Once again the Union sit in the driver’s seat of its playoff aspirations, courtesy of a Wednesday night Houston win over Toronto that bodes extremely well with Columbus coming in this Saturday for a night tilt (7 p.m., purchase tickets). Currently, the Union sits seventh in MLS’ Eastern Conference. Three points could bring a six-point swing between Philly and Columbus that would put greater strain on both Columbus and Houston – now tied with the Union with its win – to keep pace for the fifth and final spot.
There are a host of positives going into this match, as the Crew will be without its playmaking catalyst Federico Higuain as well as Costa Rican international defender Waylon Francis, both who will miss due to yellow card accumulation. Additionally, the Union has won three of its total five at home against the Crew, celebrating a record setting night the last time out at PPL Park, scoring three times in a six-minute span.
However, with playoff hopes dangling a much different Crew team will visit the Chester waterfront assuredly bringing along forward Ethan Finlay. Finlay has been on a tear, scoring nine goals and adding five assists this season, highlighted by three goals in his last four matches.
Against New England, the goal he notched to equalize the match was was certainly one that raised eyebrows, not for the finish, but for just how fast he was able to turn the defender, create space in between and hit a low dribbler past Revs keeper Bobby Shuttleworth who was impressive on the night.
It’ll be interesting to see interim manager Jim Curtin’s plans to keep Finlay under wraps and just who along his back four will be tasked with keeping him quiet.
Finlay tends to play along the right side and pinch in to attack; meaning both Ray Gaddis and the center back pairing will need to constantly keep an eye out. When asked about Finlay’s prowess and subsequent plan of attack to combat, Curtin said:
“He’s obviously a guy who – you know you look at the goals they’ve been creating – he’s involved with them whether it’s crossing or finishing. He’s got speed and that's something you really can’t coach. He really threatens the back line. So [Federico] Higuain being out and being the guy that can kind of find him playing through balls helps us. That’s an advantage, but Finley is definitely someone we’re strongly focusing on going into the weekend, trying to neutralize him."
Keep Finlay and Co. under wraps and things could look a bit brighter for the Union as the Crew has found it tough to score in bunches away from Crew Stadium. Heading into Saturday, Columbus has scored 19 times in MLS play on the road while allowing 25 goals against. Bodes very well for a Union side that although the goals have slowed over the past few matches, accounted for 26 goals at PPL Park, scoring eight over its last five games.
"We've emphasized all week in these critical moments, can we be the team that makes the right decision? Can we be the team instead of rolling the ball backwards, we’re playing forward? asked Curtin during his press conference Wednesday. " It's those little things managing the game – getting a little bit better at managing the game – when you do work so hard to get a lead, how do you manage up a goal? How do you play down a goal? The urgency needs to come with that. There’s no room for ‘we’ll get it right next game’. That’s done. That’s out the window. So again we feel that. The coaches feel that. The players feel that. We need to rise to the occasion."
But for this group is less about the numbers game and more about taking care of business coming off a pair of matches at home in which they truly feel four points were left on the table in draws against Houston and most recently against Chicago.
“All of them are must wins; all of them,” Gaddis told reporters following the Chicago match. “The Columbus series is a must-win, and Kansas City [on Oct. 18 at PPL Park; 7 p.m., purchase tickets] we have to win. [These past few games have felt] like a playoff game and all of these matches coming up are going to be the same way. We have the role of determining our own fate.”
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Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org