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Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 4–1 Columbus Crew SC

Photo: Howie Pollard

After the most brutal ending to a season possible—there is no more difficult pill to swallow than losing a championship after leading deep into extra time—the Philadelphia Union find themselves in an unusual position.

They are not the previous season’s winners, yet are considered by many to be the best team in the league right now.

Their combination of proven success, bolstered by their continuity (all 11 starters returning), means few can assail their credentials.

And yet.

Being the favorite isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially for a team that has thrived while being an underdog. Because being favored comes with expectations. And if the only thing you have left to do is win the biggest game there is—a game that won’t even be contested for more than nine months, with dozens of other games in multiple competitions between now and then—every misstep along the way is magnified. All there can be is ways to not live up to those expectations. All there can be is evidence that the Union are, in fact, frauds—proof positive that the accomplishments of last season were hollow, that the Union are actually failures, because who got the last laugh, right? The journey doesn’t matter if it ends in the dump.

So, after 45 minutes against a Columbus Crew team that looked well on its way to fulfilling Wilfried Nancy’s plans, dominating the Union in possession and just generally looking like a much better team, whether or not their goal came with a bit of luck, it was easy to start rationalizing all the ways in which it wasn’t a total surprise that the Union would struggle in this game:

  • In Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, and Cucho Hernandez, the Crew have three players who possess a combination of skills on the ball, useful movement, and dangerous finishing that can unnerve the Union’s defense (they were also ably supported by their young wingers);
  • The Crew’s three-back shape is something that has given the Union fits over the past two seasons;
  • Wilfried Nancy is an excellent coach, and he had the Crew humming ahead of schedule;
  • The Union have historically not done well in home openers or in the beginning of seasons—on the broadcast, Danny Higginbotham noted that the Union’s superior fitness is something that becomes a weapon as the season progresses, but is perhaps muted in the early weeks.

With halftime approaching, there didn’t seem like much room for optimism. But a well-delivered set-piece from Kai Wagner led to multiple Union shots inside the Crew’s box, the last striking the upraised hand of a Crew defender. Handball. Penalty. Daniel Gazdag is inevitable. 1–1.

One can argue whether the PK ruling was harsh, but what was inarguable was that the tone of proceedings changed. Halftime came, and Philly never looked back.

First came the devastating, back-breaking—use whatever violent adjective you like—counter-attacking goal to take the lead. The Delco Times’s Matthew De George described it as Philly’s platonic ideal, a play they have practiced innumerable times. Then came the second PK, another handball blocking a goal-bound shot, followed by Gazdag from the spot. Give him a good surface to plant his foot, he pretty much doesn’t miss. Then, of course, came magic.

Joaquin Torres entered the game and did that. Nice first touch for a new team. Or ever, at any time.

In the span of less than a half, the Union went from beginning the slow, season-long process of disappointing themselves and every Union fan to, instead, picking up like last season never ended at all, and dominating another hapless visitor to Subaru Park.


The first 45 minutes were real, they actually happened. Columbus was better than the Union. But the Union made two changes. As Joe Tansey pointed out, midway through the first half, Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott changed their position, stepping higher to squeeze the space that Nagbe and Zelarayan had been using to such good effect up to then. In the second half, as Matt Doyle noted, the forward line dropped deeper, engaging with Columbus closer to midfield. The result of those changes was the Union were more compact, the Crew had no space to maneuver, and Philly were back to generating the turnovers on which their offense feasts.

Critics of the Union, of which there are at least one, will find things to point to that allows them to continue hating on the team. “4–1? Take away the weak PKs and what do you have?” Well, you have a team that allowed a fluky own goal and burned up the opposition via two impeccable team goals. You have a team that was behind, outclassed in their own building, that nevertheless made adjustments and pushed the other team aside.

The Union won’t run the table in 2023. There will be stumbles and bumbles along the way. And they may not get back to MLS Cup, or win it if they do. But Saturday night showed they aren’t ready to disappoint themselves. They’re still the team they were in 2022, which means they’re one of the best teams in MLS, maybe in MLS history. Critics don’t have to like it, but it’s true.


  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    It’s fascinating to watch a team with such a fully formed ethos bend and stretch that philosophy across different implantations like happened on Saturday. They even used a bit of the Dutch’s plan to stop Team USA on the night – eliminating the pass from the center back/goalkeeper out wide, channeling everything down the gut, and then pouncing on every loose touch. Fun for people who like chess matches play in studded cleats.

  2. We have a new magician. He is called Torresinho…

  3. One thing I noticed is that the Crew were turning us over a lot in the first half. Stepping in to cut out the pass, or overwhelming a Union player to take the ball of his feet. They did this by having nearly the entire team shift to the side of the field where the ball was. The Union noticed too and in the second half we had more outlet balls to the opposite side of the field. It means we went from getting outplayed to by and large dominating the Crew for the second. But even in the first half, we had a few real good chances playing the counter attack the way we want. Two or three were undone by offsides, and Carranza’s miss of the open net was rough. Another day and we would have been leading despite getting run around for the half.
    The other thing to say is the crowd at the game had a very low opinion of the referee — at least until he booked Cucho for diving. Rewatching the game on Apple TV, I think a lot of that was unfair. But in person it looked like really bad calls.

    • Weirdly at the game, near halftime, I had to ask if Flach was playing. I just couldn’t tell if he was on the field or someone else. But watching the replay on TV, he was his usual self buzzing around annoying everyone and doing a solid job of it. Can’t figure out why I didn’t see him much live.

    • Watching on TV from about the 32nd minute on, I thought the ref was relatively fair and consistent. If anything, I thought he favored Union, though I was also painting my family room while trying to watch the game… haha.

      • Deez Nuggs says:

        A lot of the offside calls, in particular, got the crowd worked up. Again on TV, I think they were mostly correct calls. Timing of the runs is often off to begin the season, so I’m not sure why anyone thought it was the ref.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      As you pointed out in a response, a lot were the offsides calls (which generally seemed correct, although a lot of people don’t really understand the offsides rule). Early on, the ref called a lot more fouls against the Union (deservedly so) which got the crowd against him. I thought he generally did a good job and was consistent. Although more calls were against the Union, the cards were mostly against Columbus.

  4. No offense to Jeremy and I appreciate the article and his analysis but I was just wondering if Adam Cann is still writing for the Union? I haven’t seen his name pop up on the Union web site. Does anyone know if he’s still writing and I need to pay more attention?
    I do appreciate Jeremy’s article. I like the tracking of the Union’s solution to the Crew conundrum. Glesnes stepping up made me wonder why Martinez wasn’t there. I assume JMart was tasked with man marking Zelarayan which gave room to the rest of the Crew attackers. The compacting of the Union also led to better quick pass opportunities.

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