Because it's a short week and because Columbus Crew SC (and its fans) have already seen the Philadelphia Union once this week, this piece is going to take a slightly different format than it has thus far this season. Rather than go into an in-depth breakdown of the Union, I'm simply going to hit on some key points and questions going into Wednesday night's mid-week game at PPL Park in Philadelphia.
Since the Black & Gold demolished the Union 4-1 on April 26, Philadelphia has actually won more games (two), with Columbus managing just one victory in five games since. The Union upended a pair of East frontrunners in D.C. United and a shocking victory over New York Red Bulls. Last week Philly dropped a 2-1 game to D.C. on a late penalty kick, but was competitive throughout.
The possession battle
Crew SC should walk out of the match with at least 60 percent possession. Anything less would be an utter failure against the league's worst possession team. Philadelphia is terrible at keeping possession, and while some teams concede possession tactically, that's not necessarily the case for the Union. They're just bad at keeping the ball.
Philly is dead last in MLS in both possession (40.5 percent) and passing percentage (73). They also are dispossessed of the ball more than all but one side in the league. Those aren't pretty numbers.
Of course, possession is only part of the battle, and what really matters is what you do with that possession. New York Red Bulls know all about that.
The transition game
The result in New York is a bit misleading. Yes, Philadelphia pulled out a deserved 2-0 win, but they were hardly the better team. The game came down to a 20-minute stretch to open the second half when the Union played pretty well on the counter and made RBNY pay. New York had a ton of possession and a ton of chances and didn't capitalize.
Still, it was positive for Philadelphia. The Union had been abysmal in transition earlier in the season, and when you don't possess the ball, transition is pretty much all you have. Yet they were slow and unorganized on the counter. They seem to have improved in this area. It showed against New York and also in the loss to United last week. Philly's only goal in that game came on a bad giveaway in the penalty area by D.C's defense, but the Union had some opportunities on the counter.
While Columbus will undoubtedly dominate the ball, it has to be aware of Philadelphia's improved counter attack.
The last time these two sides met, Ethan Finlay roasted fullback Fabinho and ate him for dinner. It was almost unfair. However, Fabinho has put in a few solid performances in a row, and was maybe the best player on the field for the Union against New York Red Bulls.
This time around Finlay is injured. He played a full 90 minutes against Orlando City on Saturday, but thanks to playing down a man we didn't get to see what he could really bring to the attack. All word is the broken toe is not affecting him, but it's still something to keep an eye on. Can he blitz Fabinho the same way he did a month and a half ago?
Philadelphia's defensive struggles
The Union's struggles in their own third of the field have been no secret. They're in the bottom third of the league in terms of the percentage of shots allowed that come from the danger zone, and although they're giving up goals at a higher rate (a league worst 1.64 per game) than their expected goals allowed, their xGA of 1.34 is still fourth-worst in the league. Even if Philadelphia's defense isn't quite as bad as it has seemed, it's still pretty bad, and it's not helped by being under pressure so much.
Brian Carroll shields the back line in the midfield and is a decent ball-winner, but he's ancient and isn't helping to turn those stops into possession going the other way. He's the only true defensive stopper in the midfield — everyone else is a box-to-box type guy.
The goalkeeper carousel hasn't helped either, though it appears to have slowed, at least momentarily. Rais Mbholi was not good, and although John McCarthy's story is one to root for, the numbers show he wasn't good either. Bryan Sylvestre has come in and been a little better than average. All you need to know is that a little better than average has been such an improvement that it's provided a boost for Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia dangermen
Is that an oxymoron? Philadelphia is in the bottom third of the league in shots per game, though they have decent company there in Seattle, Dallas, D.C. and New England. When they do get shots, they aren't bad at getting them in quality positions — the Union are in the top third of the league in danger zone percentage at 41.4 percent.
Fernando Aristeguieta was the highlight signing of the offseason for Philadelphia, and while he's looked like a solid fit, he also hasn't lit the world on fire. He does lead the team with three goals, which is just under his expected goal number of 3.36. He's been the main multi-dimensional target man in the 4-2-3-1.
Christian Maidana is the team's most creative force at attacking midfielder, though he roams a bit, often to the right. He has 29 key passes. Sebastian Le Toux also creates on the right, with 18 key passes, though he finally seems to be losing just a step at this stage of his career.
Crew SC will also have to be aware of the Philadelphia fullbacks. Fabinho actually leads the team in touch percentage at .126 while right back Sheanon Williams is also high for the position at .113. Part of that is because they're trying to push the ball out of their own end a lot, but they also get involved going forward.
The wild card is C.J. Sapong. His recent form has been very impressive and he seems due a start, as he's featured off the substitute's bench. His 1.71 expected goals is third on the team behind two starters — Aristiguieta and Le Toux. Zach Pfeffer is fourth.
What wackiness will a mid-week game bring?
A congested schedule means there's no telling what lineup rotation we might see, and, as a byproduct, what the quality of play will be like.
For the Black & Gold, we already know there is no Michael Parkhurst due to a red card suspension. Tyson Wahl is almost certainly starting in his stead, and it seems likely that he'll be paired with Emanual Pogatetz. The only other options there are Sergio Campbell and Kalen Ryden, and neither has ever seen a minute of MLS play. I guess they've got to start somewhere, but it seems more likely that head coach Gregg Berhalter would want at least one of his regular starting center backs on the field.
After getting subbed off early for tactical reasons at Orlando City, it also seems unlikely that Federico Higuain would be dropped from the lineup on a grass surface. To his left and right, though, who knows. With Finlay nursing his injury (impactful or not) it's possible that on either side we see Kristinn Steindorsson or even Romain Gall. And Kei Kamara can't play 34 games, can he?
There's also no telling what changes might be in store for Philadelphia, who turns around and faces what would seem like a winnable game against New York City FC on the weekend.
Does Sapong get a start? Can Carroll's legs handle that much mileage at this age? Is there any rotation on a shaky backline? Does homegrown hopeful Pfeffer get a run out in the starting 11?
It all provides a quality opportunity for Columbus to continue to iron out its road woes and try to set up a pleasant return to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday. But don't expect it to be as easy as it was last time.