When the Columbus Crew and the Philadelphia Union step on the field Saturday night, it will be the first time the teams have seen in each other in six months. The Crew defeated the Union 2-1 on March 22, the second game of the season for the Black and Gold.
At that point, Philadelphia still relied on Jack McInerney - now a member of the Montreal Impact - and Columbus had the services of Dominic Oduro and Giancarlo Gonzalez.
Both teams have struggled throughout periods of the MLS campaign and the Union enter this game looking for their first win in six matches. Philadelphia currently sits in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but still have a chance to make the MLS Cup Playoffs. The club sits four points behind the Black and Gold, who hold the fifth and final playoff slot.
Despite their struggles, Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter does not believe this game will be a walk in the park for his side. He said the Union have enough weapons to cause Columbus problems.
"When you look at their top guys in Conor Casey, Sebastien Le Toux, and [Andrew Wenger,] it's a good group," Berhalter said this week. "Then you go through their midfield with [Amobi Okugo] and [Cristian Maidana] and [Vincent Nogueira,] it's a talented team."
The Union are led by Le Toux, who has a team-high 12 goals and is second best for the club with six assists on the season. Le Toux missed last week's game due to injury, but is expected to be available for this contest.
Casey, an MLS veteran who had a cup of tea with the U.S. National Team, typically plays the lone striker role and has eight goals to his name this season. He also missed the 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire last week and is still questionable with a knee sprain.
Even with key players dealing with various ailments, Philadelphia has managed to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference and played in the U.S. Open Cup Final against the Seattle Sounders. Crew midfielder Ethan Finlay credits the coaching staff for their work with the players.
"I think they've done a very good job throughout the season with managing their players," Finlay said of the Union.
"You've seen guys like Andrew Wenger, who maybe didn't have as much success right when he showed up to Philly, but now is really turning the tables and in really good form."
With Le Toux serving the ball and players like Casey and Maurice Edu, among others, in the box, Columbus will have to be careful to limit Philadelphia's set piece opportunities or they are likely to get punished.
Another area where the Union thrives is on the counterattack.
"They're very good on the counter so we're going to be very careful about where we turn the ball over," said midfielder Hector Jimenez, who has also seen time on defense and could be asked to lineup at right back this week.
The speed of their outside defenders helps on the counter. As Jimenez points out, if the ball is given away in the wrong places, or to the wrong players, Philadelphia will be on their horses looking to make the Black and Gold pay.
It is not just offensively where the Union are strong. Although their record doesn't reflect it, the club has the fifth best goals against in the East. The Union have cycled through four starting goalkeepers on the year, but have only conceded 45 goals in 39 games.
"In their back line, they have a national team player in Maurice Edu, a Colombian national team player," Berhalter said.
"Overall it's a strong group."
The two teams may not have seen each other since the beginning of the season, but they will get very familiar with each other over the next few weeks. After this game in Philadelphia, each side has one game before a season finale in Columbus in two weeks. These games are where the success of the season could be determined for either side.
"I think this is the biggest game of the year to be honest with you," Jimenez said. "I have full confidence and full belief that we'll go there and get the result that we need. Philly's a tough team and it's a two-game series between us and them."
With three games remaining for either side, the Crew have the simpler road to make it to the post season; if they win all three games, they are in. For the Union, it is more complicated, needing to win and have some help. Both cases mean this is a big game for these two teams.
"These are finals for them," said Finlay, who has called every Crew game a final for over a month.
"It's an incredibly important game for them and it's an incredibly important game for us."