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Crew SC has reasons to be optimistic against Philadelphia

Columbus heads to PPL Park to take on the Union on Saturday. With important points on the line for both sides, here are some things to look for as the Black & Gold try to move on from a disastrous effort last week.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Boy, did last weekend's result against FC Dallas leave a bad taste in everyone's mouth in Columbus Crew SC land. There's no doubt, it was a total shelling. As usual, though, a little taste of context is worth placing on the palate — the Black & Gold were unbeaten in their previous four games and still have lost only three times in the last 14 games. That's a very good rate in a league where anyone can and will beat anyone on any given day.

But as we head into the final month of the season, positive results mean everything in an Eastern Conference playoff picture packed like sardines in a can.

On Saturday, Crew SC travels to take on the Philadelphia Union for a third time this season. The Union are battling for their lives, currently one point out of the playoff picture. But Columbus has plenty to play for as well, with an Eastern Conference title still a possibility and avoiding the first week of play-in games a critical goal. A bad stretch could see the club not only have to play that opening play-in, but also have to do so on the road.

In other words, there is plenty at stake.

Philly and Columbus split the first two games of the season series, with equally disparate results. At MAPFRE Stadium in April, the hosts romped over the Union willy nilly, 4-1. But in June it was Philadelphia that rolled at home, 3-0. This one will be back at PPL Park.

Here are some things to keep in mind while watching the game.

This will be very different than the last time they met

A lot has changed since June. C.J. Sapong has earned himself the starting striker role for Philly, displacing Fernando Aristeguieta, while the Union will be missing two key cogs this week — Maurice Edu (injury) and Christian Maidana (suspension). That's a big deal for Philadelphia, because Edu is a defensive leader and Maidana is one of the league's true overlooked stars, though he's beginning to get some credit. He is among the league's top chance creators and leads MLS in key passes.

Columbus, meanwhile, was shorthanded in the last meeting, with no Kei Kamara, no Wil Trapp and no Michael Parkhurst. No explanation is needed as to why those absences would have completely altered the team's complexion and ability. Emanuel Pogatetz and Sergio Campbell were the starting center back pairing in that game, and now Campbell is in USL and Pogatetz is a leashed mad dog with a self-imposed muzzle.

Philadelphia is playing better soccer than it did in the first half of the season, but it's probably worth throwing out that 3-0 result.

What Crew SC needs to worry about

While I advocate ignoring that June game in terms of the score, it's worth a quick review as a reminder of what Columbus has to  concern itself with this week.

Coming into the season, many people expected the Union to press Crew SC, because it's a strategy that worked well the previous season. They have not, though, and won't again, as head coach Jim Curtin has said this week that his team will sit back.

Expect Philadelphia to try to counter — with box-to-box midfielder Vincent Nogueira, who plays as a defensive mid in a 4-2-3-1 formation — working to transition the team forward out of the middle and the fullbacks springing things on the wings, where the Union will prefer to attack. The fullbacks see a lot of the ball in Curtin's system, and although Ethan Finlay filleted Fabinho in the first matchup of the season, he's a decent option crossing the ball in on the attack.

Without Maidana, the key man will be Sebastian Le Toux. He dipped a little early this year, but has been in good form and a look at his numbers reveals a lot — he has scored six goals and is 20th in the league in xG + xA at 9.82, so that tells you a lot about his attacking threat. That last number is actually higher than Maidana's, though the two play very differently. While Maidana creates with the pass, Le Toux creates with his movement and his ability to drag defenders so he can put the ball back into the box centrally.

Returning to that dismal loss at PPL Park in June, the Union scored three times — one was a trademark pass in from the right by Le Toux, one was off a horrible gaffe by Steve Clark, and another was on a Sheannon Williams run down the right wing on an embarrassing defensive play for the Black & Gold.

In other words, the wings. Crew SC has to defend well on those wings, or they're going to offer up too many quality chances.

Philadelphia brought in Swiss playmaker Tranquillo Barnetta in the midseason transfer window, and he will replace Maidana as the attacking mid, but he has yet to settle into MLS and his impact has been minimal thus far. Hassle him early and often on Saturday and there's a good chance Columbus can prevent him from finding a rhythm.

A return to full strength

Great teams find ways to win in all sorts of circumstances, so there is no excuse for last week's poor effort. But that was a makeshift lineup, which provides plenty of reason to believe that Crew SC will be better this week, if for no other reason than a return to full strength. Harrison Afful and Waylon Francis give the club a first-choice fullback pairing again, and there will be options on the left wing with both Justin Meram and Cedrick Mabwati in the fold again. Most importantly, Kamara is back, which means the league's top scorer, who fits Gregg Berhalter's system perfectly, can keep on rolling, not to mention lift some pressure on Jack McInerney, who I'm sure would love to come off the bench and score in front of his former fans (Mac has actually never played at PPL Park since leaving the Union).