Coming out of the Gold Cup break, Columbus Crew SC begins the “second half” of the season with a home-and-home set against the Philadelphia Union, another club that has had an up-and-down first half and is trying to claw its way above the MLS playoff line.
The action begins Saturday with a 7:30 p.m. kickoff at MAPFRE Stadium.
Then, on Wednesday, the two teams meet again in Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m.
The potential swing that points between these two squads could potentially represent in the Eastern Conference sets up a critical week. Maximum points could vault the Black & Gold into a second-half rise. Minimum points (or even close) could send Crew SC into a second-half spiral and increasingly further from the postseason.
Here’s a look at the matchup.
At A Glance
Record: 6-8-5; 23 points (1.21 ppg)
Philly has been a streaky team this season. Most people remember it for the eight-game winless streak to begin the season (the Union were the last squad in MLS to grab their first victory this year), but Philadelphia has been somewhat better since then. It has, however, seriously struggled on the road, with only one victory, and that coming at DC. Saturday will be the third road game in a row for the Union.
Goal leader: C.J. Sapong (9)
Assist leader: Chris Pontius (6)
The Union have been pretty loyal to a 4-2-3-1 base setup under Jim Curtin.
Defensively, that’s been mostly with a center back pairing of veteran Oguchi Onyewu and rookie Jack Elliott. Outside back is probably the club’s deepest position, with Fabinho and Giliano Wijnaldum on the left and Raymon Gaddis and 2016 Rookie of the Year candidate Keegan Rosenberry on the right.
Considering that the Union have four games in 10 days, it’s likely that there will be player rotation. Depth is not a strength for Philly, but outside back is a position where there will almost certainly be changes.
The Union use those outside backs to move the ball up the field, but their main transition threat is central midfielder Haris Medunjanin. With a touch percentage at 12.6 percent, he not only is by far the team’s pivot, but is also in the top 10 in MLS in terms of usage rate. Just about everything Philadelphia does runs through Medunjanin.
The result has been a deep-lying playmaker who has gone a bit overlooked by the casual fan. Medunjanin is a mobile midfielder with a knack for passing and pulling the strings from deep. His 43 key passes is tied for fourth in MLS, and is unique in that the other top tier chance creators are all attacking mids or strikers, while Medunjanin does his work from deeper on the field.
Alejandro Bedoya has typically been the No. 8 for Philly, playing alongside Medunjanin, but the birth of his daughter has seen him take a leave from the team. It’s unclear if he’ll be back for either of the games against Columbus.
Also out, on Gold Cup duty, is goalkeeper Andre Blake and winger Chris Pontius, leaving the Union without a cadre of its top players.
In Pontius’ absence, Philly has gone with a line of Fafa Picault, Roland Alberg and Ilsinho behind lone striker C.J. Sapong, who has been very good this season and has nine goals. Picault relies on his pace and getting into good spots in the box, while Alberg and Ilsinho are similar types of players who like to get the ball at their feet. Neither is a true wide player, presenting a void with Pontius gone for international duty.
Behind all of those players there are not a lot of quality subs — in part due to injury — to help with player rotation. Jay Simpson is a striker/attacking midfielder who was brought in during the offseason and is likely to see action in one of the games.
Keep an eye on how the Union approach rotation — will they rotate heavily on the road to bolster the unit for a midweek home game? Will they try to spread things out? Will they ride their first-choice players hard?
Notes from last week
All clubs have been off for a Gold Cup break, but Philadelphia got back on the field Wednesday in a 2-1 road loss at the Montreal Impact.
Warren Creavalle started in place of Bedoya and John McCarthy, who has performed well and does have solid MLS experience, in place of Blake.
It was a game that was generally controlled by Montreal, while the Union managed 10 shots but put just two on target.
One thing to note, which should be expected against Crew SC, is Philadelphia’s employment of a defensive press. It’s not an aggressive approach in the mold of a Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United, but it can be effective, and the Black & Gold have had their issues playing out of the back against a press.
In Montreal, Philly’s press was useful on multiple occasions.
Here’s a chance early in the game created from a pressing Picault:
Nevermind that Picault did poorly to take the shot himself rather than find an open teammate in the box. It’s the press that we’re concerned with.
The Union’s one goal, from Picault, came when the winger stayed high and stepped in front of a poor back pass from Impact right back Chris Duvall:
Many of Montreal’s chances came by attacking Philly’s left side, including both the Impact’s goals. Wijnaldum, in particular, was involved with both goals — once allowing an overlapping Duvall to get a nice cross in and once getting absolutely flambeed by Blerim Dzemaili.
Here is Philadelphia’s dashboard from Wednesday:
It’s clear the Union missed Pontius ability to get wide deep in the attacking third, where there was little going on for Philadelphia. In this game, Philly remained mostly stuck in the midfield.
- Don’t give Medunjanin time on the ball — Crew SC has to keep the heat on the midfielder and not give him time and space to get his head up and put the ball where he wants. Philadelphia relies on the newcomer as a primary playmaker from deep, and with some key players absent will rely on him even more.
Change Philly’s defensive shape — In Columbus, the Union will likely play a little more conservatively, sit behind the ball and counter. Once again this will leave Columbus looking to break down numbers, and do so without Federico Higuain, who has been ruled out for Saturday due to injury. But there are question marks on Philly’s back line, and with a 35-year-old Onyewu next to an inexperienced rookie, there are vulnerabilities (i.e., pace and decision-making, respectively.
In Philadelphia on Wednesday, the Union may be a little more assertive. In this instance I think it will be both wise and helpful for Crew SC to be willing to embrace the counter attack. Especially with no great defensive shield in the midfield for Philly. Neither Medunjanin nor Bedoya fit that role, Creavalle is a utility knife substitute, Derrick Jones is injured and Brian Carroll is 36 and hasn’t played a single minute this season. By drawing Philadelphia up the field and quickly countering, Crew SC may be able to run at a stretched, unshielded back line.
- Find a way without Pipa — Without its creative leader, Columbus will need to still find a spark for the attack. This responsibility will fall to Justin Meram, who should be more than capable. But it also means others will have to play effectively to help carry the load.
- Don’t be sluggish — Columbus has lots of fresh legs after the Gold Cup break. But coming off extended rest while Philly was able to shake some rust off on Wednesday could leave Crew SC behind the eight-ball if its not careful. The Black & Gold will need to show spark from the start or risk having to dig out of a hole.
In some ways, Philadelphia’s press and counter approach is a bad matchup for Crew SC. It attacks Columbus’ vulnerabilities, and also limits opportunities.
But this is also a shorthanded Union side that hasn’t played well on the road.
This two-game stretch is a critical one for Columbus, which currently sits outside the playoff picture. Against another club currently battling to get over that red line, getting maximum points would be a major coup. Failure to get points could see the Black & Gold tumble down the standings ahead of a very tough schedule to close out the season.
Considering the absence of Pipa and the need to be defensively stout, is this a game we see a three-man back line? It makes sense in a lot of ways.
As for Philly, it’s anyones guess how and who it rotates.
Here’s my guess at Saturday’s lineup. What do you expect for these next two games? Share in the comments below.