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Philadelphia Union looking to capitalize on Columbus Crew’s style with high press

(John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

CHESTER, Pa. — Saturday’s clash between the Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew presents a tactical chess match between two American head coaches who have trained their respective sides to play a particular way.

Gregg Berhalter’s Crew love to develop play out of the back, starting with goalkeeper Zach Steffen, while Jim Curtin’s Union employ a high-pressing system.

In Week 2 against the Montreal Impact, the Crew showed they’re susceptible to making mistakes while working out of their own third, including an error that led to Ignacio Piatti’s 58th-minute strike.

The Union are hoping to exploit similar weaknesses in the Crew lineup, as they return to the field after a week off following a 2-0 win over the New England Revolution on March 3.

“They have a coach who likes to play soccer,” Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin said. “He wants to go out from the tight spots. They don’t play long balls so for us it’s very good so we can press them. There are going to be moments where maybe we can take the ball and maybe attack the goal a little bit quicker and maybe score quicker if we press really good against them because they will take a lot of risks.” 

The key for the Union in their pressing system this season is to have more of an impact through their wingers. The upgrade to David Accam brought more speed to the field, while Fabian Herbers, Marcus Epps and the suspended Fafa Picault possess similar assets in their styles of play.

“We’re still working on how to press higher up,” Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “That’s what we want to do. Tactically I think the wingers have to do a better job than we did last year in terms of when we do press high to block the passing lanes and win higher balls and not let teams play out of the back so easily.”

“I think we could press better because we always go half to the pressure,” Medunjain said. “I think we just need to step more and even if you commit a foul, it’s good. Sometimes we just go and the ball passes us so sometimes we just need to go to the man and make them a little bit scared and I think with David, and now with Fabian, we need to be more tight on their players and I think we can get a lot of turnovers from that. With all due respect, Columbus isn’t Barcelona so we’ll have chances when we’re at home.”

A new wrinkle will be thrown into the Union lineup on Saturday, as Borek Dockal is expected to make his debut in some capacity.

Whether it’s Dockal or Homegrown player Anthony Fontana starting at the No. 10 position, the focus for that player in the Union system is to make Crew captain Wil Trapp feel uncomfortable on the ball.

“Wil Trapp is one of their key guys and he’s going to be dropping deep to get the ball,” Bedoya said. “The No. 10’s job is to stay with the No. 6 and not let him turn and face us and play out of their back. Try to keep them under pressure, that’s more of the 10’s role and you’ll see that with a guy like Borek, he’s a pretty active guy. He’s not like your prototype typical No. 10 that’s not willing to do the dirty work. He’s active and I think that’ll serve us well and win the ball higher up and when we do win the ball we have speed up front.”

“It’s going to be a little bit new because Borek is playing in his first game,” Medunjanin said. “We’ve seen in practice that he has a lot of quality and is doing very well. We hope he can translate that into Saturday.”

The responsibilities for Bedoya and Medunjanin come in the middle of the field when Columbus is attacking, as they’ll try to bottle up the pressure led by Federico Higuain in order to deny Gyasi Zardes the service he’s received so far this season.

“Gyasi has been doing well from what I’ve seen and heard,” Bedoya said. “He’s a guy that needs service and is getting that in Columbus because they do play good football. They get their guys out wide and are able to get him balls into the box. You have to be aware of his movement because he stays busy as a No. 9 in between the center backs. It’s just about stopping service to get to him so guys like myself in midfield have to be able to prevent those balls from getting to him.”

Regardless of where the ball is on the field Saturday, the Union carry a confidence about them with one victory in the books, and that’s going to help them even more in front of their home fans at Talen Energy Stadium.

“We just need to be focused and concentrated all 90 minutes and we just need to believe in ourselves,” Medunjanin said. “I think in my opinion we have a better midfield than them.”

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