U in Preview — Matchday 21: Columbus Versus Union

It’s back to Talen Energy Stadium, back to the drawing board for Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union, after a lackluster performance in Columbus. 

In the first installment of the home-and-home series against Columbus Crew SC, it was the Ohioan outfit who came out on top to claim a vital three points. Neither side were at their best on the day, or full strength for that matter, but Columbus ultimately did enough to see off another playoff hopeful.

At this point in the season, it’s a result that could prove to be the dagger for the Philadelphia Union’s post-season hopes. Here’s how the table looks these days (Hint: not very good).

Jim Curtin will look to bring a few of his guys back from injury and suspension on Wednesday night, when the Union host the Crew for round two of the pivotal home-and-home.

UnionFanTV takes a closer look at how both teams shape up, this time around.

Philadelphia (6 W, 9 L, 5 D; 23 points)

It was a rather green Blue-and-Gold side that Curtin rolled out last time around. Injury, suspension, exhaustion and international duties kept several key Union players out of the XI, and even the 18 for Saturday’s loss.

Young Guns Marcus Epps and Adam Najem were handed their first career Major League Soccer starts in Saturday’s defeat. Injury to Fabian Herbers, suspension to Roland Alberg and international assignment for Chris Pontius forced Curtin to look toward his bench to fill the void left.

Fans who missed the debuts of Epps and Najem in the Starting XI might get another chance on Wednesday. Herbers and Pontius will both miss out on Wednesday’s contest against Columbus.

Herbers is recovering from sports hernia surgery; the German is expected to miss the next 4-8 weeks. While Pontius is away in California with Bruce Arena’s United States Mens’ National Team; the Union midfielder will look to hoist the Gold Cup on Wednesday night, when he faces off against club teammate, Andre Blake and Jamaica.

Epps is the most likely to get another start for Curtin in the Union’s next outing, especially with Fafa Picault still questionable after tweaking a hamstring in the match against Montréal last week.

Of course, this is as of Monday, July 24. We’ll keep fans posted on the injury status of Picault, including every Union player heading into Wednesday’s match. 

One to keep an eye on: it will be interesting to see if Joshua Yaro lines up next to Jack Elliot at the start of Wednesday’s match. While veteran center half, Oguchi Onyewu was given a well-deserved rest on Saturday, Yaro was given the run-around by Curtin.

Yaro looked fairly calm and composed on the night, and the 22-year-old defender matched Colombus’ speedy attackers for pace. Yaro even scored a goal! Although the Ghanaian probably wishes he could get that one back.

Another player to keep an eye on is Union leading scorer, CJ Sapong. He missed out on the last contest with a right ankle sprain. In his absence, Jay Simpson got the start for the Blue-and-Gold.

There’s still no word on the status of the Union’s target man, who has nine goals on the year. 

Simpson looked lively once again, but was unable to find the back of the net. It marks 12 matches without a goal for the Englishman, who was brought in by Sporting Director Earnie Stewart during the January transfer window.

Curtin will hope that his side can generate more scoring chances at home, as the Union registered just two total shots on goal between their matches against Montréal and Columbus. Fortunately for the gaffer, there is reason to believe they will be better, as 16 of the Union’s 26 goals this season have come playing at Talen Energy Stadium.

They’ve had to rely on heroics at the other end, especially from the Union’s No. 2 keeper, John McCarthy, who has had several standout performances since stepping in for the absent Andre blake.

Expect the Union to turn up the tempo on Wednesday night, throwing numbers forward and pressing high up the pitch. Three points is a must, if the Union are to have any shot at securing a playoff position.

These are clearly desperate times for the Philadelphia Union, which could prompt Jim Curtin to go for it and tinker with Wednesday’s lineup.

Columbus (10 W, 10 L, 1 D; 31 points)

Winners of their last three competitive matches, Gregg Berhalter’s team is riding high and certainly in good spirits.

While the Crew have struggled to score goals as of late, they haven’t conceded at the other end. Saturday’s result was a third consecutive clean sheet for young goalkeeper and former Philadelphia Union academy standout, Zack Steffen.

They’ve remained unbeaten in three even without arguably their best player in Federico Higuaín. Good news for Columbus fans, and even worse news for Philadelphia’s supporters, the Argentinian playmaker could make his return to action on Wednesday night versus the Union.

Higuaín, who has missed the Crew’s last two matches with a right knee sprain, has bagged nine goals and five assists so far this season. It’s impressive numbers from the midfielder to say the least, but by no means are they an anomaly for the South American Designated Player.

If Higuaín is to return to the fold, expect a Union midfielder — most likely Alejandro Bedoya or Derrick Jones, should he suit up — to shadow him all night long.

Another player Union defenders will have to keep close tabs on is Norwegian striker Ola Kamara. Crew’s front man has matched Federico Higuaín’s goal tally this season with nine goals to his name.

Kamara threatened McCarthy’s goal on several occasions in the previous matchup, and if it weren’t for another strong performance from the young goalkeeper, Kamara might very well have added multiple goals to his already impressive record this campaign. Look for Kamara to seek revenge in their second meeting on Wednesday night.

Wednesday’s home-and-home finale is the first of three away matches for Columbus. After the Union, the Crew will head out west to take on Real Salt Lake and San Jose respectively. It’s a grueling upcoming schedule, one that is similar to the Union’s.

Final Thoughts

Hope is waning for many fans and members of the media alike. I, for one, am worried about the Union’s injury woes. Although the Union have depth (for once), there is loads of inexperience within their reserve ranks.

While Epps and Najem are undoubtedly promising young players, whom have already showed flashes of maturity early in their respective careers, I worry that they are still too unpolished.

What the Union need at this point in the year are veteran guys, who can grind out results, both at home and on the road. Unfortunately, they haven’t been able to keep those guys healthy as of late.

I also worry about the Union’s inability to spur any sort of attack. For once, the backline is the least of fans’ worries. Two shots on target in two matches speaks volumes. It’s no secret: if you cannot get off shots, you’re never going to score. Right now, the Union look plain lost in the attacking half of the pitch.

If the Union are to have any shot in this match, they’ll need to keep the ball, something they rarely do. And if the Union do manage to keep control of possession, they’ll need prominent players like Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin to provide quality service to whoever Curtin throws up top.

On paper, the Crew’s hardest match of their next three is arguably the Union. After Saturday’s result, one would have to think Berhalter’s team will feel confident enough to go for it at Philadelphia. If Columbus drop two points, or even three, they can find comfort in knowing their next two matches are against more favorable opposition.

They’re tasting blood, at the moment, as the Crew currently sit two points back from Atlanta United in fourth. A win would see them jump the Georgian club in the table and gain some ground on Orlando City SC, who are on their backs, currently.

Wednesday night could either be a springboard for a miraculous second-half of the season run, or the dagger through Philadelphia’s heart. Fans shall soon see. Make sure to check back tomorrow for injury updates and more from Jim Curtin’s weekly presser. 

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