There are five matches in the opening month of Philadelphia Union's 2019 season, with at least five days between each one. However, the Union only play twice at home during that period, with Toronto arriving to open the season and then Columbus rolling in on March 23.
After last year's slow start at home, Philly will be hoping to establish a strong home field advantage from the outset next year. With new turf in place, Toronto battling in the Concacaf Champions League, and Columbus welcoming in a new coach (and club President) after an extended period with Gregg Berhalter filling both roles, the Union will see both of these home matchups as very winnable games. But winnable is no guarantee. We already took an early look at home opener opponent Toronto HERE, but let's see how Columbus might look when they come to Philly in late March.
Columbus Crew changes
The biggest differences thus far between how Columbus Crew ended 2018 and look to enter 2019 are on the technical side (and on the ownership side, of course, with a new investment group vowing to keep the club local after shenanigans piled upon shenanigans during new Austin expansion franchise owner Anthony Precourt's attempts to skeedaddle). Long-time head coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter is leading the US National team now, and currently giving call-ups to Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie. In Berhalter's stead, Tim Bezbatchenko has been named as the team's President and will oversee both the business and sporting sides of things, with former Timbers head man Caleb Porter taking over on the sidelines. Porter won a title in Portland (beating Berhalter's Crew in the final) but has been out of the league since November 2017.
Under Porter, Portland relied heavily on a strong midfield to keep games from establishing much of a flow. In their 2015 championship season, the Timbers attempted nearly the exact same number of passes as their opponents (about 444 passes for while opponents attempted about 441 per match) but very little action took place in either team's defensive third. Porter's Timbers got the ball out of the back in a hurry (seventh fewest passes in their own defensive third per game) and didn't let their opponent dwell either (sixth fewest opponent defensive third passes attempted per game). Overall, TImbers matches featured the fifth fewest defensive third passes per game, which was in sharp contrast to Berhalter's Crew sides that consistently built out of the back, even when faced with aggressive high pressure.
In Portland, Porter had Diegos Chara and Valeri as well as Darlington Nagbe, whom he helped develop into a MAC Hermann trophy winner at Akron. In Columbus, Federico Higuain remains a potentially devastating force in the center and Luis Argudo is waiting for his shot at a playmaking role. Wil Trapp and Artur manned the deeper roles for Berhalter and it will be extremely interesting to see how Porter uses them (Trapp is another Akron/Porter alum, by the way). Neither player has the absurd defensive range and game-reading that has made Chara such a reliably dominant destroyer, so Porter may not be able to stretch his defensive shape as far forward as he did in the Pacific Northwest.
Additionally, Berhalter conjured a sublime season out of LA Galaxy cast-off Gyasi Zardes up top, but Pedro Santos and Justin Meram failed to provide the secondary scoring that the Crew needed to challenge for the top of the Eastern Conference. Santos is a Designated Player and Meram has stuffed the stat sheet in the past, so there's certainly a chance Porter can generate a more balanced attack in 2019. The biggest question is whether he can do it without losing whatever magic Zardes -- who had been relegated to wingback in LA -- possessed last year.
Question marks in Ohio
Columbus, then, will be a team full of talent but likely one still learning how to play under a new system. The big question Berhalter himself has always faced is whether his teams can retain enough creativity while adhering to their base principles. With Porter bringing in his own set of principles, will there be an adjustment period or will the new head coach get things to click from the outset?
The Union will look to pounce on the Crew early and make sure that if there is any uncertainty in their approach under a new leader, it will quickly be exposed.