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Opponents and scenarios: How can Decision Day play out for the Union?

In the 2018 playoffs, Philadelphia Union could face any of the following four teams in the knockout round: New York City FC, Columbus Crew, DC United, or Montreal Impact. Philly has already locked horns with all four of these clubs this season, but the circumstances of those meetings suggest that the outcomes may not be entirely predictive of how a postseason match would play out.

New York City FC

Current Record: 15-10-8 (Home: 11-4-1, Road: 4-9-4)
Previous Matchups: Aug 18: Union 2-0 win (Burke, Ilsinho)

Philadelphia and NYCFC have already met once this season. At Talen Energy Stadium, the Union survived a few early scares courtesy of Maxi Moralez and slowly eased the playmaker out of the game as they took control. By the time Ale Bedoya’s run cleared a passing lane from Borek Dockal to goal scorer Cory Burke, Philly looked the better side. Ilsinho finished it off when he weaved in from the right to double the scoreline.

New York City was nipping at the heels of Red Bulls and Atlanta United for much of the season. But after recently breaking a six match winless streak by shutting out Chicago, NYC dropped a 2-1 result to Minnesota in a lame outing that suggested they are still far from top form. They followed that up this past weekend with a listless showing at DC that leaves them capable of finishing as low as fifth in the Eastern Conference. Key injuries and excessive tinkering by new head coach Dome Torrent have both been blamed for the Light Blues’ struggles, and Yangel Herrera’s return to the lineup may provide much-needed solutions. The Venezuelan midfielder is an all-action, field-covering defender and a tempo-setter going forward. He made his return to the bench against DC United and will likely be available to start by the playoffs, if not next weekend.

Facing off with NYCFC would likely produce an exciting match for Union fans. Both teams prefer to have the ball and can be aggressive trying to win it back. This can make for an open, back-and-forth match. Philly would need to keep NYC’s expensive, high-end talent from finding space in the box. David Villa and Maxi Moralez have not hit top form since the early portion of the season, but either one can be an instant gamechanger. Moralez nearly broke through early when NYC came to Talen Energy Stadium in August, but Andre Blake was his spectacular self to earn a shutout.

One key area to watch in a match between these sides would be who wins the battle out wide. With both clubs likely using three-man midfields (it is unlikely Torrent would return to a 4-4-2 after Philly adjusted to it well last time out), NYC will try to force the Union wingers to play defense while Keegan Rosenberry will similarly look to push Ismael Tajouri-Shradi deep with forward runs.

The Union will travel to NYCFC if…

  1. NYC defeats the Union on October 28 while DC United ties Chicago and Columbus beats Minnesota

  2. NYC defeats the Union on October 28 while both DC and Columbus win

Will the Union take their orange slices? Depends on how healthy Herrera is. He’s an elite orange slice protector.

Columbus Crew

Current Record: 13-11-9 (Home: 10-2-4, Road: 3-9-5)
Previous Matchups: March 17: 0-0 draw; May 9 Crew 0-1 win; Sept 29: 0-0 draw

Over the course of 270 minutes this season, these teams have combined for… 15 shots on goal. Only one of those shots has gone in, so it is unlikely to be a highlight-filled affair if these two teams meet in the knockout round of the playoffs.

Both clubs play a version of a 4-2-3-1 and have struggled to get bodies into the opposing box. Columbus’ lone goal was the result of a strange play in which Milton Valenzuela snuck a cross through the box to Gyasi Zardes at the back post. The rest of these matches have been a battle to control midfield, and neither Artur nor Ale Bedoya — each club’s box-to-box midfielder — has been able to push forward effectively.

In a win-or-go-home match, it’s hard to see either team opening up, so what has already been a cagey series will likely become even more so in the postseason. The biggest question will be whether Philly can finally find a way to penetrate the Crew’s defense without opening up themselves. Thus far, the Union have created very little, and when they have broken through VAR has stepped in to keep them off the scoreboard.  

Perhaps even more than NYC, Columbus relies heavily on the fullbacks in attack. Milton Valenzuela and Harrison Afful provide nearly all of the team’s width when the wingers move narrow, and if the Union can force those players deep they will be able to control the game.

A final note on the Crew: Since August they have scored more than one goal in a game just twice. For comparison, the Union have scored multiple goals in a match six times during the same period. The Crew also haven’t won back to back games since August 11, and a lot of the draws from early in the season have been turning into losses recently. Last weekend’s late collapse against Orlando City is not a good sign for Gregg Berhalter’s boys.

The Union will host Columbus if…

  1. The Union beat NYC on October 28th and both DC and Columbus win

  2. The Union tie NYC on October 28 while DC loses and Columbus wins

The Union will travel to Columbus if…

  1. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while DC loses and Columbus wins

Will the Union take their orange slices? I think so, but both teams will need the Vitamin C because they are very likely to hit extra time in this one.

