The Columbus Crew will travel to Chester, Pennsylvania to take on the Philadelphia Union on Saturday. The Union are on top of the Eastern Conference standings and are undefeated so far this season.
If history shows anything, the Crew does not travel well to Chester. The team’s last goal in Subaru Park was in 2016 by Christian Martinez in a 3-2 defeat. The last victory for the Black & Gold in Philadelphia was in 2015.
Between Caleb Porter’s dismal road record and what some consider the best backline in the Major League Soccer as well as one of the best goalkeepers in the league, this will be a difficult game for Columbus.
If the Crew wants to challenge for the top of the East, Porter will need to find a way to overcome this obstacle. Let’s look at what type of challenge Philadelphia presents.
Philadelphia at a glance:
Record: 4-1-0 13 pts
League Form: W-W-W-W-D
Leading Scorer: Daniel Gazdag (4)
Assist Leader: Kai Wagner (3)
Player to Watch: Daniel Gazdag
Picking a player to watch is difficult for the Union, who are good across the board and head coach Jim Curtin has this team playing above the sum of their very good parts. Gadzag has scored in his last four games\ and leads the Union with nine shots on goal and 11 total shots. Gadzag has already met his 2021 goal scoring mark of four and is on the cusp of a breakout season with Philadelphia.
The Hungarian plays a sneaky No. 10 role. While he does take part in the Union build up, he often looks to get off the ball and find good space for his teammates to pass him in on goal. Gadzag will be a tough mark for Columbus since he plays behind two forwards that will occupy the center backs. Central midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Artur will need to be always aware of his presence.
How Philadelphia Union play:
Curtain has implemented more of a press this year that takes advantage of any mistakes opponents make when playing out of the back. Gadzag scored his goal against Charlotte FC after a misplayed pass from the goalkeeper gave him the ball with no one in the net. Because of this playstyle, the Union will cede possession to their opponents. New Yok City FC had 70 percent of the ball and lost 2-0 to Philadelphia.
The Union plays in a 4-4-2 formation with their midfield lining up in a diamond. Midfielder Jose Martinez plays directly above the backline and will stay back as the fullbacks advance upfield to attack. When giving up possession, Philadelphia looks to close the opposite side of the pitch, shrinking the amount of field the players need to cover and defend. Once there is a misplaced pass or a heavy touch, the heavy press activates, and the players look to suffocate their opponents into giving up possession.
Many of the Union’s goals this year have come off crosses or squared balls into the middle of the penalty box. Kai Wagner was an MLS All-Star last season and has had a strong start to his 2022 season with three cross assists as a fullback. Another way Philadelphia likes to attack is by playing direct long balls to forward Sergio Santos, using his power and pace to win and keep the ball. Santos has two assists this season by pulling center backs wide and then playing a square ball into the box.
How the Crew can win:
Porter has been pleased with how the Black & Gold have played this season, even in their loss to Nashville SC last week. In his midweek press conference, Porter mentioned how his team tops the league in expected goals (xG) and Zone 14 actions, the area immediately in front of the penalty box.
The Crew is creating chances at a much higher rate than in 2021, which is very encouraging as the team enters a game against a very good defensive team in Philadelphia. Finishing the chances created and turning the xG mark into goals on the score sheet will be what Porter will have focused on in training.
The high press that Philadelphia implements will not be new to the Black & Gold as the New York Red Bulls have a similar pressing system and the two teams played recently. Columbus was able to work its way out of the press in that game through superb play from Nagbe. The Crew found success in creating big chances by quickly transitioning upfield by playing directly to the wingers. The Union will play with high fullbacks and there will be space to exploit wide on quick transitions.
If Columbus cannot find quick transition moments, then the team will need to be clinical with its passes and avoid turnovers in their own half. Center back Jonathan Mensah and likely Milos Degenek will need to be careful with their passes. Expect the Crew to look to play long switches from the back to readjust their positioning and to create passing lanes in between a solid defensive team.
The Black & Gold have been good at stopping counterattacks, playing through the press and creating chances to score goals. This team is positioned well to give the Union a headache away, the biggest question mark is finishing. If the Crew can finish clinically then the team will have a good chance to win in Chester, a massive feat that has not been accomplished since 2015.