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Massive Scouting Report: Philadelphia Union

A look at the Crew’s first opponent of 2023, the defending Eastern Conference champion.

MLS: Toronto FC at Philadelphia Union Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The Columbus Crew is set to begin the 2023 Major League Socer campaign this Saturday, traveling to take on the Philadelphia Union. The Crew had an intriguing offseason, headlined by a change in head coach. The Black & Gold hired Wilfred Nancy in December to take the reins after their dismissal of Caleb Porter following the 2022 campaign.

This coaching change has no doubt been the biggest news of the offseason for Columbus, as there has been a distinct lack of new signings coming to the team. In fact, the biggest player news has been the departures of several long-time servants in Pedro Santos, Artur and former captain Jonathan Mensah. Thus, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the Crew heading intothe first week of the MLS season.

The Black & Gold face what is expected to be one of the best teams in the league right out of the gates when they play the Union on Saturday. Philadelphia is fresh off of a stinging MLS Cup Final loss and should be one of the premier teams in the Eastern Conference again in 2023.

Here’s a look at what to expect from each side headed into the first match of 2023.

Philadelphia Union at a Glance

2022 Record: 19-10-5, 67 points

League Form: N/A

2022 Leading Scorer: Daniel Gazdag (22)

2022 Assist Leader: Kai Wagner (9)

Player to Watch: Daniel Gazdag

There’s good form, and then there’s whatever Gazdag was in during the 2022 MLS campaign. In his first full year in the league, the Hungarian lit up the league with 22 goals and six assists in 34 appearances. Gazdag, who joined the Union in the summer of 2021 from Hungarian side, Budapest Honved, is one of the best finishers in MLS.

Typically deployed in a central attacking midfield position, Gazdag excels in making darting runs into the penalty box and finishing his chances. There was much speculation this offseason regarding his future in Philly, but he returns for the beginning of the 2023 campaign and will be a player of which the Crew will need to be aware.

How the Philadelphia Union play

Philadelphia has revolutionized under head coach Jim Curtin, who enters his ninth season in charge. Previously one of the bottom dwellers in the East, Curtin has led the Union to several years at the top, including winning the Supporter Shield in 2020. Curtin has done so through good player recruitment and more importantly, implementing his tactics in and effective way.

Effective is a good way to describe Curtin’s Philadelphia teams, as they won’t wow you with the prettiest goals or the nicest possession, but will effectively create goal scoring chances and limit their opponents. Typically, the Union are relatively direct in the attack and look to attack as much as possible in transition. Defensively, the Philadelphia is able to both press high and suffocate opponents, or stand off and frustrate them before breaking into a counter attack.

While it’s impossible to know the nuances and shifts that Curtin will look to make in 2023, one can safely assume that the Union will be direct in attack and organized defensively in this match.

How the Crew can win

The Crew looks to start the 2023 campaign off with a statement win against a favored Philadelphia side. In order to do so, the Black & Gold will have to be really good in all three phases of the game: attacking, defending and set pieces. However, there must be a huge emphasis on the attack being ready to take chances on Saturday.

In 32 all-time meetings between these two sides, only eight have been decided by more than one goal. Chances are typically few and far between when these two teams meet, so the Columbus attack will have to be sharp and ready to pounce on opportunities Saturday.

In addition to taking chances, the Crew needs to be much better on set pieces than a year ago, specifically defensive set pieces. The Union has been one of the best attacking set piece teams in the league over the last few years, while the Black & Gold have been poor at defending set pieces. Columbus will have to be organized and determined on defensive set pieces to avoid giving Philadelphia the upper hand.