taking some extra precations due the doubled game traffic.
      Come May it will be an excellent surface.

      • I saw the turf lifting. The guy behind us was yelling about it so I said it had just been replaced…he was then yelling about how it needed more water to grow…I was thinking more sun…it got plenty of rain. But my grass is still dead so what do I know!

      • This made me laugh Montag. I can just see a leather-lunged drunk Philadelphian yelling from the stands at the groundskeeper about how he should be growing the grass. “MORE WUDDER!”

  4. The biggest takeaway I have from all the reports here (even though I didn’t get to see much of the match) is that the Union have significantly greater depth than they have had any other year.
    This is a match we would have lost in the past 10 years, bet.
    We need to sell Blake while his value is still high. Sure he’s a phenomenal keeper, but does anyone have the W/L stats with him in and out of the lineup? Just sayin… Zac MacMath still has a better GAA than Blake does and they’ve played just about the same number of games in a Union shirt.

  5. I’m properly excited for this year. It’s the first time I’ve actively sought to get a Union match on tv, even subscribing to Locast so I can get PHL17.
    Love it when a plan actually inspires change, so far.

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