Game: Philadelphia Union vs. Columbus Crew
Date: Saturday, September 12th
Time: 7:00 PM
Venue: PPL Park
Television: The Comcast Network
What Columbus Will Look Like
Columbus Crew SC uses the formation-du-jour in MLS; the 4-2-3-1. MLS leading goal scorer Kei Kamara usually leads the line. He was away on Sierra Leone national team duty, but is expected to be available for Saturday's match, as are Justin Meram (Iraq) and Waylon Francis (Costa Rica). Meram, an outside midfielder, has been very productive teaming with opposite winger Ethan Finlay, who is second in the league in assists. The Crew have MLS' third-best offense, behind just the LA Galaxy and Toronto FC (same number of goals scored, but in two fewer games played). This is all bad news for Union, as they lost all three matchups to Columbus last year - most notably the lone match between these two at PPL Park. That was where Columbus scored three goals in less than six minutes, turning a 2-0 deficit into three road points and taking the hearts of countless Union fans, ripping them from their chests, and stomping on them.
One of those crestfallen by the result will be wearing the other kit come Saturday. Familiar face Jack McInerney netted his first goal for the yellow-and-black three weeks ago and started for Crew in their last match. He was traded from the Montreal Impact before he could make his return to his original MLS home stadium, but he'll make it back nonetheless. Depending on Kamara's fitness/rest level Jack Mac might start again, but he at least should be in line for some minutes atop the formation.
It's not all doom and gloom for the home side, as their visitors have also conceded a league-high 52 goals (four teams tied with allowing 46 goals). For further perspective, the Union have conceded 35 goals so far. Defender and captain Michael Parkhurst has more than just his work cut out for him, facing a Union team at their home who are in desperation mode and will do anything to win. The Crew seem to get their best results from teaming the former US International Parkhurst with Tyson Wahl in central defense, flanked by Francis and Harrison Afful.
Columbus are in good form, and it's nutty that I didn't even mention Federico Higuain yet. The Crew have the talent in the midfield to control a match, so look for them to use a possession advantage to frustrate Union and wait for a coverage mistake before they exploit. Then again, Kamara is able to rise over most defenses anyway, so they might also settle for "Route 1".
What Philadelphia Will Look Like
The resurrection of Conor Casey was the saving grace last week, but that doesn't make up for the lackluster 71 minutes from CJ Sapong who hasn't netted a goal since July 26th against D.C. United. Still he is the team's leading goal-scorer. Vincent Nogueira and his favored holding midfield partner Brian Carroll will be critical in keeping the possession even. Nogueira is the one who joins the attack out of Union's version of the 4-2-3-1, allowing Carroll to support the rearguard. Steven Vitoria has played well since his return from injury, garnering MLS Team of the Week honors for his work against San Jose. With Maurice Edu still injured and likely resting until the US Open Cup final on September 30th, the Portuguese center half will get to continue working on his chemistry with Richie Marquez.
Andrew Wenger finally returned to the field after his lengthy ordeal with a concussion. I'd still expect Sebastien Le Toux and Erik Ayuk to start on the wings, with Tranquillo Barnetta deputizing at the CAM role for the suspended Crisitan Maidana. Barnetta, or "Ocho Cinco" as I like to refer to him during my Twitter commentary (because he wears jersey number 85 like Chad Johnson, formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, who got the Spanish incorrect, sort of) is a suitable replacement in the creative central role. To date he has been played on the wing, partly because of Wenger's injury and partly because Maidana is so integral to the team's success by being the Central Attacking Midfielder. They'll need a more consistent attacking presence from right-side back Ray Gaddis as he did last week, so as to diversify their offense. Fabinho puts in good work with his ample crossing ability from the left side, so balance would be very much welcomed.
What to Expect
Mother Nature is gonna wreak havoc with the Delaware Valley Saturday night, with thunderstorms expected. I'm not sure whom a wet pitch favors, but if there is a garbage, scramble-type goal to be had, Le Toux will find it. I'll call this a 2-2 draw, simply because the rain will hamper Columbus' attack from going full speed against a team they took 12 out of a possible 15 points from since 2014.
Prediction: Crew 2, Union 2.