DC United

Current Record: 14-11-8 (Home: 13-2-2, Road: 1-9-6)
Previous Matchups: April 28: Union 3-2 win; August 29: Union 2-0 win

The Union have easily swept aside DC United in their two previous matchups this season, but a playoff game would be far different. For one, DC United’s starters would not be dead tired from chasing around New York Red Bulls only three days earlier (they will have faced Chicago Fire three days earlier instead, and that just doesn’t require the same level of exertion.

Still, Philadelphia will be able to handle DC United’s rebuilt attack if they can control the ball. DC is extremely dangerous with Wayne Rooney at the tip of their spear, but they don’t manufacture space very well in possession. Instead, the goal is to hold the ball until Luciano Acosta can dart into a hole, then let him and Rooney suck in defenders while everybody else looks for a forward running lane.

Ben Olsen’s team protects a suspect back line with physical, mobile holding midfielders, but Russell Canouse and Junior Moreno (or Chris Durkin) can get pulled out of the center defensively and tend to drift when DC possesses the ball. That means if the Union can quickly counter after turnovers, they should be able to find gaps to attack through Borek Dockal. Additionally, CJ Sapong’s agility and strength are a nightmare matchup for Joseph Mora at left back, so the Union can exploit that by playing to Sapong’s head and controlling second balls with Bedoya and Keegan Rosenberry’s energy.

All that said, DC has been manufacturing wins for quite some time now. Knocking them off will require beating both them and Lady Luck.

The Union will host DC United if…

  1. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while both DC United and Columbus also lose

  2. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while DC loses to Chicago and Columbus ties Minnesota

  3. The Union defeat NYC on October 28 while DC loses to Chicago and Columbus defeats Minnesota

  4. The Union defeat NYC on October 28 while DC ties Chicago and Columbus wins by fewer than 14 goals

  5. The Union and NYC tie on October 28 while DC United and Columbus both lose

  6. The Union and NYC tie on October 28 while DC ties Chicago and Columbus wins by fewer than 14 goals

  7. The Union and NYC tie on October 28 while DC ties Chicago and Columbus loses to Minnesota

  8. The Union and NYC tie on October 28 and both DC and Columbus tie their matches as well

  9. The Union and NYC tie on October 28, DC loses, and Columbus ties Minnesota

The Union will travel to DC United if…

  1. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while DC defeats Chicago and Columbus loses Minnesota

  2. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while DC defeats Chicago and Columbus ties Minnesota

  3. The Union lose to NYC on October 28 while DC ties Chicago and Columbus ties Minnesota

  4. The Union tie NYC on October 28 while DC ties Chicago and Columbus loses to Minnesota

  5. The Union tie NYC on October 28 while DC and Columbus both win

  6. The Union tie NYC on October 28 while DC defeats Chicago and Columbus loses to Minnesota

  7. The Union tie NYC on October 28 while DC defeats Chicago and Columbus ties Minnesota

Will the Union take their orange slices? They already did once, and if they concentrate for 90 minutes they can do it again.

Montreal Impact

Current Record: 14-5-4 (Home: 11-4-2, Road: 3-11-2)
Previous Matchups: May 12: Union 2-0 win; Sept 15: Impact 4-1 win

Are there two teams that have leaned harder into what has worked for them this season than the Union and Impact? Jim Curtin’s team decided being heavily right-sided worked just fine, and Remi Garde looked at his squad and chose to make them crouching, predatory counterattacking specialists. Both clubs have ridden those decisions into the fight for the Eastern Conference playoffs, with the Union’s superior overall talent pushing them higher than Montreal’s heavily star-reliant side could get.

When these teams have gone head-to-head, the results have tended to favor whoever sticks to their game plan the most. Somewhat ironically, Philly was almost forced to play a patient, controlled game in Canada after they went ahead but lost Cory Burke to a hilariously unnecessary red card. At home, the Union opened up after taking the lead and Nacho Piatti punished them relentlessly.

The current narrative is that the Union can’t handle counterattacking teams. That’s probably overblown, but Curtin’s side will have to do a far better job of locking down key transition players if these teams meet again in the postseason, They did it to Vancouver, so it’s not an impossibility, but this likely isn’t the team Philly would prefer to meet in the knockout round.

Adam’s Take: The Union are the superior team, but if Montreal executes their game plan well it could be a difficult, anxious matchup for the home side. The Union will need to show patience and use active movements from attackers to pull midfielders out of Montreal’s center if they want to dominate without opening themselves to counters.

The Union will host Montreal if…

  1. The Union defeat NYC on October 28 while Columbus loses to Minnesota and Montreal defeats New England

  2. The Union defeat NYC on October 28 while Columbus ties Minnesota and Montreal defeats New England

Will the Union take their orange slices? Oui. But it’ll be an uncomfortable 90 minutes.

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