1. Columbus Crew has yet to win on the road this season, but they also have yet to lose. How will Columbus attack the Philadelphia Union, and do you think that they’ll just be looking for another road draw?
So far, the road draws this year have had vastly different stories underneath the score line. Against San Jose, the Crew went down on an early penalty kick, and surged to a 3-1 lead, which they squandered on set pieces in the last 12 minutes of the match. Against the New York Red Bulls, they went down again, but with five minutes left in the match. A final team goal salvaged a point in a match where midfielder Lucas Zelarayán went down with an injury and the Crew earned the draw with 10 men. It’s a story of one draw feeling like a loss and another like a win.
Against Philadelphia, the Crew are likely to sit back more. It won’t be a 10 in the box like defense that Columbus tried to break against Nashville SC, but it won’t be as open as the Crew play at home. Formation wise, it’ll be head coach Caleb Porter’s 4-2-3-1. Personnel wise, Porter’s wanted to shift formations in 2022, but a key defensive injury in Josh Williams puts that on the backburner.
2. Caleb Porter seems to have had championship seasons at an odd frequency after missing the playoffs the previous year before. Do you believe that it will play into the storyline of this season?
I think there’s some merit to the argument that Porter-led teams perform well the season after missing the playoffs. If there’s one thing for sure about Columbus’ coach is how much he hates losing. In 2019, he came into a team with brand new owners, after a year struggle to keep the team in Central Ohio and dealt with injuries to key starters while he also worked to build his own side.
In 2020, he added midfielders Zelarayán and Darlington Nagbe. Not a bad pair to throw into your team. Think what you want about the 2020 MLS Cup, and the season that led to it, but Columbus won with strong defense.
Last season, Columbus was crippled by injuries. There weren’t two matches in a row where the team used the same starting 11. As they regained that health towards the end of the season, they made a run that fell one point short of getting into the playoffs. That kind of motivation is fueling 2022.
3. Who or what part of Columbus’ play should Union fans look out for? Where does the Crew kill teams, and where do they suffer?
On Saturday, Union fans should watch two key position battles: striker and on the wings. Up front, it’s veteran forward Gyasi Zardes and breakout scorer from 2021, Miguel Berry. Porter’s started Berry the first four matches of the season, but put Zardes back in against a tough Nashville side. Philadelphia is the Crew’s biggest match of the early season and Porter’s selection up front answers questions on where the position is leaning for the rest of the year.
On Porter’s two winger positions, Derrick Etienne Jr. put himself into the starting role on the left and he hasn’t let it go. The right is up for debate. Luís Diaz moved to a bench role for Ghanaian international Yaw Yeboah, but again Porter benched Yeboah when it came to a tough Nashville test. Winger has been a revolving door in the past two seasons, and it’s anyone’s guess who gets the start on Saturday.
Yeboah’s shown flashes in his early tenure in MLS, but Diaz causes issues for fullbacks with his speed. In years past, his shooting caused more distress in the stands than at goalkeepers, but this year he’s morphed into more of a team player. He’s making more passes into the box from open spaces he creates getting behind defenders.
Also, Zelarayán was MLS Player of the Month for a reason. When he gets space to create, he finds open teammates and shoots from anywhere. In 57 games, Zelarayán’s scored 14 goals from outside of the 18-yard-box, and three so far this season. It’ll be an interesting matchup against a team that hasn’t allowed a goal from outside of the penalty area in over 45 games.
4. What’s your lineup prediction, score prediction, and anything else you’d like to add?
This weekend, I think Porter goes back to Berry at striker and Yeboah on the right wing. Columbus looked better with Berry in the second half against Nashville and a sore spot for Diaz is defense, which Columbus will need. The rest of the lineup will be what the Crew’s started in every other match this season, barring any last-minute injuries or shakeups.
A last note on Zelarayán, in 20 matches where the midfielder’s either scored a goal or provided an assist, the Crew lost only two. Of those same 20 matches, 14 ended with a Crew victory. If the Union keep him from scoring, the chances for a Philadelphia victory are that much greater.