Photo: Nicolae Stoian
Slowly but surely, Columbus has pulled themselves up the Eastern Conference ladder. Even as their top two strikers suffered injuries and the rest of their lineup rotated in and out of favor, the Crew scraped points together.
And when Philadelphia faltered, nobody was left to deny the Crew their place atop the East.
Now the Union are in fourth place, adrift behind three teams that have succeeded largely through self-belief. So why have these squads with less talent leapfrogged a Philadelphia side that seemed more than capable of running away with first place?
Remember how Peter Nowak always said Carlos Ruiz was the first player on his teamsheet (and how Ruiz repaid that respect by taking offense when asked to prove himself before receiving our unconditional love)? Well, all that preseason training with Ruiz as the point man has paid off in spades. Without a striker sitting centrally, the Union’s rotating midfield system—which includes the second striker dropping deep on defense——has no outlet.
One solution would be to play a system that better fits the current personnel. Thus far, the team has stuck to the formation that suited Ruiz, even though Ruiz is suiting up for someone else.
One possible alternative? If you are going to defend as deep as the Union have of late, come out in a 4-5-1 with Pauno and Adu in front of Carroll or Okugo. This helps shore up the midfield, which has been overrun with regularity of late (see: Most of the Dallas match) while allowing Le Toux to push high and take off on those hopeful windsprints he favors.
The next issue is figuring out how to get forward. Clearly, most teams have discovered that sitting back and waiting for a mistake is a simple way to combat the Union’s attack. Not only are the Union uncommonly prone to mistakes in their short passing game, but, of late, nobody has been making the incisive runs that turn final third possession into scoring opportunities.
This shines light on the larger problem of off the ball movement. Looking through the Union’s extensive roster of center midfielders, one sees players for whom time on the ball should be a joy. So why are Carlos Valdes and Danny Califf struggling so mightily to find options? The midfield has become hesitant and slow when checking in to the backs, and so unsure of their offensive system that runs forward lack timing and a cutting edge. The simple truth is that Philadelphia has not imposed their style of play on a game since Everton (Michael Farfan imposed his own style on Madrid).
There is another view of these offensive struggles, one often taken by the coaching staff. They see the team’s improved possession in the final third as an indication of improved understanding between teammates. And they argue that a good finish is all that is needed to break out of this current funk. It’s true: In soccer, a good finish fixes a lot. But the opposition are currently ceding possession to the Union because it’s clear they don’t know what to do with it.
In this offensively challenged environment, the defense is clearly feeling pressure to be perfect. And anyone can tell you that if you try to be perfect, you will fail. Carlos Valdes is holding the ball and looking for the most sublime pass; Sheanon Williams’ runs have become less frequent. In short, this is a team playing as if they assume disaster is about to strike. Instead of pouncing on the opponent’s errors they are wondering when their own big mistake will come.
They need confidence. They need the coaches to have confidence in the whole roster. This is a squad filled with developing players. Give Jack Mac two starts and he turns in one invisible game and one All-Star performance. What will Amobi Okugo give you in his starts? What about Michael Farfan?
And this isn’t just an Okugo fan making an emotional plea. Keon Daniel’s good run against Columbus showed that players who have bounced in and out of favor this year absolutely, unequivocally can be called upon to inject life, desire, and confidence into a side whose veterans and minute-munchers are in what both the standings and our eyes tell us is a deep rut.
I’m not advocating permanent changes. What I am saying is that, awful handball call or no, the Union did not threaten the Columbus goal with enough regularity to deserve a win. They indicated—or maybe just hinted—that they are a better team. But only one squad seemed sure of their superiority on Saturday. And that team won.
Faryd Mondragon – 4
That penalty kick will haunt The Dragon for a while, but the one that will bother him on replay is the first goal. On second viewing he will wonder how his normally composed defense was turned into a chaotic jumble.
Sheanon Williams – 4
Truly a rough outing for Sheanon. He was pinned back by the Crew and was often caught between covering midfielders and strikers. Even so, he was less a liability than below his high standards and can be counted on to bounce back. Kudos to Sheanon for keeping his cool on that atrocious handball call.
Carlos Valdes – 6
Unable to get involved in the attack, Valdes played a solid but unspectacular match and got back on track after the tough go against Dallas. The yellow card that sees him suspended against the Revs was harsh, but if he had to miss one, why not New England?
Danny Califf – 6
Oh no, sir. It’s fine. I don’t mind Renteria slapping my face with his elbow every time I jump. Back of the head is fine too. All in good fun. Keeping the elbows up is definitely not a card-worthy offense. Even the third time. Great work, sir. You are a credit to your profession.
Gabriel Farfan – 6
The past game and a half have seen a much improved Garfan. He has reintroduced the attacking element of his game and found that tough edge that disappears when confidence is low.
Keon Daniel – 8
He makes a lot of us feel like Nostradamii. Once more, Keon held the ball well and made smart passes. His involvement again coincided with an improved performance from Garfan, as it often did with Jordan Harvey. And he had an assist. Why he was subbed out remains a mystery.
Stefani Miglioranzi – 4
Migs was not so bad. He stayed central and the occasions when he was clearly beaten were notable because they were irregular. His rating is low because he should have been the Union’s second presence in the air and he wasn’t. As a center back, Miglioranzi is strangely dominant in aerial battles. Why not in midfield?
Veljko Paunovic – 8
Goal. Almost a second. Aerial presence. Motivator. Leader. Yeah, he disappears for long stretches and he’s more likely to be doing stretches than helping fix the defensive formation, but Pauno was brought in to help the offense. And he has scored, won balls in the air, and appears to be intent on acting as a mentor for the young players who want to follow in his footsteps and play in Europe. Just can’t knock the guy.
Justin Mapp – 2
Needs a game in the press box to see things from a different angle. Not only is he second guessing himself on the field right now, he appears to be doing it in slow motion.
Danny Mwanga – 5
Mwanga gets a 5 because he was supposed to be a post player and did that… about half the time. It’s not where he belongs and it’s not what the team needed but that’s not for him or I to decide. The kid needs to do what’s best for the team, and that should have been taking the hits in the back and drawing the fouls.
Sebastien Le Toux – 4
I’ll just rate the set pieces. Bad. Plus, Le Toux should be in the box, trying to use dead balls as a chance to break his open play duck.
Freddy Adu – n/a
Did he play? Really? For us??
Michael Farfan – 7
Strong performance on the wing. He worked back hard and offered a desperately needed and reliable outlet.
Jack McInerney – 4
Tough to make an impact as a late game sub, but at least demand the ball once or twice. We’ve seen you do it. And it works.
Geiger Counter – 2
Started off calling everything. Then didn’t. Then called a handball when the hand was against the body. Guh.
Columbus fans – 7
That’s not a rating. That’s total attendance. Come on, your team is in first place and you live in Columbus. Was the Two and a Half Men marathon really that good Saturday night?