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Columbus Crew SC downs Philadelphia Union, returns to playoff picture

Justin Meram’s deflected game winner gives the Black & Gold three much-needed points.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Columbus Crew SC Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Berhalter talking about Columbus Crew SC's 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Union.

Posted by Massive Report on Saturday, July 22, 2017

Playing in his 175th Major League Soccer match for Columbus Crew SC, Justin Meram was the hero of the night as the 28-year-old winger scored the game winner in the team’s 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union at MAPFRE Stadium.

The Black & Gold’s seventh home win of the season puts Crew SC back above the playoff line with 31 points (10-10-1) as the sixth placed team of the Eastern Conference.

Both teams started the game trying to show some intensity and pressuring high on the field, but it didn’t last much on a humid night. After Wil Trapp found Ola Kamara alone in the box and John McCarthy saved, at the fifth minute, the rhythm slowed for both sides.

The Union had more possession but showed little interest in scoring as the visitors ended the first half with only one shot, which actually didn’t hit the target. Crew SC regained the control of the match in the final minutes of the half, but had some issues in the final pass with a long shot by Justin Meram at the 39th minute and a Kamara attempt from inside the penalty box that got deflected by a defender a couple of minutes later being the team’s best opportunities to score.

In the second half, Kekuta Manneh led Columbus to a couple of good early opportunities as he had a shot from outside the box saved by McCarthy in the 54th minute and crossed to Hector Jimenez fire right at the Union’s goalkeeper a couple of minutes later.

But it was Meram who ended the fans wait at the 65th minute. The winger entered the box and fired a left-footed shot that deflected off Philadelphia defender Joshua Yaro and found the back of the Union’s net. Four minutes later, he almost scored again taking a free kick under the wall to surprise McCarthy, who made the save.

Down one, the Union had to push numbers forward and Crew SC had more space to operate, especially in transition, but the matched ended on single-goal victory for the home side.

Defensive force

If Crew SC’s offense was not impressive with the team struggling to score against a shorthanded Union team, the Black & Gold’s defensive performance was a positive of the night as the group recorded its sixth clean sheet of the season and the third in the last three matches . After 90 minutes, goalkeeper Zack Steffen finished the game with zero saves.

Ghanaian rookie earns his spot

Part of the team’s defensive efficiency can be credited to rookie Lalas Abubakar, who made his third straight start for Crew SC against the Union. The 22-year-old defender, who also played against Minnesota United and in the friendly match against Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt, seems to be raising his stock with Berhalter.

He had a solid performance, leading the team in tackles (four), clearances (seven) and interceptions (two), recording an impressive 94.8 percent passing accuracy and making a vital tackle on Jay Simpson as he entered the box at the 79th minute.

Pipa is hard to replace

Without an obvious choice to replace the injured Federico Higuain, head coach Gregg Berhalter decided to change the team’s formation in the Argentinean’s absence. With a three-man backline, the team clearly became more solid defensively, but missed Pipa’s offensive contributions, as he scored or assisted on 14 of the team’s 31 goals so far this year.

Crew SC started the game trying to use the wings to break the Union’s defensive system, but the strategy was not effective in the first half. In the second stanza, Manneh switched to the left side and Meram played more in the central area of the field, from where he scored the game-winner. After the goal, the wingers found more space to play as the Union pushed numbers forward as they tried to even the score.

What’s next

The Philadelphia Union will be Crew SC’s first rivals in a three-match road trip that starts next Wednesday, July 26, at Talen Energy Stadium. The Black & Gold will also play as visitors against the Real Salt Lake, on July 29, and the San Jose Earthquakes, on August 5, before returning to Ohio to host rivals Chicago Fire on August 12.