The Columbus Crew will play host to the Philadelphia Union on the one-year anniversary of the first-ever game at Lower.com Field on Sunday. On July 3, 2021, Black & Gold hosted the New England Revolution for a 2-2 draw, where Gyasi Zardes scored the first Columbus goal in the new stadium.
While Columbus fans will have to wait another week to see new Designated Player signing Cucho Hernandez, forward Jacen Russell-Rowe has been an exciting young player for the Black & Gold, and many will be hoping to see his first club goal on this anniversary. The former Crew 2 player made his first career MLS start on Wednesday and contributed two assists in a 2-1 win at Toronto FC.
This will be the second match this season between the Crew and Union. Columbus lost 1-0 in Chester, Pennsylvania earlier in the year and Caleb Porter will rally his men for this important home match. Philadelphia has only allowed 13 goals all season, averaging only 0.8 goals allowed per game, making the Union the best defensive team in the league.
With a shrinking injury list, Porter should have many of his regular starters available, but the emergence of young talent such as Russell-Rowe, Sean Zawadzki and Aidan Morris could make the starting lineup a more difficult decision.
Let’s take a look at this week’s matchup.
Philadelphia at a glance:
Record: 7-2-8 29 pts (3rd in the East)
League Form: L-W-T-T-W
Leading Scorer: Daniel Gazdag (7)
Assist Leader: Kai Wagner (5)
Player to Watch: Daniel Gazdag
Daniel Gazdag has been the leading scorer for Philadelphia, but he has seen a dip in production lately. Gazdag has not contributed to the score sheet since May 22 against the Portland Timbers.
Gazdag is the point of the 4-4-2 or 4-3-1-2 diamond that the Union likes to play. The Hungarian international likes to stay central, roaming around while looking for runs or combination play to get a shot on goal. The Crew defenders and midfielders will need to mark Gazdag carefully, as his deeper-lying runs can create confusion. Gazdag not only leads the Union in goals but also in shots and shots on goal.
How the Union plays:
As previously mentioned, Philadelphia plays in a 4-4-2 diamond or a variant formation, 4-3-1-2, where the midfield trio behind Gazdag is lined up in a flat configuration. The Union will have a difficult decision on how to fill the team’s defensive midfield role as Jose Martinez is suspended for this match. The last time Philadelphia missed Martinez, Jack Elliot, a center back, filled his role. Normally, the Union has a stable of young talent from the club’s stellar academy, but the quartet of Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn and Brandan Craig are out on duty with the United States Under-20 national team, depleting the depth of Philadelphia.
The goal of the central diamond is to overload the midfield and create numerical advantages where opposing teams normally only play three players. This creates more passing lanes when in possession and defensively, multiple center midfielders can apply pressure on the ball while still marking the other players in the middle of the field. Often the diamond formation struggles against wide possession and needs fullbacks to make up for its lack of width in the midfield.
Fortunately for the Union, Kai Wagner has been one of the best fullbacks in the league since he joined the team in 2019. The Philadelphia captain, Alejandro Bedoya, often moves wide while on the attack to make up for the lack of wingers.
How the Crew can win:
If there was any time to play the Union, it would be now. A depleted roster and three matches in eight days, with the latter two matches being away, should create tired legs for Jim Curtain’s men. The Black & Gold have also played three matches in eight days, but due to managing minutes for players returning from injury, Columbus been able to manage minutes well while also getting results.
The Crew may look to switch back to a 4-2-3-1 formation to take advantage of the space the Union often gives up in wide positions. Playing into the middle from the wings should open up more space for playmaker Lucas Zelarayan, as it will require a central midfielder to move over to help provide defensive cover. Playing a speedy winger on the right could provide the Black & Gold with defensive support, pinning Wagner back so that he does not provide as much attacking support.
With forward Erik Hurtado still dealing with an injured foot and Miguel Berry’s lack of production at the striker position, fans could see another start from Russell-Rowe. In the match against Toronto, Russell-Rowe attacks the defenders well and show intuitive hold-up play. This could provide a good matchup against defenders playing with heavy legs, as the Chicago Fire exposed in the midweek match against Philadelphia. In that match, Chicago was able to get many good crosses in, especially towards the back post.
Columbus has been surprisingly poor at home this season, winning only three of its seven matches. A home win will see the Crew stay within the middle of the Eastern Conference standings and within reach of an MLS Cup playoff spot heading into the second half of the season.