In the battle of young vs. old on a soccer field, it’s often a predictable story. Young comes out all guns blazing, pushes the tempo and creates opportunities. Old sits back and does the rope-a-dope. Young eventually makes a mistake or two. Old, capitalizing on superior experience and discipline, punishes young.
Such was the tale Thursday night. The Columbus Crew played us a familiar tune, weathered the early Philadelphia Union storm and took a well-earned 2-1 win out of the City of Brotherly Love.
The Formations: Both teams came out in a 4-4-1-1 with inside-out wingers doing the creative work from the midfield and two central midfielders tasked with protecting the defense.
Philadelphia had Alejandro Moreno lead the forward line as a true center forward, Sebastien Le Toux playing as a free-roaming attacker behind him. Wingers Justin Mapp and Fred were free to interchange with Le Toux as much as they wanted.
Columbus were a bit more static since Guillermo Barros Schelotto simply doesn’t cover as much ground as Le Toux, and their central midfield combination of Brian Carroll and Danny O’Rourke provides little offensive threat. (Adam Moffat was sorely missed.)
Both sides played with a flat back four, and neither team got much width from their outside backs.
The First 45: The Union came out flying and pinned Columbus back for the first 35 minutes of the game, aided and abetted by the Crew’s lack of possession in the middle. That, combined with Columbus’s inability to stretch the defense meant Philly were actually playing their offside trap just yards shy of the midfield stripe for most of the first half.
The tone of the game shifted, however, when the Crew’s Stephen Lenhart, who would play the hero on the night, came on for Jason Garey in the 28th minute.
Liberated from the shackles of Garey’s lack of mobility—it turns out he had a stomach bug—and buoyed by Lenhart’s ability to play with his back to the goal, Columbus began to make inroads and execute the gameplan they’d come with in the first place: absorb pressure and hit hard on the counter.
A Late First Half Flurry: With less than five minutes to go in a first half they’d dominated, the Union shot themselves in the foot with a cascade of individual mistakes that led to the Crew’s opener.
First, left back Jordan Harvey cleared a backpass directly up the center of the pitch, where Carroll gladly intercepted it and then played square to Emmanuel Ekpo. Next, Ekpo was needlessly fouled by Fred as he turned away from the goal, setting up a free kick for Schelotto.
Harvey lost track of Lenhart on the free kick and Schelotto did what Schelotto does: Put the ball on the big forward’s head.
Lenhart finished with a clinical header at Seitz’s feet for the 1-0 lead.
Fair play to the Union, though, as they didn’t give up. Mapp, the most influential player of the first half, drew a free kick about 25 yards out on the right flank in stoppage time. On the ensuing setpiece Kyle Nakazawa curled in a beautiful ball that somehow squirted past Fred and ricocheted around the box.
It ended up on the foot of Le Toux, whose first touch took him away from goal. Crew defender Frankie Hejduk, however, dove in with a loose slide tackle and was punished with a yellow card and a PK as Le Toux went down from minimal contact.
The Frenchman neatly converted for his 9th goal of the season.
The Second 45: The Crew, winless in their previous five road contests, surprised everyone by coming out for the victory in the second half instead of playing for a point. Rather than sitting back, Carroll pushed higher up the pitch in an effort to disrupt Philly’s ability to play out of the back while O’Rourke stayed central in front of the backline.
Columbus were rewarded in the 50th minute with Lenhart’s second goal of the night.
It was a classic transition goal, the type that a veteran team scores when it smells blood. A turnover deep in the Columbus end found Hejduk, who spotted Schelotto checking back and played a long-ball to the diminutive Argentine.
Instead of controlling and creating possession as he often does, Schelotto recognized an opening and flicked a header directly into the path of Renteria. The Venezuelan was poised in space on the right flank behind Harvey, who hadn’t tracked back fast enough after overlapping into the attack.
Taking the ball in stride, Renteria had time to pinpoint his cross and put the ball on the head of Lenhart, who beat Union defender Danny Califf with a simple diagonal run across the front of the defender. There was very little complicated about the play save for the speed at which it unfolded. And just like that it was 2-1.
From that point on, it was almost an academic exercise as Columbus strangled the life out of the game, defending in two waves of four with Carroll ballhawking through the middle. The Crew’s experience, continuity and understanding of what it takes to win were more telling than any tactical or personnel changes could have been.
Final Thoughts: Philadelphia players, coaches and fans will surely be frustrated with the home loss, but given the quality of the competition and the fact that the Union were playing without star rookie Danny Mwanga, there are positives to take. The biggest was the play of Mapp, who was a constant threat and pinned Columbus left back Shaun Francis in his own end for most of the night.
Crew manager Robert Warzycha, meanwhile, will breathe a sigh of relief at corralling three road points and ending a road winless stretch that had stretched back to May. He’ll be happy with the way his team did it, as well. Simply put, this was Columbus Crew soccer. This is how they’ve won the past two Supporter’s Shields and why they’re well positioned to challenge for a third. It may not always be the prettiest stuff in the world, but it works.