Philadelphia Union's 2-1 win against the New York Red Bulls in last Saturday's home finale felt like a perfect ending. In many ways it was, but there’s still plenty to play for in Sunday’s season finale against the Columbus Crew.
Aside from a sense of pride and the obvious goal of ending the season on a high, there are several specific objectives for Philadelphia. For one, the Union have yet to win consecutive matches in league play all season. While the club’s form has improved dramatically since early in this inaugural campaign regardless of Sunday’s result, it’s hard to imagine a better way to finish the year than beating the top two teams in the Eastern Conference consecutively.
Taking points won’t be so easy, however, in part because the Crew are a quality side, and in part because the road has been unkind to Philadelphia. The Union are 2-11-1 away from home, a record that will have to improve substantially for the club to match their expectations in 2011. Making a statement in Columbus, both to the league and to themselves, would help create a world of momentum heading into the offseason.
Philadelphia will also attempt to avoid sharing a dubious record. The Union have recorded only two shutouts this season, which would tie the all-time mark set by six other clubs (most recently the LA Galaxy in 2008). The record is indicative of Philadelphia’s early defensive struggles, rather than their current form, but the backline would undoubtedly like to distance themselves from the bottom of the pack in the season’s final contest.
On a more positive note, both Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga will have one final opportunity to stake their claims for the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, respectively. Le Toux has put together a stellar campaign that would likely make him a lock for the postseason distinction if Philadelphia were playoff-bound, but his accomplishments may be enough to overcome the one shortcoming in his résumé. Mwanga is most likely battling New York’s Tim Ream to be deemed the top rookie, and a goal in the season’s finale would do wonders to erase the memory of his recent goal scoring drought.
The Crew got the best of the Union in the last meeting between the two clubs, with two goals from substitute Steven Lenhart outweighing Le Toux’s penalty kick in first half extra time. Columbus will be without Lenhart in the rematch, however, as the club’s second leading scorer received a red card for an altercation with Toronto ‘keeper Jon Conway. Midfielder Fred will miss the match on the other side of the ball for yellow card accumulation after the Union's hero vs. New York picked up his fifth card of the season in the 67th minute.
Lenhart’s absence will be felt by Columbus, but the real key to stopping the Crew is containing Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who leads the club with eight goals and nine assists. If the Union can do that, they’ll be in good shape to extend Columbus’ winless streak in league action to seven matches (0-4-2 in their last six).
Matchups to Watch:
Danny Mwanga vs Chad Marshall
While Le Toux will surely spend his fair share of time in Columbus’ defensive third, Mwanga will be the one banging bodies with standout defender Chad Marshall on a regular basis. Marshall will be a load for Mwanga, who has admitted that he needs to work on being more physical, especially against bigger defenders. At 6-4, Marshall certainly qualifies, and he’s as smart with his positioning as he is physically imposing.
The MLS Defender of the Year two years running is a tough assignment for the Rookie of the Year candidate, but if Mwanga can finish the season with a tally against the league’s best, he’ll prove once again why he’s worthy of postseason hardware.
The Union vs road woes
After Sunday’s season finale, Philadelphia will officially shed the expansion label. The club has eliminated the vast majority of immaturities that plagued them early on, but having success on the road is still a barrier. Winning away from home is never easy in MLS, but the best teams find a way to at least hover around the .500 mark. Making a statement against a Columbus side that have taken full points from nine out of their 14 home games this season -- even though Robert Warzycha’s squad is sitting on a team-record 280-minute home scoreless streak -- would be a perfect way to pronounce the expansion label a thing of the past.
Last Match Highlights
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
PROBABLE: GK Brad Knighton (L shoulder sprain)
DISCIPLINARY: Fred (yellow card accumulation)
Columbus Crew Injury Report
PROBABLE: FW Steven Lenhart (illness); DF Frankie Hejduk (illness); MF Danny O'Rourke (back spasms)
DISCIPLINARY: Steven Lenhart (red card)
Date: Sunday, October 24, 2010
Location: Crew Stadium (Columbus, OH)
Television: 6abc/MyNetwork TV WQMY
Talent: JP Dellacamera (play by play); Kyle Martino (color analyst)
Referee: Kevin Stott. SAR (bench): Chris Strickland; JAR (opposite): Daniel Belleau; 4th: Hilario Grajeda