With a short bench available and a draining Sunday evening rivalry match nipping at his side’s energy reserves, Jim Curtin watched the Union drop points to Chicago Fire FC Wednesday night. Now, with another quick-turn matchup against another middle-of-the-standings opponent on the docket Sunday night, Curtin must work out how to get his group into top gear to show the Eastern Conference Wednesday’s loss was merely a blip. 

And despite their lack of geographical relevance to Philadelphia, Columbus may prove the right opponent to snap Philly back to its best. 

The Crew offer many of the hallmarks of the clubs that have given Philly trouble this year: A single attacking focal point going forward in Lucas Zelarayan, and a team that is legitimately afraid of what the Union can do to them. 

Curtin knows this; he’s been saying it for a while now: The Union sneak up on nobody. What that means in practice is that teams that don’t think they can throw heavyweight punches with Philly try to sit back defensively and stretch things horizontally when they have the ball, wearing the Union down and counting on them to make small pressing mistakes that open up the midfield. 

Some may call for a drastic change in tactics, but what the Union need is just to add another level of consistency to their high press when facing teams willing to sit deep. In Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes, Philly has two of the best front-foot center backs in MLS so teams are not getting out of pressure by going vertical. Instead, they are creating deep man-advantage situations, forcing the Union’s far-side No. 8 to make tough decisions about what space to cover, and looking to switch fields than find the center. This is effective now, but it’s far from unmanageable. 

Against Columbus, the Union will be focused on how to control Zelarayan without Jose Martinez available. The former MLS Cup MVP has always been more than just a playmaker, but he only has seven shots on target this year and hasn’t found positions as close to goal as in the past. Keeping him away from the box makes Columbus’ attack wither, which is why the Ohio side splashed for a Premier League striker who could come off the bench on Sunday. 

The Union attack has to have one major objective on Sunday: Get the ball forward faster and put Mikael Uhre behind the back line. Everything Columbus does defensively will be about limiting the space between their defensive line and goalkeeper after turnovers, because Uhre behind a defense is too fast to handle. 

Curtin could turn to Cory Burke to partner Uhre up top, bringing Julian Carranza on around the hour mark. He could also experiment with shape given Martinez’s absence, potentially pulling Alejandro Bedoya into a holding midfield role alongside Leon Flach or Cole Turner. 

No matter what shape Philly takes up, though, the philosophy will remain the same: Go hard, go direct, and go the whole dang game. Breaking down a deep block means adjusting nuances in the tactics, not throwing the whole thing overboard. 

Philly and Columbus face off from Lower.com Field in Columbus, OH at 7:30 p.m. ET on PHL17 and PhiladelphiaUnion.com.