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Massive Tactics: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union

A huge test for Columbus to manage the aggressive press of the Union.

Nathaniel Marhefka

Columbus Crew SC (2-0-0) go to Philadelphia on Saturday to take on the Union (1-0-0) as both teams hope to stay unbeaten.

For the Philadelphia Union, it is only the team’s second match of the season after a bye last week. Since Philly’s opening 2-0 victory at home against the New England Revolution in Week 1, they have been granted with the availability of newly signed Designated Player Borek Dockal after he missed opening weekend due to a left ankle sprain. Forward CJ Sapong just signed a new contract on Wednesday that will keep him with the Union through 2019 and possibly 2020.

Crew SC also have a lot of momentum and confidence going into the match after they thrashed MLS Cup winners Toronto FC 2-0 in their home stadium and landed a 3-2 home victory against the Montreal Impact last weekend after nearly giving up their early advantage. Newcomers Gyasi Zardes and Milton Valenzuela have been on fire, leading this early season resurgence.

With both teams bolstering confidence, this match should be entertaining from the start. Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin favors a high-tempo pressing style of play which will seek to disrupt the calculated possession-based build-ups of Gregg Berhalter ’s Columbus team.

With both managers renowned tacticians, the team that is best set will likely be the victor. With entirely too much introduction, let’s take a look at what you can expect from these teams at the 2 p.m. ET kickoff.

Philadelphia Union

Favoring the MLS-default 4-2-3-1, the Union have fast wingers, eager fullbacks and one of the best central midfield pairings in the league. Andre Blake is the starter in goal, in front of him will likely be a center back pairing of Jack Elliott and homegrown rookie Auston Trusty, and on their flanks are Keegan Rosenberry on the right and Fabinho on the left. Both fullbacks are defense-first, however Fabinho likes to take on the wing in the attack until he runs out of gas.

In the central midfield is always Alejandro Bedoya roaming with Haris Medunjanin being the midfield anchor and ball-winner. David Accam starts on the left, while Fabian Herbers is likely to start on the right for a second match in a row. Sapong will be leading the line, but the man in the No. 10 position is slightly unclear. Curtain mentioned that both Dockal and Anthony Fontana will play in the match, as Dockal is not fit to play 90 minutes quite yet.

My money is on Dockal grabbing the starting nod as his positioning and defensive understanding will be paramount to limiting Wil Trapp’s effectiveness as the No. 6.

Bedoya mentioned this in an interview earlier in the week,

Columbus Crew SC

With two wins in as many matches this season against Eastern Conference opponents, I would expect Berhalter to not wrangle in any massive tactical changes, but rather clean up some of their early season mishaps. While Lalas Abubakar has done a formidable job in central defense, Josh Williams is now fully fit and I would expect for him to regain his starting role next to Jonathan Mensah. This will add some security at the back while providing more comfortable feet to play out of the back against this high Union press.

Otherwise, I see that as being the only change Berhalter will make from the opening two matches which featured the same starting 11. Harrison Afful and Valenzuela will try and gain as much ground down the flanks, as a counter to the press, in order to force Philadelphia back into their defensive block. Do this enough times and the match will open up and Trapp and Artur will have more flexibility in starting attacks from the back.

Pedro Santos and Cristian Martinez will once again look to gain a step or two on their defenders but with Philadelphia playing a man-oriented defense, we may not see the take-on’s and direct play that we saw from the duo against Montreal. Higuain will likely start the match a few yards deeper to try and unsettle the midfield pairing of the Union, but if Crew SC can successfully dismantle the press, he will be allowed to play higher up the pitch in search of his first goal against Philly in Major League Soccer.

Union 4-2-3-1 set to play high against the possession-based 4-2-3-1 of Crew SC
Nathaniel Marhefka

High press in action

In what is going to be a very delicate match for both clubs, I expect the viability of the Union press and how Columbus sets up to counter to be the deciding factor in the match. In the graphic below, I outlined a pressing scenario where Trapp is on the ball for Columbus looking to play out of the back through his midfield links.

In this scenario, Philadelphia is set in a man-oriented press with Dockal providing directional pressure to Trapp. The likely adaption here is that the Union press will be tighter than shown and slide to the side in which Dockal forces Trapp to play (the clip above is prior to the directional pressure). Sapong is very good at cutting passing lanes and will aim to cut out both the midfield link and the far-sided center back of Columbus.

Expected Union pressing scheme against Crew SC
Nathaniel Marhefka

Accam and Herbers will press high on either the center backs or wing backs, depending on their positioning on the field. As you can see behind the first line of defense, there is no true man marking. The Union will have to be adaptive in their positioning to cut out passing lanes while only marking out players when they are a direct and immediate threat. The balance and pivoting of Bedoya and Medunjanin will be critical to how the backline positions themselves in relation.

Columbus will likely have a hard time building from the back early on in the match. Expect a lot of back passes, and drop passes to Steffen. Columbus does not like to play long, rather play tight and intricate. If the near options are not working through the 20th minute, expect a long ball option to Zardes to develop throughout the match as he comes wide to put aerial pressure on the fullbacks, notably Fabinho. The key for Crew SC will be to play quick, with direction, to not allow Philadelphia to properly set in their pressing shape.

If Berhalter’s men can break down the pressure and grab an early goal then Philadelphia will be in a lot of trouble as they struggle to defend deep in their own end. On the flip side, if Crew SC leave early opportunities to the Union via giveaways from the back, Philly may have a runaway in the first half.

Let me know your thoughts during or after the match in the comments below, or send some tweets in my direction to @GloryToColumbus or to the team at @MassiveReport. Stay massive, friends.