Columbus Crew have hung out atop the Eastern Conference for most of the season, but after running them down with a strong summer, Philadelphia Union have the chance to leap ahead of the Crew and into fourth place with a win on the road Saturday.
The Crew are a fascinating team because they have a lot of attacking talent yet they don’t score many goals. After sending Ola Kamara onto the new Disneyland ride “Zlatan’s Team,” Gregg Berhalter went about moulding Gyasi Zardes into a potent finishing machine. Few believed in the project at first; many buy in now. Zardes’ iffy finishing and unreliable first touch made him a bit of a maligned figure when arriving at Columbus, but the young American’s intelligence has shone through with the Crew, and his early, direct runs have earned him enough opportunities in the box to more than justify Berhalter’s trust.
Zardes is fast and powerful, if not exactly quick, and he will rarely be involved in Columbus’ passing game until the vital moment when he’s needed to finish a play off.
Around Zardes, Columbus has an array of mobile pieces. Justin Meram is looking to rediscover his past form while Pedro Santos contributes more with his progressive dribbling than with finishing thus far in his MLS career. Both players will often start in narrow positions, leaving the flanks for their fullbacks. However, the Crew love to look for angled passes from the wide area in to a cutter moving toward space created by a previous run. Understanding the big=picture goals of Meram’s and Santos’ movements is vital to containing the Crew.
The Crew engine room features a living legend of MLS in Federico Higuain, a peaking American midfielder, and a young, mercurial box-to-box player. On their day, these three remain as good as any trio in Major League Soccer, and they may have the best combined ability to play lengthy passes of any midfield in the league. Higuain will creep about as Columbus moves the ball amongst its deepest seven — goalie very much included — players, and he will arrive in space created by others with impeccable timing.
One final note on the Crew — they have been all over the map results-wise over the past few weeks. Since beating Red Bull in late July, they have squeaked by Houston, fallen to Atlanta, drawn with Chicago, taken three points from New York City, gone goalless in Dallas, fallen to Portland and defeated Colorado. There are some surprising wins, surprising losses, and surprising draws in that list, so it’s fair to ask which Crew team will show up on Saturday.
No matter who it is, the Union will pass them in the standings if they can squeeze three points out of a massive showdown with a very equally matched opponent. Find out which team will gain an advantage in the chase for a home playoff game Saturday evening.