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Union show they belong at Columbus, but lack final touch

With rising expectations and a bigger stage, the smallest cracks in a squad and the tiniest of mistakes become magnified.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

In a frustrating 1-0 loss at the Columbus Crew Wednesday night, the Philadelphia Union showed why they belong among the league’s top teams but also why there’s still a step to take to continue their upward trajectory.

The Union’s play has made them real contenders for the MLS Cup in a bizzaro season after already earning a deserved semifinal berth at the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando. But in the rare air where the best MLS clubs operate, the Union are still relative newcomers.

Columbus and Portland, two clubs molded under the vision of Caleb Porter (with full credit to Giovanni Savarese for his side’s performance in Orlando), presented two real benchmarks for the Union to show their growth.

The Union certainly did not fail the first test – they were undone by two set piece goals and a missed penalty, and their comeback against Portland fell just short. On Wednesday, it was a similar story as Philadelphia largely bottled up the best midfielder in the league and created a host of chances in the first half. The lone Crew goal came on a 25-yard deflection after Lucas Zelarayan had a fleeting moment of space in between the lines.

Let’s be clear, two games is too small of a sample size to say the Union aren’t at the level of these clubs, because they are. Porter said after the match that Philadelphia was “the best team they played.” The Union are the same team that ran Sporting Kansas City in the MLS is Back quarterfinal.

But while there are positive takeaways or the acknowledgement of bad bounces, there can also be room to be frustrated with the Union. With rising expectations and a bigger stage, the smallest cracks in a squad and the tiniest of mistakes become magnified.

Ultimately, the finishing wasn’t there for the Union on Wednesday.

“We created enough, but in the decisive moments in this league against the good teams, especially the ones that give up so few chances as Columbus, we actually had decent looks, but we weren’t clinical enough when we need to be,” Curtin said.

The Union had a handful of good looks in the first half and, perhaps most egregiously when they were chasing the game in the second, Sergio Santos missed a wide open Kacper Przybylko at the back post and instead fired over the bar.

Jim Curtin’s side won the clash of styles and produced more than the hosts. The Union’s organization without the ball denied the Crew room in dangerous areas. The diamond midfield pressed well to jumpstart the attack and the Union put enough pressure to score on a defense that has conceded just two goals in its last nine games.

But while the Union were punished for one misstep in a game plan designed to stifle Darlington Nagbe, Gyasi Zardes and company, the Crew got off the hook with handing chances to the Union’s front three. It can be unlucky for the Union that one of the Crew’s talented attackers made the most of an opportunistic strike while also disappointing that the Union’s supposed match winners didn’t deliver.

Furthermore, the best teams in the league often find ways to turn zero points into one, and one point into three. The Union have trailed only twice all summer, and on a night they deserved a result they weren’t able to claw back an equalizer for the second time. It brings up the question of whether or not the Union’s Plan B to chase a game is effective enough.

Curtin had success in 2019 bringing on Ilsinho around the 60th minute and shifting his diamond into an ultra-wide 4-2-3-1. The Brazilian wreaked havoc on the right to the tune of five goals and 13 assists in a little over 1000 minutes (around one goal + assist per 90).

Again, recognizing just how small the sample size is, what’s changed in 2020? Curtin had quite a bit to say on the matter, and the nature of his response reveals just how important Ilsinho’s deployment is to the team’s success.

“With Ilsinho, what he did last year was remarkable. Obviously when he came into a game, he scored or set up a goal, and won us a lot of points. Obviously teams adjust. We have to find different ways to utilize him. He’s still talent-wise, probably the best player on our team. So again, is it now a situation where maybe we play with two 10s and he can come in the middle a little bit more than float out wide? We’ve talked about that and worked on it a little bit and spoken about it in training. But it’s something that we need to find ways to get him on the ball more, because you see when the ball rolls to him, two or three guys run at him. That does usually mean somebody else is open, so maybe we need to do a better job of finding who else is open. He’s a marked man, no question about it. He’s certainly still the same player and still just as dangerous, and I see the same things in training every day. But again, maybe it’s a situation where he needs to come out and start and be on the field from the beginning of the game. We’ll look at all those options as a coach, playing him in a different spot, bringing him in as a starter, bringing him in earlier so he can get a better rhythm in the game. But he certainly does his job and does everything, it’s just that some nights when four or five guys are running at him, it’s going to be tough to break them down.”

Food for thought indeed. It’s a fascinating conundrum when his best player doesn’t have the fitness to play more than 30-45 minutes. I think the idea of adding a creative, 1-on-1 savant to a stretched game with tired legs makes sense, and there’s a track record of success there, but teams learn quickly in MLS. Columbus was happy to send multiple bodies Ilsinho’s way and make him give up the ball.

These are dangerous areas, but the chances clearly didn’t really flow from them and the right side overload teetered on one-dimensional. On another night, the Union might have left Aaronson in as another playmaking outlet, as Curtin alluded to with maybe having multiple 10s. Bottom line, they need more production in these types of scenarios, even if the context of a road trip in a thicket of fixtures against a top defense made this scenario particularly difficult.

The good news for the Union is that they will have chances against elite teams in the future to get results, and at a baseline for a Jim Curtin side, his team will not be outworked or outhought. Eventually, however, for this side to push its limits, it needs to be clinical when it counts – not just against a frisky Revs team in a round of 16 or against a shorthanded D.C. United side, but against a Toronto or a Columbus in an MLS semifinal when the chips are on the table.