I warned you. I did. The Philadelphia Union were poised for a more competitive effort heading into Wednesday's mid-week showdown with Columbus Crew SC at PPL Park in Philadelphia. What happened, however, shocked everyone.
The Union were almost exactly as I suspected (see above link). It was the Black & Gold that didn't hold up their end of the bargain and resulted in a non-competitive road effort (again) and ugly loss. The good news is everyone can forget about it and focus on the quick turnaround for the Montreal Impact, right?
But first, here are some of the big takeaways from Wednesday's debacle.
Yeah, that's it. That was what was rolling through the heads of so many watching. W. T. F.
The coaching staff has blood on their hands
For the most part, Gregg Berhalter and the coaching staff have avoided any criticism; they've mostly been lauded. I don't see, however, any way to avoid laying a good portion of the blame for the stumble against the Union at Berhalter's feet.
We knew there would be roster rotation. It is a congested portion of the schedule and guys need some rest. I couldn't have guessed, however, that it would play out exactly as it did. Into the lineup came Aaron Schoenfeld, Kevan George, Chad Barson and Sergio Campbell. That's a lot of changes in one blow, but more importantly — that group had a single start between them this season, and that was only due to a red card.
Adding to that was the fact that three of those changes effectively came in one unit, leaving the Columbus back end heavily exposed. It showed. If you're going to put inexperience in the back, it's probably a good idea to shield them a little bit, but with Mohamed Saeid playing the box-to-box role and George inexperienced, Campbell and Barson got little help.
Here's how changes directly factored into goals:
Goal 1: Meram slips and Francis is caught up field, but could George have broken things up in the box? Could Campbell have, with a little more confidence and experience, gotten a foot on the ball in the box? And what was Barson doing hugging the backside of Sapong, when he clearly should have fronted him?
Goal 2: This is mostly on Clark, mainly for his hands, a little for his decision to speed things up rather than hold the ball. You can also see a little double-step by Ethan Finlay (the potential recipient) where he seems unsure whether to go or come back, and may have made Clark re-think his throw (spoiler alert: it was too late). But watch George. He has so much space to move into and provide a potential outlet, and he's just hanging out.
Goal 3: Yes, Francis was bad on this, getting beat early in the play and not hustling back to help. This stretched Emanuel Pogatetz (who strikes out 1v1) wide and blew out the defensive shape. It also left an inexperienced Campbell caught in the middle, trying to decide whether to attack or play the passing lane. And in the end you have Barson again not getting in front of the attacker and being beat by Sebastian Le toux, a man far less physically imposing than Sapong.
Yes, a lot of blame to go around, but also a lot of indecision from young guys, and Barson (who got bodied out on some half-chances as well) looking bad in some of his individual marking.
Why not bring in an experienced Wahl, who is still pretty fresh? Why not give Ethan Finlay a break since he's nursing an injury? Why not use the depth at wing with Kristinn Steindorsson or Romain Gall to sit Justin Meram, who often doesn't go 90 minutes anyway? If Campbell is worthy of a start, certainly Gall deserves a look too?
I'm not on the coaching staff and I'm not privy to what they see every day, but the rotation seemed like too much at once in an unbalanced manner.
On top of that, the Union were mostly as expected. They ran out a first-choice starting 11. They were improved in transition. Their fullbacks got involved. Sapong was in good form. That's all stuff the coaching staff should have had the team prepared for. There were no surprises from the team in blue.
Possession was awful
I wrote prior to the game about the need for possession, knowing that there would likely be some rotation and we knew Michael Parkhurst would not be in the back. Possession would keep pressure off the back end. It also should have been rather simple against the team that is worst in MLS at possessing the ball and is dispossessed at a high rate. But Crew SC never found a rhythm and therefore never found steady possession. Numbers-wise, the evening turned out even, but if you were watching it felt like Philly won that battle.
The reasons are multiple. Schoenfeld is not as strong as a hold-up guy providing an outlet as Kamara is. George's movement in the midfield is not up to snuff with the top three guys (Tony Tchani, Saied and Will Trapp, when healthy). He dropped back so deep so often, and although we often see the Trapp-role player doing that, unlike the others he didn't do it to pivot and push possession up field. He more often just looked like a sweeper back there. Then there was Barson on the right side, who's just not as smooth going forward as the other fullbacks on the team. He flashed forward on a couple of occasions, but I think he was less of an outlet to move the ball on that right side and maintain possession. Parkhurst's absence hurt the team building out of the back. And Fedrico Higuain was mostly a no-show and wasn't involved in much distribution.
That paragraph is way too big.
Paging Mr. Parkhurst
We all knew that Parkhurst's absence was a blow. Did we know just how big of one? Everything was just off in defense. The buildup out of the back was not as smooth or as smart as usual. It all comes back to the void left by the captain.
There were a number of times it seemed like defenders were waiting for someone else to make something happen, and Barson and Campbell appeared to sometimes be just uncertain enough. That's to be expected from young guys who aren't playing, but it feels like something Parkhurst could have helped direct a little.
That's not to say Parkhurst has been perfect this season, but it's clear the guy really is glue.
Also Paging Pipa
Parkhurst had an excuse. He wasn't allowed to play. But what happened to Higuain? I will say that having George in midfield and the way he plays opens up a much larger gap in the midfield and, I think, hurts Pipa's seamless movement around the field. He's forced to drop deeper to get the ball than he'd probably like and gets out of his normal flow. That said, he missed a quality opportunity early on a volley in the box and was basically not heard of again until the PA announcer was calling him out for a subbing off.
We all love Higuain and know what his quality means to Columbus, but this year he's been a little hit or miss. There have been far too many ghost-like performances (almost all of them on the road...Which came first? The chicken or the egg?).
I understand Higuain is a luxury player when you're down to 10-men on the road, but in a normal situation (like Wednesday) there's no reason he should be subbed off when you need to get goals. Pipa wasn't getting the job done and Berhalter had to try something different.
Again, I know there were a lot of changes and personnel shifts can affect how he influences the game, but this is the club's designated player. If you're a DP, you need to show up every night, and having a less than perfect environment to work in is no excuse.
Depth. Oh, boy...
There was a lot of talk coming into the season about how vastly improved Crew SC's depth was going to be. There was certainly truth in that, but my, how quickly things change.
The departure of Hernan Grana and a problematic performance by Barson all of a sudden leave some questions at fullback, where we know Francis will miss time for the Gold Cup.
The ongoing concussion saga with Trapp has forced perceived depth into an every-week starter, leaving only George to back up, and the drop off there is now proven.
We now see that a single injury (or red card) at center back suddenly leaves the picking slim (I know Tyson Wahl is likely fine for interim periods, but beyond him...)
And we all know the nightmares caused by any thought of a prolonged absence for Kei Kamara.
It's hard to take many positives away from Wednesday's performance. Nigh impossible. But the good news is that it was a makeshift lineup and perhaps Berhalter learned that less may be more when it comes to rotation. Either way, as is the fickle nature of soccer emotion, a couple of wins in a row will heal all wounds (or at least all perception).