It’s been a long-awaited return for the Columbus Crew as the Black & Gold finally return to action to begin the 2021 campaign and start their defense of last year’s MLS Cup. Standing in the way is also a team that enjoyed success in 2020, the Philadelphia Union.
Like the Crew, the Union captured some silverware last season and is one of the five Major League Soccer squads that are heading to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. Both teams come into Sunday’s final home opener at historic Crew Stadium in good form after the Champions League Round of 16, but what can the Crew expect for the defending Supporter’s Shield winners?
Union at a glance
Head coach Jim Curtin and his squad come into Central Ohio fresh off a 4-0 victory (5-0 aggregate) against Departivo Saprissa in their Champions League Round of 16 series. Four members of the Union found the back of the net with midfielder Jamiro Monteiro securing a brace. The 27-year-old playmaker terrorized Saprissa by converting a penalty kick in the 47th minute and burying a 90th-minute dagger to carry his team to the win.
As is the case for Columbus, Philadelphia has appeared in just two contests but has tipped their hand as to how they may play during Sunday’s opener.
The Union are very comfortable when playing in tight spaces. Many teams, particularly in MLS, like to work with space all over the park. That isn’t the case for last year’s Supporters’ Shield winners.
As the opposing defense closes in on the Union, Philadelphia becomes more precise with the teams passing and looks to get behind the defense with passes on the ground. It is this type of play that suits Anthony Fontana, Kacper Przybylko, and the aforementioned Monteiro.
The Union trio feasted on a Saprissa backline that struggled to keep their barrings against the frantic attack.
Philadelphia was not afraid to press during Wednesday’s contest, often sending two, sometimes three players to the ball. This forced a turnover most of the time but also became abundantly clear that more skilled teams will be able to switch the play and streak up the field to advance the ball into the final third.
How the Union deals with dynamic players like Lucas Zelarayan, Luis Diaz or Pedro Santos in the early moments will go a long way in giving an indication as to what kind of game is in store for Sunday afternoon.
How the Crew win
It seems ridiculous to say but “if it ain't broke, don’t fix it.” The Black and Gold have looked sublime during their first two games of the season and have benefitted from the tremendous depth and embarrassment of riches that front office staff acquired for this season.
Look for Columbus to use its speed in the attack, relying on players like Luis Diaz and Harrison Afful to get the ball into the attacking third.
The midfield will work with some unique passing combinations as they attempt to unlock the Union backline and create quality scoring opportunities. It will be up to Gyasi Zardes and/or Bradley Wright-Phillips to capitalize on the scoring chances presented to them.