The Black and Gold enter the match on a three match unbeaten run and are fresh off their best performance of the year, a 3-0 defeat of Orlando City SC last Saturday night. In that match, Federico Higuain registered his first goal and assist of the season, while Justin Meram scored his second goal of the year and Kei Kamara finished the contest off with team-leading fourth goal in six games.
The Union come to Columbus after a shaky start to the season, with just one win in their first eight matches. They sit in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with only six points on the year. Philadelphia's lone win came over expansion side New York City FC
The managing editor of SB Nation's Brotherly Game, Eugene Rupinski, was kind enough to preview the game with me, providing insight into what fans should expect in this contest.
Question for Brotherly Game
Massive Report: After finishing one spot from the postseason a year ago, what were the expectations of this team heading into the season? Are rumors of a disgruntled fan base in Philadelphia true?
Brotherly Game: The expectation at the beginning of the season was that the Union would qualify for the playoffs. The club had seemingly addressed the needs of the prior season by signing Fernando Aristeguieta to replace the aging Conor Casey, and Rais M'Bolhi was supposed to be the goalkeeper that led the Union to their first playoff berth since 2011. While Aristeguieta has proven to be a more than capable replacement for Casey, the time bomb that is M'Bolhi blew up in all of our faces here and we're left with a goalkeeper who's a feel-good story but has had one good outing out of his past three and doesn't look to be a serious contender for minutes.
And people here are not only upset, but are starting to get dangerously apathetic. It's too much of a burden to be emotionally invested in the team anymore. There's too much infighting and not enough leadership, and you're seeing voices slowly go quiet because they've moved on to things that don't suck the life out of you like rooting for a bad team.
MR: The Union only has one win on the season, but the club seems to have been in all of their games. What has been the major factor(s) for the slow start to the season? Are there signs that Philly can get things on the right track to make a run at the postseason, as it is a long season?
BG: There are a lot of issues. The M'Bolhi situation is the one everyone's heard about because of the black eye it's been for the franchise and the sheer amount of cap dollars we're talking about that isn't welcome in the locker room. But Ethan White hasn't performed to the level he did last season, forcing Maurice Edu to be shuttled back to center back. This has created a vacuum at central midfielder - especially with Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana being injured. Zach Pfeffer and Michael Lahoud have been filling in, and no disrespect to them but they're not Maurice Edu and Vincent Nogueira. Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger have also not found the same form we came to expect from them in 2014, and the bench is horribly thin.
Now there are signs things will improve. Nogueira and Maidana won't be injured forever, so when they come back, this may help relieve the offensive pressure on Le Toux and Wenger. Andre Blake will also recover, and it looks like he'll be the club's starting goalkeeper once healthy. Perhaps the club will make a summer signing to get a good center back to pair with Steven Vitoria. Who knows. It can't be this bad forever, can it?
MR: Every time the Union and Crew SC have played since Gregg Berhalter took over as Columbus' head coach, Philadelphia has run the high press to near perfection, causing major issues for the Black and Gold's possession style. I haven't noticed this nearly as much against some other teams, even those that like to keep the ball. Is this a tactic you expect to see in Columbus on Saturday? What are the reasons it's worked so well against Crew SC?
BG: I think you'll see the high press for sure. It's worked in the past and is one of the few strategies that the Union have been able to implement with some measure of success this season. Whether it will work as well as it has in the past I don't know. The Union are opportunists. They look for the break down and like to hit on the counter. If they can use the high press to force Columbus to turn the ball over, the hope is that they'll be able to blow past the coverage and create odd-man opportunities on goal. If they can do that with regularity, it may be just what's needed to help turn this season around.
Questions for Massive Report
Brotherly Game: Kei Kamara was a huge acquisition for Columbus, but that wasn't the only move that was made. How have players like Hernán Grana and Kristinn Steindórsson worked out?
Massive Report: So far, it's hard to argue with many of Gregg Berhalter's additions the last two offseasons, especially his moves from outside MLS.
Hernan Grana locked down a right back spot in preseason that was in flux most of last year. He fits into this system really well, looking to get forward and providing dangerous service from the right side. He's the perfect opposite to left back Waylon Francis, who was the league's leader in assists for a defender last season. Grana will not be hard to spot this weekend with his long hair, running up and down the sideline like Frankie Hejduk used to do. Berhalter described Grana this week as a player who "plays with his heart and soul," which is an accurate description in my book.
Steindorsson is yet to really hit his stride for the Black and Gold and is still attempting to determine his role. He has started on the right of midfield when Justin Meram is unavailable, but is a different player than Meram. We have seen flashes of what the Icelandic international can do, but it hasn't all come together yet. He also may be a candidate to play in Federico Higuain's role at some point if Columbus' No. 10 is out.
One player that you didn't mention is central midfielder Mohammed Saeid. The Swede has started four of five games he's played, filling in for either Tony Tchani or Wil Trapp. Last year, Columbus had little depth in the center of the midfield and that was a priority in the offseason. Saeid has played really well while Trapp has been out with concussion-symptoms recently and is making a case to be a starter in the center of the park.
BG: The last time our clubs played one another, Columbus had just unveiled their rebrand. It was viewed them as a great success - are people still happy with it? Are there some people who miss the hard hat guys?
MR: From those I've talked to, everyone is very happy with the new logo and the rebrand in general. While the hardhats will not be forgotten, it was time for a fresh start for Crew SC. With a new owner, a new head coach/sporting director, and many new players, the time was right to make the switch and hardly anyone was disappointed with the result.
So far, it seems pretty much anything owner Anthony Precourt touches turns to gold, as the club seems to be moving in the right direction in all ways.
BG: While not a traditional rival like Toronto is for Columbus and New York is for Philadelphia, the Union are in the same division as the Crew and are close enough to see away fans at the matches. How are the Union and their fans viewed by Columbus and their fans?
MR: It won't be news to anyone to hear that Crew SC fans don't like Toronto FC or most of the team's fans. The same goes for the Chicago Fire and to some of those who have been around since the beginning, D.C. United. The New England Revolution is also climbing into this category with the battles between the two teams last season and in the postseason and how certain fans handled things on social media.
In term of the Union, I don't think Crew SC or their fans view them with any more dislike than a typical conference rival. I have never heard any complaint from fans of the Black and Gold about Philadelphia fans. I think there is a mutual respect between these two teams and their fan bases. At least I would say that's the Columbus perspective.