The Philadelphia Union fans saw a clinic in quality soccer in the first half of Saturday night's game against the Columbus Crew SC. Unfortunately for Ben's offspring, it was not put on by Philadelphia but by Columbus, as the whole game was too easy for them at that point. How was this the case and what other game changing moments were there?
1. Only picking players who trained all week.
In Jim Curtin's weekly press conference, he yet again talked about picking players based on their play in training. It's something we have heard from Piotr Nowak, John Hackworth (particularly about Keon Daniel) and Jim Curtin. While that can be a good way of selecting who plays between two similar quality players, it shouldn't be a reason to pick an inferior player over a better player. Can you imagine Lionel Messi being left out because he didn't look good in training?
While he is no Messi, Andre Blake seemingly fell foul to that selection criteria on Saturday night. Jim Curtin went with John McCarthy in goal instead of Blake, who only a few games ago been the number one choice. That means that this year the Union have went from Rais M'Bolhi to John McCarthy to Brian Sylvestre to John McCarthy to Andre Blake to John McCarthy as the starting goalkeeper choice this season. While some of that is down to bad luck (i.e. the injuries), some down to a bad decision to sign M'Bolhi, and some is down to bad coaching in my opinion. Having this kind of rotation is never going to end up with good results, as the stability is not there.
In the same press conference, Curtin talked about the frustration of not being able to send out a stable XI, comparing the Union having to have 31 different starting lineups being a problem and the New York Red Bulls having a much more stable team, helping them to be in the Supporters' Shield conversation. Curtin needs to stop picking players based on how long they have been at training that week, or how well someone has played in training and actually pick the best players. If he doesn't, I would guess he won't be coaching in MLS very long.
Perhaps even worse for Philadelphia is that if it now gets out that going on international duty may cost a starting spot, then international quality players are not going to want to come and play in blue and gold. When you have a hard enough time tempting them to come here anyway, having such a stigma would not be a good thing.
2. Columbus were a different side than earlier in the season.
When the Columbus Crew last came to PPL park, they were beaten 3-0. However, that team didn't have Kei Kamara for one, and didn't look anywhere near as accomplished as the Crew did on Saturday. Federico Higuain controlled the game, and the Crew passing had the Union players chasing shadows throughout the half. There's a reason that Columbus are sitting pretty in playoff places, and unlike the last game we saw those reasons on Saturday. I'm not sure that Columbus will go far in the playoffs, but if they played like they did on Saturday they will make it further than if they played like they did on their last trip to PPL park.
3. Columbus Making Gaddis and Vitoria be the creators.
Columbus also played Philadelphia perfectly - let Raymon Gaddis and Steven Vitoria get the ball, and force them to try and bypass the midfield for C.J. Sapong to get on the end of. However, unlike last week when Gaddis played the perfect ball for Casey's first goal, this week all that happened was Steve Clark taking a goal kick after the ball ran harmlessly behind the goal line.
Speaking of those goal kicks, the Columbus second goal came from a goal kick, a few passes later and Kei Kamara is getting his second goal of the game on a weak shot that John McCarthy flapped at. The fact that it was so easy for Columbus to get that goal after a goal kick, when the defense should be ready was annoying. However, worse than that is the fact that it was a re-taken goal kick, that Columbus still had all the time in the world to get up the other end and score.
4. Switching formations but not soon enough.
After such a terrible first half, many fans including myself would have thought changes must be coming. However, Jim Curtin went with the same players who failed in the first half, and the same formation. Then, when that still wasn't working he changed to a more attacking 4-3-3 formation, and it made a difference with Philadelphia suddenly looking like they could get something from the game.
I've said before that American coaches seem to be in love with the 4-2-3-1 formation that teams like Chelsea use so well. Unless you are losing late in the game, that formation doesn't seem to change. However, sometimes that formation isn't going to work and it is up to coaches to know that it isn't going to work and change that. You might not have the personnel to play a 4-2-3-1, or the opposing team tactics dictate the 4-2-3-1 isn't optimal. Jim Curtin, a week after making fantastic tactical decision to bring on Conor Casey, was yet again too slow to make a "reactive change" instead of being more proactive, and it hurt.
5. Making the defense work hard.
As well as the forwards chasing shadows all game, Columbus had both Steven Vitoria and Richie Marquez working very hard. In the San Jose game, the midfield did a great job protecting the defenders, who did a great job protecting John McCarthy. However, in this game the midfield didn't do as nice a job making Vitoria and Marquez make five extra clearances and they had 4 more interceptions, in a home game when they probably would have thought they would have less work to do. The increased workload also led to more shots on target for the goalkeeper to have to stop, as it wasn't just shots from way outside the box.
Overall, it was a game that was way too easy for an away team to win. Philadelphia didn't ask the right questions of Columbus until it was too late. It makes you wonder if the Union are now focusing on the U.S. Open Cup game instead of the slim chances of making the playoffs. If they really are, I'd rather see players who haven't played much this year play, instead of those the Union are going to need to be healthy to win the first silverware of the team's history.