The 2020 Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union traveled to the 2020 MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew SC to open up the 2021 MLS season. A match that was deemed by many as the game of the week kicks off a season that will be very conference-heavy for every MLS team. For the Union, they knew they would need to limit the touches of Crew SC’s playmaker Lucas Zelarayan. In the end, Philly showed toughness, fitness and defensive soundness. Union gets gritty road point and clean sheet at Columbus.
Union gets gritty road point to open season
When the starting XI’s came out, Union fans saw no changes from the club’s Concacaf Champions League (CCL) games. For Columbus, they were without midfield playmaker Darlington Nagbe. As the game kicked off it was clear that Columbus’s game plan was to be on the ball and put pressure on Philly high up the field. The Union looked to play their game in a stadium where they have historically had little success.
The Crew was on the front foot in the opening minutes putting pressure on Union Keeper Andre Blake. For the first six-minute, Columbus made it very hard for Philly to find the game. If the Crew was not attacking they were making it difficult for Philly to start a build-up from the back. They forced the Union to play long balls forward, and they were not able to gain possession on second balls. It wasn’t until the Union found spaces in the wide areas that they were able to get things going.
The Union was able to get things going down the left side of the field through Leon Flach, and up the right side with Oliver Mbaizo. They were able to help the Union win free kicks or corner kicks. In one instance the Union was able to win a corner, play one in the box for striker Kacper Przybylko was able to get his head to it. The ball was headed to the bottom right corner when Columbus keeper Eloy Room was able to sprawl down to make the fingertip save. As the first half moved to the later stages, both Columbus and Philadelphia found some chances.
The most dangerous chance came from the Crew as they almost had a penalty. A foul occurred just outside the box. The ref blew for a penalty but after VAR they corrected the call to a Columbus free-kick. Crew SC danger man Lucas Zelarayan put in a free-kick but Union keeper Andre Blake read it well and stoned the chance. Just before halftime, the Union found themselves with another freekick. A ball was played into the box and found the head of captain Alejandro Bedoya. Unfortunately, he was not able to put the ball on the net. The half then ended 0-0, which favored Philly more than Columbus.
As the second half kicked off the Union looked to pick up where they left off. The space to attack was in the wide areas for Philly. Flach and Wagner controlled the left side, while Bedoya and Mbaizo ran the right. Columbus held firm not allowing quality chances for the Union; Philadelphia was able to put crosses in and win free-kicks but their chances early on were not enough to best Crew keeper Eloy Room. It was clear that the keepers were the stars of the game for both sides as Room and Blake made great saves to keep their teams from going behind. As the match entered the 62nd minute the Union looked to enhance their attacking chances with a substitution.
Sergio Santos was the one and only Union substitute used in the match. The striker’s pace and shifty runs were a welcome addition to an attack that struggle to get involved in open play. Columbus striker Gyasi Zardes also had trouble getting involved for Columbus. He had one golden opportunity as he was slid in on goal. Unfortunately for him, the ball slipped under his foot and the Union was able to clear their lines. The Union instantly countered and Monteiro found Przybylko in the box his attempt hit Room and fell out to Santos who was just beaten to the ball by an onrushing Columbus defender. The game then got chippy. Lots of fouls and yellow cards flowed for both sides. leading to dangerous free-kicks.
In the final 10 minutes, both teams saw huge opportunities to find the winning goal. Columbus sent in a free-kick that was poorly cleared away by Bedoya. Artur then found the ball inside the box for Columbus he tried to fire the ball to the far post, but Blake dove instinctively through the bodies of Union and Crew players to make the save and keep things level. Columbus kept attacking and pushing numbers forward, including a late substitute prolific MLS goal-scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips but were not able to find a goal. The Union countered every Columbus chance and found a few chances to score.
Just before second-half stoppage time, Bedoya found himself with the ball in space just outside the Columbus box. He blasted a left-footed shot that was met with a Room diving stop. In stoppage time the Union had their attacking three of Santos, Przybylko, and Monteiro pushing chances. Two times Santos had the opportunity to fire a shot inside the Columbus box, but one was blocked by a leaping defender, and the other by the foot of keeper Room. The game ended 0-0. This may seem like a drab way to start the season, but it actually a huge result for Philly.
1. Union get huge road point in a place they don’t usually have success
The Union is usually atrocious when they play away at Columbus away. The fact that they were in this match for the whole 90 minutes and looked the better side for parts of it is a huge building block for this side. This point coupled with the CCL successes is a huge building block for the Union as they heading to their MLS home opener next weekend against Inter Miami.
2. Philly is fit and defensively sound
Over the last few seasons, the Union have not looked ready to start their seasons in opening games. In this match, they showed they were very fit and defensively sound. This will go a long way in the 2021 season. Philly plays 31 more games against teams in the eastern conference and if they can be this defensively sound and fit through them all, then they will be near the top of the east. Look at the MLS scoreboard this weekend and see how many other teams were able to keep clean sheets… newsflash it’s not many.
3. The star is the style of play yet again
Like in years past, the Union have shown that their style of play will make up for them not having a true start player leading their line. The high pressing style, underdog mentality, and belief that this team can compete against all 26 of the other MLS teams will push this team forward. A lot of this has to be credited to Union head coach Jim Curtin and the club’s valuation system that evaluates all of their players. The Philadelphia Union Value (PUV) is in full effect and each player on the field for Philly showed they have what it takes to compete in 2021.
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Mandatory Credit: Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire