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Preview: Columbus Crew vs. Philadelphia Union

The new look Union travel to Columbus this week for their home opener.

Columbus Crew vs Philadelphia Union
Columbus Crew Stadium - Columbus, OH
March 22nd, 6:00pm Eastern - Comcast SportsNet, MLS Live


The Philadelphia Union look to continue their strong start Saturday as they travel to the Buckeye State to face the Columbus Crew in the first of three matches between the two teams this season. In their last meeting on June 5th of last year, the Union had one of their most impressive displays of the 2013 season in both facets of the game in a 3-0 romp.

What To Expect From The Philadelphia Union

Injuries dictate the story defensively once again for the Union. During his weekly presser John Hackworth said centerback Austin Berry had "hamstring tightness" on Saturday and will likely be a game-time decision. Conventional wisdom would say that striker-turned-centerback Aaron Wheeler would take Berry's place in the starting lineup. On the other hand the Union might be better off starting the more athletic Ethan White to deal with the Crew's quick attackers. Columbus is not much of a threat on set pieces besides Argentine number 10 Federico Higuain on free kicks; this might be a good time for Ethan White to see his first action for the Union. Sheanon Williams is expected to be out once again for the third week in a row, but fullback Raymon Gaddis has filled in superbly in Williams' absence despite the lack of BOOM throw-ins.

Brian Carroll will return to the field as midfield general Saturday after a late scratch before the New England match, and Hackworth made it clear that Carroll will remain captain. Some Union fans might want to see Leo Fernandes back out there after a strong performance against the Revolution, but Carroll will be needed to help Maurice Edu isolate Higuain in the center of the pitch. He performed admirably in the season opener (before stoppage time) helping to mark one of the best players in the league in Diego Valeri. Carroll's return also allows stud midfielder Vincent Nogueira to return to his number 10 role.

Conor Casey is back in training, which is great news for a Union team that could use some more assistance in finishing after all of the luxurious possession they have enjoyed in their first two matches. I enjoy watching Antoine Hoppenot be a nuisance to opposing defenses, but bringing in last season's Comeback Player of the Year runner-up will be more beneficial for the team. It might also benefit Casey going forward since he played a whole heap of minutes last season considering his age (turning 33 in July) and injury history. In other news, the Union are playing a road game so that means it's time for Jack McInerney to score a goal, celebrate obnoxiously (which I love), and silence yet another crowd of fervent MLS supporters. He's young, he's fun, and hopefully there's more goals yet to come.

What to Expect From The Columbus Crew

The Crew are quite the enigma. On opening day they traveled to our nation's capital to face a revamped DC United with all of their high-profile offseason additions and made them look like an island of misfit toys, beating them 3-0. The Crew ravaged a slow and disorganized United backline and kept a frustrated Eddie Johnson in isolation up top. They haven't played since that day, and neither have DC United. There's no telling whether this Crew is much better than advertised or a club that beat a DC United club that hasn't had the time to gel just yet.

This offseason new head coach Gregg Berhalter replaced a cadre of veterans, including midfield stalwart Eddie Gaven and past Union killer Chad Marshall. Berhalter replaced one former USMNT international centerback with another, bringing in Michael Parkhurst from Bundesliga club Augsburg. Parkhurst will be paired with big Costa Rica international Giancarlo Gonzalez, who is one of the more underrated players in all of CONCACAF. The Crew fullbacks Josh Williams and Waylon Francis love bombing down the flanks and contributing to the offense. Williams in particular had a very strong showing against DC United. To complete the rebuild of their defense, the Crew traded away Andy Gruenebaum and brought in 27 year old goalkeeper Steve Clark from the Norwegian League.

Defensive midfielder Wil Trapp is one of the best young midfield talents in MLS and is coming off a terrific rookie season. Trapp's central midfield partner Tony Tchani has had a disappointing career thus far in MLS after being drafted second overall by the Red Bulls 4 years ago. However, it is widely believed the lanky Cameroonian will be a better fit in Gregg Berhalter's system, which allows him more creative freedom in the middle of the field. Speedster Dominic Oduro was suspended for the team's opening match, but will return and likely take the place of Hector Jiménez on the wing. Oduro lead the team in goals last season with thirteen. Fabinho will have his hands full trying to contain Oduro and Williams on the right side. Midfielder Daniel Paladini will not play as he is still recovering from a knee injury.

The key to Columbus's success as it has been for the past 18 months is their designated player Federico Higuaín. The Argentinian scored 11 goals last season and started the season red hot with two against DC United. Berhalter lets Higuaín collect the ball on the field anywhere from deep inside the central midfield to up top with striker Jairo Arrieta. It will be up to Maurice Edu and Brian Carroll to keep Higuaín quiet. Costa Rican attacker Arrieta is a decent poacher who the Crew are counting on to produce more goals this season.

Projected Union Starting XI:

Zac MacMath
Ray Gaddis - Amobi Okugo - Aaron Wheeler - Fabinho
Maurice Edu - Brian Carroll
Vincent Nogueira
Sebastien Le Toux - Jack McInerney - Cristian Maidana

I'm assuming that Berry will miss the game and that Hackworth will be stubborn.

The Crew will be looking for their first two-win start in club history. If the Union doesn't let the atmosphere of a Columbus Crew home opener get to them and maintain their shape, they should manage to leave Ohio with points. Isolate Higuaín and force Arrieta to drift into the midfield. Maurice Edu needs to carve space in the middle of the pitch and find a way to drive the offense through Jack McInterney in the middle channel of the field. An early goal will be tantamount to keep Williams and Francis at bay and not so reticent to leave their own half. I'm predicting a second half McInerney equalizer and a 1-1 result.

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