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Union vs Crew: A tale of two chances

A look at the Union’s chances and a fortuitous Crew chance that decided the game

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

The Philadelphia Union squandered multiple chances in the first half, and after Lucas Zelarayán’s 55th minute deflection goal, the Columbus Crew hunkered down and sealed off the penalty area for much of the second half, earning a 1-0 win on Wednesday night. With the win, the Crew jumped Toronto for the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings, two points clear.

The Union fell to fourth place after Orlando City’s 1-1 draw with Nashville. The Union and Orlando are even with 15 points but Orlando holds a better goal differential (+5 to +3).

It’s unrealistic to expect the offensive output we saw against D.C. United last Saturday evening at Subaru Park, but the Union had their opportunities. A majority of the Union’s best chances came in the first half when they carried the play. Alejandro Bedoya’s strike in the 11th minute nearly caught Crew keeper Eloy Room off guard and Mark McKenzie’s 27th minute shot from a scrambled corner was cleared off the line by Darlington Nagbe. But Lucas Zelarayán’s goal was the only difference in an otherwise even matchup between the two sides.

“We had decent looks,” Union coach Jim Curtin said in his post-game press conference, “we just weren’t clinical when we had to be.” The Crew have only conceded 2 goals in their 9 games so far this season. The first was a late PK at Seattle in the second game of the season and the second was an early goal against Minnesota in the round of 16 of the MLS is Back Tournament. Minnesota bounced the Crew in a penalty shootout.

So what separated the two sides? I’m digging into my past here because some of what happened last night I’ve seen before. And some of this goes back to Jerry Yeagley, a former West Chester University graduate from Myerstown, PA, who won six national championships at Indiana University. A man whose picture I’ve seen hanging beside Bobby Knight’s in a Bloomington restaurant.

Jerry Yeagley preached certain details with his players that ultimately became habitual. Yes, I’m comparing college soccer from the 1990s and 2000s to MLS. I realize there’s a big difference. Caleb Porter was an All-American from Indiana and served as Yeagley’s assistant before his successful college career at Akron and time with the Portland Timbers in MLS. There are similar patterns that have obviously translated from mentor to mentee. Yeagley always wanted numbers around the ball, especially after losing possession. It was a Jerry Yeagley staple. Pressure the ball in threes, win the ball back as soon as you lose it, or you won’t find yourself on the field.

We’ve talked for weeks about the Union’s midfield dominance. The way they obliterated D.C., the way they wore down New York. But they saw something different tonight that they haven’t seen since the Timbers loss. A crowded midfield with little time on the ball to create.

The first solid opportunity for the Union came in the long-range strike from Alejando Bedoya. At a quick glance, it looked harmless. A dipping knuckler that Room couldn’t corral and was safely defended. But that’s what Porter wanted us to see.

Credit the Union for breaking the Crew’s trap, but watch how Crew midfielder Artur attacks the ball from the side prior to the shot. Bedoya still got a clean strike, and who’s to say how much of that rush affected his rhythm. But he wasn’t able to follow all the way through because of that presence, for if he did, he’d likely swing through Artur’s leg and that’s not something a 33-year-old wants to feel the next day.

Also, watch Przybylko’s positioning. As Bedoya received the ball with space, Przybylko held the line and squared up with a rare wide gap behind the two Columbus defenders. If there ever were a moment to slip him through, that would be it. But Przybylko’s stagnancy forced Bedoya’s only option. Following the shot, who’s the closest player on the rebound? Sergio Santos was ten yards from the opposite corner of the box at the time of Bedoya’s approach and got to the ball first. He’s fast, but he was attacking the goal and did well to keep it alive, but the Crew players surrounded him immediately and forced him backward. What about the other Union players anticipating the shot?

The second example was the best Union chance of the game. In the 27th minute, Przybylko nearly nicked a corner but got enough of the ball for it to bounce around the box before Mark McKenzie’s strike was cleared off the line. It was painful because McKenzie hit it well. The ball should have gone in. But it didn’t because of the way the Crew players anticipated the situation and the Union players did not.

