Philadelphia Union have a difficult task ahead of them if they want to undo an organized Columbus Crew defense. Under Caleb Porter, the Crew set up in a 4-4-2 that uses the front two to shadow lanes into the center and allows the wingers to tuck in defensively when the ball is played inside. In short, this is going to be a battle for control of the middle of the pitch, with the larger difference between how these teams play being in back.
Center backs releasing
Compared to the Union, Columbus uses more conservative center back movements. Jonathan Mensah and Gaston Sauro are not particularly quick, so asking them to follow checking strikers can lead to dangerous gaps in the back line. Additionally, Mensah has a tendency to play on the back foot, dropping early and pulling the line deep (or simply leaving it altogether). To cover the space in front of their center backs, then Columbus collapses quickly on any balls played into the middle. Both wingers look to jump on players that receive the ball in the center on the half-turn. Normally, this is a dangerous position for an attacker to receive the ball. But with Pedro Santos and Justin Meram lurking in the background, normally calm midfielders become a bit jumpy, and connecting the ball into the space in front of the center backs is less common than it should be.
One area that Philadelphia should have a distinct advantage is in attacking transition moments. Under Porter, the fullbacks remain extremely aggressive, pushing high in order to create 2v1s on their opponent's fullbacks. A winger checks off the back line into a pocket in a half-space, and this will put the Union's fullbacks in decisive moments. Should they follow the winger or stick to their zone in back to ensure the Crew fullbacks can't fly upfield unhindered? To prevent this scenario from unfolding, Philly has to find ways to either get pressure on the Columbus center backs when they have the ball (which is difficult since Sauro and Mensah play notoriously deep) or bring enough bodies to the ball-side to ensure Kai Wagner and Ray Gaddis don't end up defending against two men at the same time.
Here is where Philly can find an advantage: With the fullbacks pushed high, any turnovers leave acres of space in the wide areas. Ideally, Columbus forces play to the wings and has time to recover and defend the center with their two holding midfielders. The Union, then, need to attack the half-spaces in transition. There may be more space out wide, but getting close to the center backs in a hurry can actually be an advantage. Sauro and Mensah won't want to step forward, and running at them quickly will force them into decisions they don't want to make while moving wide allows them to simply hold play up until help arrives.
Another reason the Union should be able to take advantage of attacking transition moments? Columbus' least disciplined moments come directly after turnovers in their attacking half. Mensah is not particularly interested in possession defending, meaning Philly's highest players will have space to operate if they can get the ball quickly. Expect the Union to look for Haris Medunjanin early after creating turnovers near the top of their box. The Bosnian's passing range will be necessary to pick out a striker in space before the Crew can recover and provide support for their center backs.
How will the Crew create shots?
Four goals in three games seems like a pretty reasonable return. But the Crew are averaging fewer than ten shots per match... and that's not good.
Sauro has two of Columbus' four goals, and Zardes -- who will be absent Saturday -- has the other pair. Even with Federico Higuain at the No. 10, Columbus isn't generating enough shots to remain near the top of the Eastern Conference. Their wingers have, for the second straight season, struggled to get into the box. And both Artur and Wil Trapp have yet to provide an attacking impetus through midfield. That leaves (once again, like last season), Higuain to both play through the lines and provide goals. He got six last year, but it's a big ask for a player that, for lack of a better way of saying it, continues to age.
Overall, Saturday's match can be laid out this way: Will the Union's defense be able to control Higuain? And will Philly's attacking transitions occur with enough speed to target the space behind the Crew's fullbacks?
Find out on Saturday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET at Talen Energy Stadium. Tickets are available here.