It was nearly two months ago when the Columbus Crew was on a high and in pole position for a first-place finish in the Major League Soccer standings and the Supporters’ Shield when the Black & Gold last met the Philadelphia Union. Since then, things have changed quite a bit for Columbus.
Fast forward to today and the Crew has lost four games, drew three and won only one in the last seven contests. It’s a staggeringly different Black & Gold side from the beginning of the season and the MLS is Back Tournament. With only four regular season matches to go, Columbus find itself up against the league’s current best team in the Union.
Let’s take a look at and break down the Crew’s Eastern Conference foe.
Philadelphia Union at a glance
Standing: 1st, Eastern Conference (44 points)
Leading scorer: Kacper Przybylko (8)
Assist leader: Brenden Aaronson (7)
Player to watch
The 27-year-old has done it all for a Union attack that has been scorching hot as of late. With eight goals and six assists on the year, Przybylko has both scored and set up his teammates. In Philly’s game midweek, the Polish striker converted the Union’s first penalty kick of the season, leaving Colorado Rapids as the only team without one in 2020.
His teammate, Sergio Santos, will be an interesting player to keep an eye on as well. He netted a hat trick against Toronto FC last week and has seven goals on the season. The duo’s 15 combined goals make them the fifth-highest scoring pair in all of MLS behind Diego Rossi and Bradley Wright-Phillips (21), Raul Ruidiaz and Jordan Morris (18), Diego Valeri and Jeremy Ebobisse (16) and Alejandro Pozuelo and Ayo Akinola (16).
Friday it was announced that starting Union goalkeeper Andre Blake would be out of Sunday’s match against the Crew with a fractured hand sustained midweek. Union head coach Jim Curtin confirmed the possibility that the injury may not be season-ending. It is, however, a big blow to a Philadelphia side that has the second-fewest goals conceded on the season with 18, one more than the Black & Gold’s current mark of 17 which still leads all of MLS.
Blake has put together quite the season in 2020 where he’s third in the league in save percentage at 77.8 and is fifth in total saves with 63.
How they play
Not only does Philadelphia rely on its striker partnership in Santos and Przybylko to get the ball in the back of the net, but it’s the build-up that makes the team so effective. The Union’s 4-3-1-2 formation is very compact, allowing for a lot of shifting between the touchlines. It will counteract Caleb Porter’s ability to press because of the options around the ball and will benefit the Black & Gold if they decide to break down and slowly build up their attacks. It’s an area that can be improved on now that the star pairing of Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe are back and fit to play for Columbus.
Sunday’s match may be a tale of winning the midfield battle dictating just who wins the match. The Union’s preferred setup is reliant on the midfield four to possess the ball and wait for the strikers to make runs at the defense to help expose the backline as the midfielders shift from side to side. The formation helps Philadelphia have options in attack, but the team’s 45 percent usage rate down the right-hand side suggests that Crew left back Milton Valenzuela and the cover around him may determine how effective the Union os in the final third.
Philadelphia’s 5.9 shots on target per game ratio is the third best in MLS, which goes to show the potency Columbus’ opponent boasts. The Union is Wh Scored.com’s highest-rated attacking team in MLS in 2020.
How the Crew win
The current form the Black & Gold is the subject of much scrutiny. After a historic start to the team’s first 13 games of the season, the Crew has looked mortal after all. Not many excuses can be made and come Sunday against the league’s current best team, it’s a test that Porter desperately needs to pass.
Columbus will get a victory on Sunday if the team can take its chances and take them clinically. In its last seven fixtures, the Crew has registered 10.8 shots per game while scoring a mere 1.28 goals in the process. Not a good return if you’re Porter and certainly not if you’re the third-best team in MLS.
The Black & Gold need to get the job done on the defensive side too. As clinical as Philadelphia is, the Crew needs to negate the team’s high-powered offense, which may pose an issue given the suspension of defender Josh Williams. It should mean that Homegrown defender Aboubacar Keita will be called upon to pair with Jonathan Mensah once again.
On a positive note, the Black & Gold have had the number of Philadelphia at MAPFRE Stadium as of late, winning their last five meetings in central Ohio in all competitions while simultaneously keeping clean sheets.
The good news for Columbus is that poor form as of late should, in theory, be in contrast to what transpires across the remaining slate of regular season games. Porter has said he plans to play his strongest starting 11 to help secure the best possible playoff spot and with his two best players in Zelarayan and Nagbe both back into the lineup, Sunday could be the start of good fortune for the Black & Gold heading into the postseason.