Another Jerry Yeagley trademark was backing up the keeper. Give me a second while I fight through my own minor sobbing. I’ve been on the losing end of Indiana’s anticipatory play too many times, some at the foot of Union assistant Pat Noonan, that it still haunts me to this day. Multiple Big Ten finals, an NCAA quarterfinal.

The organization began with the double coverage at the front six. Columbus watched the tape of the Union game against D.C. where the Union nearly won every corner challenge. With Przybylko, Elliott, McKenzie, and Bedoya, the Union possess a dangerous aerial threat. The protection at the front six made it harder to connect on that low-driven ball. But despite this, Przybylko nearly snuck one. After the ball passed, Crew center back Josh Williams covered Room’s back side.

And Nagbe remained goal-side of Przybylko providing additional coverage. The Crew players did not gravitate toward the ball, knowing that Room’s far post was exposed. In fact, they didn’t even flinch but remained home, facing the ball in a ready position. And Nagbe, their central midfielder and one of the better attacking players in the league, was the one disciplined enough to stay behind. That type of patience comes from training and repetition.

I’d like to draw your attention again to Przybylko because of his reaction. At the time of McKenzie’s strike, he’s rooted again, watching the ball as it passes in front of him. Now one could argue, everything happened fast. We’re talking increments of time. But Przybylko never even instinctually attacked the ball. Maybe he doesn’t re-direct McKenzie’s shot but he may deflect Nagbe’s clearance. What’s concerning is that he didn’t move.

There’s an automaticity that defines successful teams. In McKenzie’s chance as well as in Bedoya’s, the Crew anticipated and the Union reacted. And the Crew didn’t often allow those small windows for the Union to beat them.

The game’s only goal came in the 55th minute when Lucas Zelarayán played a combination through the Union midfield before his shot deflected off McKenzie and over Andre Blake’s head. The goal possessed comparable elements with the Union chances, so let’s set aside the thought that it was a deflection and likely would have been contested by Blake otherwise.

The goal came off a restart. “A foul that was not a foul,” Jim Curtin stressed multiple times in his post-game comments. In this moment while the Union organized behind the ball, they were caught in a bit of a mental lapse. Zelarayán received the initial pass in front of José Martinez.

But after his layoff, Zelarayán slipped beyond Martinez with no one tracking. Martinez went to the ball, Aaronson let him pass, and Monteiro was restricted because of the wide Crew player out of the picture. When Pedro Santos checked for the ball, Olivier Mbaizo let him go, also concerned about that wide player.

So when Zelarayán received the third ball, he had no one at his back and enough room and time to take a touch and shoot. Had someone followed the run, they’d have pressed him from behind. Had Mbaizo followed Santos, he’d have likely released as the closest player to the ball to apply pressure. McKenzie and Elliott are two against Zardes. There’s no communication between the pair and McKenzie was slow to respond. At the time of his shot, Zelarayán had more than enough time with no pressure. And after the strike, Zardes was in great position for the rebound after sneaking beyond Elliott, much in the same way Santos did with Bedoya’s shot.

For the Union, the second half presented a number of challenges. Yeagley’s teams rarely lost their shape, were comfortable eliminating space behind, forcing opponents to play through them. Porter’s Crew did much of the same in the second half with a Union side that may not have been capable enough of breaking through, with Santos’ run the 68th minute the lone exception.

“We had enough attackers to make plays in the second half,” Curtin said. “It becomes difficult with a team that has quality and the lead to break them.”

The Crew stayed behind the ball, doubled up on Ilsinho whenever he touched the ball, and forced the Union to attack from wide and deep positions, never relinquishing their space in the final third. And the Union were never quite able to press the game late in the second half.

The game had been decided earlier. Compare Zelarayán’s strike to Bedoya’s, which were within five yards of the same spot on the field. Compare the Crew’s ability to anticipate the situations versus the Union’s miscue. Compare Zardes’ anticipation versus Przybylko’s. So when Curtin talks about minor differences in the two teams, these are types of details that will be worked out in training as they prepare for the Red Bulls on Sunday.