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Match analysis: Columbus Crew 0–0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Rob Simmons

There will be games this year that require a deep tactical analysis to assess fairly. This was, um, not one of those games.

In a match-up not only of last year’s Supporters Shield and MLS Cup champions, but also of two teams that had looked really good against international competition just days ago, both the Union and the Crew looked out of sorts. They were both too much in a hurry, and also slow to make the appropriate reads. They looked, in other words, like two teams making their season debuts. The fact that they had both played games at a much higher level already seemed not to matter.

So, while there may not be too many finely wrought tactics to parse out, there are some themes that we can look at to better understand the state of the Union right now.

Whatever you do best, I take away

Within moments of the opening kick, the Crew managed to do the one thing Jim Curtin wanted his team to stop: they got star playmaker Lucas Zelarayan loose behind José Martínez, running at the scrambling defense. This would be a theme, with Zelarayan almost scoring a long distance goal in the 34th minute. Luckily for the Union, his shot clipped the top of the crossbar while Andre Blake, who was excellent, watched helplessly. In the first instance, opening the game, it was Martínez most at fault, getting too tight and getting turned inside out. But as Curtin noted on the broadcast, the responsibility for keeping the ball away from Zelarayan was team-wide, and in the opening stages the Union did a poor job of it. The Crew came out pressing the Union high and forcing mistakes. It took 20 to 30 minutes for the Union to really settle into the game and stop misplaying every third pass. The Crew clearly wanted to prevent the Union playing out of the back, and it was very effective at blunting the Union attack in the first half. While the Union had more possession in that half, you would never have guessed it; they certainly never seemed secure in holding the ball.

While the Union never really got into a rhythm offensively, they did improve as the game went on. And, after that opening half an hour, did a much better job of keeping Zelarayan off the ball. In effect, both teams blunted each other, so that the game became one of fouls and restarts and set pieces. The Union generated their best chance of the night when Eloy Room denied a good Kacper Przybyłko header from one of the Union’s six corner kicks (the Crew, by contrast, only generated one corner).

What to do with Anthony Fontana?

Fontana has finally been given the chance to start with regularity, and as we’ve seen, if he gets on the ball in good spots, he will score goals. So far this season, due to injuries in the striker corps, Fontana has been deployed as a second striker. This brings him closer to goal, but makes it harder for him to get on the ball. As an attacking midfielder, he jumps on balls in the space between the midfield and defense, especially with late runs into the box. As a striker, he seems unable to find the game. And if he isn’t getting touches, he isn’t dangerous. In the three games so far this season, he has looked consistently dangerous when he gets on the ball. He just isn’t getting on the ball enough.

The answer would seem to be obvious—move him back into the midfield now that Sergio Santos and others can fill that second striker role. But it’s not so simple. Leon Flach, ostensibly brought in as midfield depth, has proved better than that in the left-sided shuttler role. And Jamiro Monteiro, pushed into the No. 10, has looked lights out at times. As a result, the feared drop-off in the Union’s press without Brenden Aaronson has not appeared. Does dropping Fontana and Monteiro back into their usual roles harm the Union’s ability to press? And will the increased touches Fontana gets replace the offense Monteiro has been generating from the 10?

The value of good goalkeeping

While both teams failed to really put it all together offensively, they each had great chances to score, and it was only the interventions of the goalkeepers on either end that prevented it. Room denied Przybyłko’s header, as well as long-range attempts from Flach and Alejandro Bedoya. Blake, for his part, made several important, if relatively routine, saves before making an astonishing, close-range reaction save in the 83rd minute to prevent the Crew from stealing the game.

Room did much the same last season, preventing the Union from clinching the Supporters Shield a game earlier than they eventually did, by standing on his head. And it’s kind of old news that Andre Blake is very good at his job. Both of these teams stand a much better chance than average of being successful this season because it takes something special to beat their keepers. That is a weapon that should never be taken for granted.

Clash of titans

What seems clear is that, while neither team was really at their best, both have high ceilings. Columbus, however, currently looks like the better bet in the long term because of their depth. The Union made a total of one sub on Sunday, when five were allowed. It is imperative that the young guns from the academy become useful substitutes if the Union wants to accomplish things in 2021. Their best team can be as good or better than anyone in the league. But the season is long, and it takes more than a great starting 11 to win out.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I think this game was an advertisement against Mo Edu’s idea of having the shield and cup winners match up in week 1. (The idea of having them play the first game of the weekend was already a bad one given CCL play midweek.) Wouldn’t this game have been potentially more exciting if it was played a month into the season when both teams had a chance to really get into their groove?

    • If anything, I think its a good argument to have a preseason friendly between the two teams, much like many European countries do between their cup and league winners. It’d be a great way to get people hyped for the season.

  2. Great to have you back writing insightful reports! Thank you so much for doing that! Thought the game was very boring and a waste of time to watch.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Hey, thanks! I kept expecting something to click, for one team, at least, but it never happened. All the almost-goals came out of nothing, so there was never any anticipation of something actually happening.

  3. Re: Anthony Fontana—He’s been open around the penalty spot in every game with smart off-ball momvement, but his teammates have chosen to force a ball to or inside the 6. Find him and he probably has an extra three goals.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      This is a very good point. He can only get on the ball if his teammates give it to him, regardless of his starting position on the field.

  4. I attributed part of Columbus’s dominant first 15 minutes to a combination of the pregame ceremonies and that so few of them played Wednesday against the Nicaraguans.
    The Union were playing on much less rest.
    Once Columbus lost that edge, the match became more even.

  5. I feel I might be crucified for this, but I think Fontana is doing a better job than Kacper. At least Fontana tries to get open and makes smart runs and attempts to switch up his play to get involved
    I’ve been rather unhappy with kacpers inability to adapt. His first touch has been awful and he’s been INVISIBLE for 95% of our games. But then he gets that one shot or scores a goal that he literally walks into and all is forgiven.
    Fontana is playing out of position and I’m willing to give him more than one game to figure it out. Kacper has been wildly unimpressive since halfway through last season in his preferred positions.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I listened to the MLS ExtraTime podcast today, and they pointed out that what Kacper does really well is drift out to the channels to receive the ball and hold it, then release it back to arriving midfielders, etc. It was useful to have pointed out, because I have been feeling like he was slumping, too. But it’s not that simple.

    • I don’t think the two are really comparable players, other than both lining up at forward. Kasper’s game tends to be more about creating space for others, while Fontana occupies the spaces others create.

      Also, strikers often are invisible until they take a shot or score a goal, so I’m not sure that’s the fairest criticism of Przybylko either. He’s definitely not the greatest striker in MLS, but he’s certainly not bad. I wish he was a little better on the dribble so as not to be so reliant on service to score, but lots of good strikers are. Also with his spacing and passing, Przybylko contributes a bit more than you’re giving him credit for.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I would say go back to the first Match Analysis of the year. Kacper is basically a holding/shuttling midfielder who happens to line up at forward right now.

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