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What We Learned: Crew at Philadelphia Union

Our takeaways from the Black & Gold’s season-opening loss.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew opened the Wilfried Nancy era on Saturday night with a 4-1 loss at the Philadelphia Union. That will be what the score sheet says, but the game was not nearly as dominant for the winning side.

Despite being on the road against what was one of the best teams in Major League Soccer last season, and a side that is expected to be once again, the Crew came out aggressive and was the better team for large parts of the first half, taking the 1-0 lead. The Union demonstrated the team’s mettle, however, coming back to equalize prior to halftime before playing much better in the second half, eventually running away with the game on the scoreboard.

It was an interesting match for Nancy, who was on the Black & Gold sideline for the first time. The head coach made bold decisions from the start and stuck to his mentality of giving young players who he believes in a chance.

There was plenty to take away from this first match of the 2023 season. Let’s dive into what we learned.

MLS officiating is still an issue

Let’s start with what most Crew fans will be talking about for the next week or so, the refereeing decisions in this match. For the most part, center official Lukasz Szpala called a fine game, whistling 27 times and handing out six yellow cards, five of which went against the Black & Gold. Where things went awry was in the two penalty kicks given to the Union.

In the 45th minute, wing back Mohamed Farsi was called for a handball inside the penalty area after a close-range strike struck the arm of the Canadian. Szpala called this one on the field with a good view of the play standing just 10 yards away. The second was another handball called on center back Milos Degenek in the 71st minute, a play that was not called on the field but rather requested by VAR Kevin Stott after the play.

The major discrepancy in the plays isn’t whether the ball struck the hand of a Columbus player but rather how the rule is applied. Actually, the question could be asked what the handball rule is anymore.

There is no consistency in what makes a handball in soccer. No longer is it as simple as “did the player gain an advantage by playing the ball with his hand?” Instead, different competitions have their own view of what a handball is and VAR has meant that any possible infraction is slowed down and micro-analyzed at a level that was never the intention of video assistant review.

If these plays are indicative of how MLS will call handballs this season, so be it. But it’s going to make it very difficult for defenders to defend. Farsi was simply turning his body and his arms were actually moving closer to his body when the ball struck under his wrist. The shot came from maybe two feet away, giving the defender no time to get out of the way. Degenek pulled his arms as close to his body as possible as a shot from outside the penalty area was fired and deflected off him. The Philadelphia player who took the shot didn’t appeal for a penalty kick and Szpala quickly whistled for a corner with little argument because few thought there was much in that play.

Then there is the VAR element of the plays. Once the handball is called on Farsi, there was little VAR can do to change it. A ball was clearly struck off the defender’s arm and while it’s unfortunate, there was nothing on video review that changes that. It’s a case where Szpala might have done better to let the play go and then review it at the next stoppage.

But the call against Degenek is perplexing. Based on the camera angles, there was nothing clear and obvious about the referee’s error. What Scott saw that required a check is unclear but the replays — as for some reason, there was only one — didn’t show a player obviously playing the ball with his hand, nor was it apparent that any infraction happens inside the penalty box, as Degenek is standing on the edge of the area.

This is an indictment on MLS officiating, but also on how the VAR process is handled and the replays available. The league made a big deal about its new Apple TV+ deal, but wasn’t able to install more than one camera to provide Szpala with an angle closer than from behind the opposite goal on the call against Degenek. This is a failure by MLS and these two calls helped change the game to a lopsided score.

Surprises only worked so long

There were plenty of questions heading into Nancy’s coaching debut about how the former CF Montreal boss would line up his new team. While it became rather clear during the preseason that Nancy would continue to play with three defenders and wing backs, who would occupy a number of the positions was still unknown.

Nancy’s first Crew starting 11 surprised many when it was released an hour prior to kick off. The head coach went with youth, starting four players who spent a large part of last season with the Black & Gold’s reserve team, winning the first-ever MLS NEXT Pro championship. It appears Nancy preferred to use players from the start who were involved throughout preseason, selecting Will Sands at left wing back over offseason signing Jimmy Medranda — who did not make the bench — Farsi over Luis Diaz and Philip Quinton over Josh Williams, all of whom missed time prior to the year with injuries. Alexandru Matan’s inclusion in the starting 11 excited Columbus fans, who have wanted to see more from the young attacking midfielder the last two years.

Most surprisingly was in goal where second-year pro Patrick Schulter made his first-ever MLS start after being a fixture for Crew 2 in the team’s title run. With Eloy Room unavailable, it was widely expected that veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush would start, but Nancy elected to go with the former Saint Louis University product.

Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to question these decisions. Without being involved in preseason training sessions or closed-door scrimmages, there is only so much that can be discerned from Nancy’s decision. What was clear is these lineup selections ultimately didn’t work.

Nancy has already made it clear that he is secretive with his lineups and if the decision to go with a young group was meant to catch Philadephia off guard, it may have worked early on but not for 90 minutes. Asking young players to handle the pressure of a new system under a new coach on the road against what many expect to be the best team in MLS this year is a difficult ask and one that the Crew was not able to answer.

Not enough adjustments

As mentioned, Nancy’s decisions appeared to pay off for much of the first half. The Black & Gold went toe-to-toe with the defending Eastern Conference champions for much of the first half and it could be argued were the better team over the first 45 minutes. But that changed in the second half, controversial penalty kicks aside.

Union head coach Jim Curtin showed his experience, recognizing what made Columbus successful in the first half and making necessary halftime adjustments. The Crew played with a very high line and put Philadelphia under pressure in the opening portion of the match, making it hard for the home side to get out of its own half and create much of anything.

In the second half, Curtin’s team upped the pressure back on the visitors and flipping the script on the Black & Gold. Jose Martinez, arguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS, got after Columbus’ attacking midfielders. The Crew’s wing backs were pushed back and weren’t able to be a part of the attack. The Black & Gold’s center backs weren’t able to help in build-up much at all, something that may be an issue for this Columbus side.

It’s important to remember that Nancy is only in his third season as a head coach. Curtin has been doing this for 10 years and that experience showed on Saturday night.

The good news is, there are 33 more games to play this season.