After a decent performance in a disappointing loss at Portland, Columbus Crew SC plays at home for the first time in 2016 when the Philadelphia Union come to MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday.
It's early in the season, but it never hurts to make good things happen sooner rather than later, and the Black & Gold certainly have a prime opportunity against Philly. This Union team has the potential to be better than they were last year (not a terribly difficult proposition, given last season) with Ernie Stewart now steering the ship from the front office. This is, however, a work in progress. Add to that a number of injuries that have Philadelphia opening the season shorthanded, and nothing's going to come easy for the Union.
That's good news for Columbus, which won two out of three games against the team from the City of Brotherly Love in 2015. CCSC dropped the Union twice in Ohio (it's unbeaten all-time at home against Philadelphia). The one road loss, however, was a drubbing. You cannot take any games off in MLS, and this one is no different.
Here are a few things to keep an eye on as each team continues to look for its footing early in the season.
These two rosters are polar opposites. Crew SC has opted to maintain continuity, returning the bulk of its 2015 roster, including the entire starting eleven from MLS Cup. Of course, success gives you the freedom to do that, if you can (quite literally) afford to. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
The Union, on the other hand, have been desperately searching for fixes. Six of Philadelphia's 11 starters in Week 1 were not with the team last year, and two of the three subs were not. Then throw in Leo Fernandes, who only made seven appearances for the MLS club last season.
The club just found out that Maurice Edu's injury will keep him out for three to four months, which, even for a team that doesn't expect to contend, is pretty terrible news.
That's a lot of upheaval. That's a lot missing chemistry.
Don't put too much stock in Game 1
Yes, Columbus lost the opener, but it was on the road against the defending MLS cup champion — a team that is still very, very good. By every current measurable factor, that wasn't a game they were "supposed" to win.
On the flip side of that, just because the Black & Gold were very competitive in that scenario doesn't mean it will do the same in a situation that is favorable — at home against a franchise that's been struggling.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is coming off a 2-0 loss to FC Dallas, one of the favorites for this year's MLS Cup. But Columbus and Dallas play very different styles and match up differently against Philly. And some rust may have been dusted off a week ago.
As MLS teaches us over and over again, in this league the only thing that matters is what you're seeing in front of you.
Oh, Fabinho. How we love thee.
I was going to count the ways by offering up a couple of clips from a dud of a performance from Fabinho against Dallas last week, but then realized that the game's highlight film was a veritable Fabinho blooper reel. Both FC Dallas goals came off giveaways by Fabinho — one high up the field and another in his own end. Here's the latter, just for giggles.
Stumbles and bumbles led to numerous other opportunities for Dallas, although he did clear a sure goal off the line... after he had misread a ball to allow the opportunity to come about in the first place.
It was quite reminiscent of Columbus' 4-1 win over the Union last April 25, when Ethan Finlay scored two goals and assisted on another, each time taking advantage of Fabinho. Here's his second goal, when he simply fleeces Fabinho with his speed.
That's not to say Fabinho never has good moments, but he certainly is vulnerable. The question is whether Crew SC can force him into two poor performances in a row.
It's been a little while since Ethan Finlay has looked like Ethan Finaly — at least, the one that's an MLS all-star. This week provides a perfect opportunity to find his form again.
Talk of Fabinho provides an opportunity to talk about Philadelphia's back line.
The left back was the only member of the Union's defense in the season opener who had played a single minute in Major League Soccer. On the right side was Keegan Rosenberry, a virtually-homegrown kid who Philly took in the first round of the Superdraft. In the middle was young pro soccer journeyman Ken Tribbett and Brazilian Anderson Conceicao.
Rosenberry may have a fine career ahead of him, but is green. Anderson is on loan from a Brazilian Serie C team — not exactly the same beast as MLS. Tribbett is a great story (Google it...he's been snubbed at virtually every level, and is with Philadelphia after playing in USL a year ago), but it's hard to believe many teams would want him in their top center back pairing.
Richie Marquez is back from a year ago and was expected to start last week but didn't play, due to a nagging hamstring injury from the preseason, according to the folks at Brotherly Love. It's unclear if he'll play on Saturday, though he's not listed on the injury report. MLS veteran Ray Gaddis is available, as is Warren Creavalle, who is maybe not a pure fullback but can play the position.
So there are options, but it's clear that defense is a weakness and Crew SC has to take advantage of that.
Moving past defensive question marks, where will the Union's creative attack come from? Gone is Christian Maidana, one of the league's top chance creators. He's been replaced with ... 30-year-old trialist Ilsinho. The Brazilian attacking midfielder may do just fine — he has a solid resume — but he's only been with the team two weeks.
The team would like Dutch signee Roland Alberg to be that creative cog, but his fitness is a work in progress right now. He came on as a sub against Dallas. Again, though, he's only been with the team for a short time.
Sebastian Le Toux has played so many great minutes for Philadelphia, but time may be catching up.
Tranquillo Barnetta, who returns after joining the team midway through last season, seems like a natural fit in the role. But he's out due to injury.
So there are a lot of maybes and no one who has done it or can do it right now. CJ Sapong can be a tantalizing presence up top, but he needs some service.
All last year, Columbus looked shaky at times against the high press. I always wondered why more teams didn't press more aggressively against Crew SC, and then MLS Cup happened, and on the biggest stage the league has to offer, the cat was out of the bag. I have to believe that more teams will press Columbus way up the field this season.
Historically, the Union have had some success pressing the Black & Gold. They didn't do it very often in three meetings last season, much to the surprise of many fans. But Philadelphia did run a high press last week against Dallas. It worked poorly against Dallas because Dallas feasts on high presses that aren't executed perfectly.
Crew SC, meanwhile, aren't set up to victimize the press like that. One would think it's going to see a good bit of it on Saturday, though (and if not, that's a missed opportunity for Jim Curtin and his team). This will be a good test for Columbus, which will have to be smart with the ball and circulate it quickly.
Break that press and the Black & Gold can isolate the back line and try to pick apart one of the team's weak links.