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Philadelphia Union set pieces nearly steal three points on the road against Columbus

In the Union’s opener against Columbus, Bedoya had two late-game chances to give the Union the lead, both generated from the types of intelligent runs needed to crack a stout Columbus defense.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Alejandro Bedoya’s value on the field is immeasurable. The 33-year-old Philadelphia Union captain may not be surging up and down the flanks as often as he once did nor producing the window-dressing Best XI stats playing as a withdrawn midfielder on the outside of the Union diamond. But his leadership and experience have made him an even better player as he’s aged, and his presence on the field is crucial to the team’s success over multiple competitions.

In the Union’s opener against Columbus, Bedoya had two late-game chances to give the Union the lead, both generated from the types of intelligent runs needed to crack a stout Columbus defense. It’s no secret that Columbus entered the game with a commitment to defend. The reigning MLS Cup champions played a Concacaf Champions League match on Thursday, and with one fewer day to rest than the Union, Caleb Porter’s side showed a willingness to disrupt the Union midfield flow and limit the effectiveness of Jamiro Monteiro and Bedoya going forward.

The Union, however, had plans of their own, a few deviations on set pieces that almost made the difference in the game had it not been for the outside of the post.

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In the 64th minute, the Union won a free kick fifteen yards inside the Crew’s half. Not the most dangerous position from a central location, especially going against a team that prides itself on organization and stacking the box. The Crew had eight players back while the Union attacked with six, though Leon Flach expressed no intention of pushing forward and was more of a decoy to balance any counter attack. From previous experiences against the Crew, Jim Curtin and his team knew their chances against Jonathan Mensah and Josh Williams in direct aerial situations were unfavorable and that any service into the mixer would be easier for the six-foot-two-inch center backs to defend.

So they added a wrinkle.

Jakob Glesnes lined up out far wide to the left with the remaining four Union players, Jack Elliott, Kacper Przybylko, Bedoya, and Sergio Santos at the top of the D holding the Crew’s line. With Glesnes one on one in isolation, the play was designed for redirection, with a simple touch across the box creating chaos while the Crew defenders scramble to recover.

The play worked to perfection. As Crew midfielder Artur slid out, Glesnes easily won the challenge and headed the ball across the penalty spot. But therin lies Bedoya’s greatness. With Elliott and Przybylko looking for the second ball at the near post and Santos sliding to the far side, Bedoya peeled off for the penalty spot and swung a left-footed volley that beat Room but not the post.

Going back to the sequence leading up to Bedoya’s run, it’s evident the play was designed. It’s not unlike Curtin to prepare for every scenario and a cutter would have been part of the overall scheme. But Bedoya’s awareness of the ball drifting beyond Glesnes and the timing and shape of his run allowed him enough time and space to get a shot off. All he needed was a half-step.

And with Gyasi Zardes coming out to challenge, the shooting window closed quickly. Had Bedoya cut a second later, reacting to the ball instead of anticipating, he might not have had the opportunity at all. Against Columbus, the Union needed to turn half-chances into full ones, and this was one of the best examples.

The play didn’t result in a goal, but Bedoya’s field awareness and recognition of situational movements are two of the many attributes that make him a special player. His contributions can’t be defined on a box score but can be found in the efficiency of a singular drawn-up set piece that almost produced the game winner and secured three points against the defending champs. In future matchups, the Union will face more teams content with sitting back and defending relentlessly, so they’ll rely on Bedoya’s vision in finding pockets of space with the ball and without. And small variations on set pieces like the one shown against Columbus could generate more game-changing opportunities as playing minutes accumulate and heavy legs factor into the counter-pressing style the Union likes to play.