Preview: Union vs Crew

The Philadelphia Union (4-8-3) will be coming off short rest when they take on the Eastern Conference leading Columbus Crew (10-4-4) Thursday at PPL Park (8:00pm, ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). It’s no secret that the Union would’ve liked to head into the match with two more points from last weekend than the 15 the club is currently sitting on, but a single erratic bounce prevented that from happening in a 1-1 draw vs New Engand.

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The expansion Union will need to kick into high gear in a hurry for playoffs to remain a realistic goal this season. Philadelphia’s never-say-die attitude - inspired in large part by Manger Peter Nowak’s hard-nosed approach - will serve the club well heading into a stretch of six matches in August, all falling within a 24-day time frame. One advantage in the Union’s favor is the schedule, with nine of 15 remaining matches taking place at PPL Park.

The Crew suffered a surprising 3-1 loss to Chivas USA at the Home Depot Center on Saturday, but have otherwise been the dominant team in the East this year. The club’s +10 goal differential on the season is the only positive mark in the conference, with Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy each sporting +18 differentials to tilt the balance of power in favor of the West. Columbus have yet to lose two matches in a row in 2010, a fate they’ll look to avoid against Philadelphia.

The Black and Gold are led by Guillermo Barros Schelotto, one of the premier attackers in MLS. Since joining the club in 2007, the 2008 MLS MVP has scored 29 goals and added 39 assists, with five goals and six assists coming this season. Barros Schelotto must be monitored at all times, as the All-Star starter can strike from a variety of angles and is equally adept at setting up his teammates.

WATCH: Califf, Le Toux, Miglioranzi on Thursday's match

The Crew will be without talented midfielder Eddie Gaven (concussion), who was knocked unconscious after colliding with Chivas goalkeeper Dan Kennedy. Columbus will miss the 23-year-old, who has been one of the club’s most important contributors and their leader in minutes played this season. Gaven’s replacement against Chivas may also be out, with Robbie Rogers listed as doubtful (L knee inflammation).

Alejandro Moreno and Stefani Miglioranzi will each be facing their former club, with Moreno coming straight to the Union from the Crew via the MLS Expansion Draft. Both players were part of the Crew’s MLS Cup winning season in 2008.

Matchups to Watch:

Chad Marshall vs Sebastien Le Toux

While the two MLS All-Star starters may not always be going head-to-head on Thursday night, Marshall is the leader of the Crew’s defense and Le Toux has had a hand in nearly every goal for the Union this season. Marshall, the second overall pick of the 2004 MLS SuperDraft, is a bruising presence at 6-4 and has been named MLS Defender of the Year the last two seasons. Columbus has been the fourth stingiest team in the league with a 0.89 GAA, and Marshall is one of the main reasons why along with towering central defensive partner Andy Iro and six-time MLS All-Star Frankie Hejduk.

Le Toux was up to his old tricks against the Revolution – if it’s possible to use ‘old’ when describing one season’s worth of dominance. The Frenchman’s eighth tally of the season is up for MLS Goal of the Week, and it truly was a beauty. With fellow strike partner Danny Mwanga nursing a minor ankle injury and Alejandro Moreno still looking for his first goal with Philadelphia, Le Toux will be counted on again Thursday to produce for an offense averaging 1.26 goals per game, good for sixth in MLS.

Guillermo Barros Schelotto/Emilio Renteria vs the Union’s shutout-less streak

While Barros Schelotto is undeniably the Crew’s top gun, the club’s hottest goal scorer is Renteria, who has scored twice in three matches after grabbing hold of a starting spot on July 17. The 25-year-old Venezuelan played for Caracas FC of the Venezuelan top flight from 2007-09, where he tallied 16 goals before signing with the Crew just under a year ago. With four goals in only 500 minutes on the season, Renteria will need to be tightly marked.

The Crew have scored 1.44 goals per game - third best in the league behind only RSL and LA - but Philadelphia’s defense seems on the cusp of their first shutout in league play. On average, the Union have given up less than a goal per match over their last nine in all competitions, with six goals allowed in their last five MLS matches.

Central defender Danny Califf has been a commanding presence in the middle along with Michael Orozco Fiscal, while Jordan Harvey and Cristian Arrieta have been steady along the flanks. The unit is still prone to the occasional lapse, but their overall form has been dramatically improved since earlier in the year. A shutout on Thursday would put an exclamation mark on the progress shown on the defensive side of the ball in the club’s inaugural campaign.

Eduardo Coudet/Fred vs Adam Moffat/Brian Carroll

The two likely starting central midfield pairings will be key for their respective sides, with Moffat and Carroll each bringing a ruggedness that would go over well on a Nowak-led club. In fact, Carroll was a favorite of Nowak’s when the Union boss took over DC United, with the two winning a title together in 2004. Carroll’s impact doesn’t show up on the scoresheet, but the holding midfielder is always active and rarely out of position. The hard-working Moffat, who was named to the USL-2 Best XI prior to joining the Crew in 2007, is seeing regular starting minutes for the first time in the league and proving that he deserves them.

On the other side of the ball, Coudet has had only one league match and two international friendlies to build chemistry with his new club, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Saturday’s match against the Revolution. The 35-year-old gave the Union a calming influence on the ball in the center of the pitch, providing support when necessary and distributing effectively. While Nowak will likely look to find Justin Mapp increased playing time once he settles in with the club as well, it may not come at Coudet’s expense.

With Coudet and Fred, the Union now have two experienced midfielders who can maintain possession and control the pace of a match. If they can do just that against Moffat, Carroll and the rest of the Crew, the Union have a good shot to gain some ground in the standings.

Last Match Highlights

Philadelphia 1, New England 1 

Chivas 3, Columbus 1 

Philadelphia Union Injury Report

OUT: MF Shea Salinas (L fibula fracture)

PROBABLE: DF Jordan Harvey (L groin strain); FW Alejandro Moreno (R knee contusion); FW Danny Mwanga (R ankle sprain); MF Roger Torres (R ankle sprain)

Columbus Crew Injury Report

OUT: MF Eddie Gaven (concussion); DF Gino Padula (L knee inflammation)

DOUBTFUL: MF Robbie Rogers (L knee inflammation)

Match Information

Date: Thursday, August 5, 2010

Time: 8:00pm ET

Location: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.

Television: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes

Talent: JP Dellacamera (play-by-play), Taylor Twellman (color analyst)

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