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Preview: Union host Columbus in must-win affair

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It's simple, really. A win keeps the Union's playoff hopes alive. A draw or loss brings the offseason even closer.

Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Spor

Saturday night the newly rebranded Columbus Crew SC will come to the Delaware Valley to take part in the first half of a home and home with the Union.  Philadelphia can't afford to leave the field after 90 minutes with anything less than a win.  A draw would reduce the club's playoff chances would make missing the playoffs a near-certainty; a loss and a Red Bull win over Toronto FC will eliminate them from participating in the postseason.  The Union will play the second part of the home-and-home will be the team's season finale in Columbus on October 26th.

Last time we saw the Union, they played 85 minutes of some of the most awful soccer west of wherever Queens Park Rangers are at this moment before Amobi Okugo scored a potential winner.  Everything was awesome.......until Rais M'Bolhi (and Nick Sakiewicz) ruined the night with a costly blunder that cost the Union 2 precious points.

Sputtering to the Finish Line

A good word to describe the last month of soccer played by the Philadelphia Union would be listless.  Completely and utterly listless.  In their most crucial stretch of the season, the Union have managed just two draws and a loss since their 3-1 extra time loss to Seattle in the US Open Cup Final.  Amobi Okugo's late goal last Thursday was the Union's first goal in over 300 minutes of competitive soccer.  Jim Curtin announced after the stunning draw with Chicago that Conor Casey has been battling tendinitis.  No surprise considering the 33 year old striker has looked like he's been running on fumes since the Toronto doubleheader in the beginning of September.  Casey and Union talisman Sebastian Le Toux are both expected to play.  Le Toux, who leads the team with 12 goals, came off early during the September 27 DC United match with an ankle injury and missed the Chicago match.  Cristian Maidana has been battling the flu, but he should be ready for Saturday.  Like Casey, Maidana has been lackluster over the last month, but considering the alternatives (one of Jim Curtin's most mystifying decisions is the continued use of Fred, who hasn't shown anything positive but effort on the field in months) the Union need him to be out there.

Saturday should also see the return of Sheanon Williams from a quadriceps injury.  Columbus rely on Ethan Finlay and Justin Meram racing up the sidelines and crossing into the box to create much of their chances.  Williams and Ray Gaddis have the pace necessary to neutralize the speedy wingers.  Expect Carlos Valdes and Maurice Edu to pair up in the backline again, as Ethan White is battling a new back injury to go along with his hamstring issue.  Edu is one yellow card away from an automatic one game suspension.

Rais M'Bolhi is away on international duty again, and Jim Curtin must be thanking his lucky stars the international break has given him temporary reprieve from the club's goalkeeping controversy.  The 34 year old interim coach has enough on his plate in his quest to lift the Union back above the red line. Zac MacMath starts for the first time since the Open Cup Final.

What's New for the Crew?

Columbus has a new logo.  Pour some liquor out for the B-Boy Crew/Village People cover band.

Columbus, or Crew SC as they like to be called now, are coming off an ugly 2-1 loss to the Revolution in Foxboro last Saturday.  That loss was costly in more ways than one, as Columbus lost Costa Rican fullback Waylon Francis (red card) and the team's attacking maestro, Gonzalo Higuain (yellow card accumulation).  That is some very good news for the Union.

Higuain's absence will force head coach Gregg Berhalter to make some tough decisions.  23 year old midfielder Ben Speas can replace Higuain as the number 10, but he's not nearly as dynamic or dangerous as the Argentinian.  Without Higuain the Crew don't feature a player that should really trouble the Union in the middle of the pitch.  Crew SC signed former Sporting KC star striker Kei Kamara this past week, but thanks to the roster freeze he can't play for Columbus until 2015.  Wil Trapp is a exciting young midfielder, but he's benefited greatly from defenders keying in on Higuain.  Berhalter might be forced to start another striker alongside the tall, streaky Aaron Schoenfeld.  Possible starters include former USMNT U-20 star Romain Gall and Costa Rican striker Jairo Arrieta, who scored 9 goals for Columbus but is likely headed elsewhere once his contract runs out in December.

If the Crew give the Union fits, it will be through the wings.  Similar to the rise of Andrew Wenger this summer has been the emergence of Ethan Finlay.  The 24 year-old has been one of the league's most underrated players this season, tallying 9 goals and 5 assists this season in only 25 appearances.  He's a big reason why Crew SC currently sit in prime position to end the season with the final playoff position in the East.  Similar to Andrew Wenger, Justin Meram is a converted forward who has found more success playing on the wing.  With Meram and Finlay becoming viable attacking options, Columbus have transitioned during the season into a quick-strike counterattacking unit.  That's likely going to be their plan of attack, as they're unlikely going to win the possession battle without Higuain.

Waylon Francis might be even tougher to replace than Higuain.  Francis is one of the league's better attacking left backs, and Columbus don't have a player to replace him.  I'd guess that with the Crew content to earn a point on the road they'll go with conservative defensive options in Chad Barson or shift Tyson Wahl outside.  Recent signing and former Middlesborough defender Emanuel Pogatetz is reportedly fully fit and available for selection.  If Pogatetz can be an effective center-back, he and USMNT international Michael Parkhurst might be a tough pair to crack.

Prediction

One month ago Jim Curtin was the golden boy destined to be the Union's next manager.  Now he faces the possibility of finishing the season with a worse record than last year's Union side (Hackworth's 2013 club finished with 43 points; with plenty of offseason reinforcements the Union have 39 points with 3 to play). This is the kind of match where Curtin shows he has the wherewithal to turn around the fortunes and help the team finish strong.  A win Saturday night is a good start.

Both sides will be waiting for the other to make mistakes so that they can pounce quickly and grab the upper hand.   I expect another low-scoring, ugly affair.  Columbus comes into the match limping, but I don't think the Union have the firepower left to take advantage.

Union 0, Columbus 0