Union vs Crew: Philadelphia looks to snap a crucial streak on the road

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

It’s interesting how expectations change over time. Just a few short years ago, achieving 50 points in the standings was something to be proud of for the Philadelphia Union – it meant they were up there and competing with the best in the league.  With 4 games left in the season, Union not only have achieved that 50-point mark, they already have their ticket to the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs punched as well. 

But this comes amidst a frustrating stretch for both fans and the club alike – Fatigue is setting in, injuries are affecting the squad, and it’s been 4 straight draws, 3 of those at home for Union, and it simply just isn’t what fans have come to expect from this team.  It’s hard not to feel like Union missed an opportunity to take control of 2nd place in the Eastern Conference heading down the final stretch of games, even with key injuries in the starting XI. 

Now, each of Union’s final 4 opponents are really tough tests, with all 4 teams inside the playoff line and like Philadelphia, are eager to climb the table and heighten their chances of a long playoff run. Union’s final position in the 2023 Playoffs is controlled by their own results, and the first test Union look to pass in order to instill some hope into their fans before playoffs start, is Columbus Crew .

MLS Season So Far

Columbus is having a pretty decent first season under Wilfred Nancy. With 4 games left in their season, Columbus sit on a record of 14 wins, 7 draws and 9 losses for a total of 49th points, 5th best in MLS overall, and 4th best in the Eastern Conference.

As many are in MLS, Columbus is much better at home than on the road. With a record of 11 wins, 3 draws and just 1 loss at home, Columbus have amassed 36 of their total 49 points while hosting. They come into this one in a bit of an inconsistent stretch – 4 wins, 3 draws and 3 losses across their last 10 games.  But across their last ten games at home, Columbus has a much more impressive record of 8 wins, 2 draws and 0 losses for a total of 23 points. 

A lot of Columbus’ success can be attributed to the work Wilfred Nancy has implemented into this side.  The Crew sit second in the league in goals scored with 57, just 2 behind league leading Atlanta United. Columbus ranks near the top of the league in a lot of attacking statistics such as:

Possession (56.9 – 1st),
Expected Goals (49.3 – 1st),
Non-Penalty Expected Goals (44.5 – 2nd),
Assists (44 – 1st), Total Shots (417 – 4th),
Shots on Target per 90 minutes (13.90 – 4th),
Key Passes (326 – 4th),
Passes into the final 3rd (1159 – 2nd),
Passes into the penalty area (279 – 2nd),
Progressive Passes (1471 – 1st),
Shot Creating Actions (748 – 4th),
Goal Creating Actions (98 – 2nd),
progressive passes received (1460 – 1st).

“And now we have to regroup quickly, go on the road to a Columbus team that, you know, is at the very top of our league in terms of goals scored. They like to play wide open. They really attack and they’re very, very good with the ball. Obviously, Wilfred Nancy’s a great coach and they’re going in a good way right now.”

Head Coach Jim Curtin on Columbus Crew

What can the Union expect from Columbus?

Nancy likes to throw Columbus in what some would call a 3-4-2-1 – 3 Center Backs that are both comfortable making plays defensively and handling and playing the ball as well. Wing backs that fly up the pitch, keep the field wide, and pinging balls into the penalty area for goal-scoring opportunities – the addition of Julian Gressel has been a major upgrade in that position for Columbus.

In the midfield, Columbus goes with a double pivot, typically made up of Adain Morris and Darlington Nagbe, ball-winning midfielders who can move the ball into the attack with calmness. Columbus goes with 2 attacking #10’s and a forward above them, 2 of those spots occupied by the ever-threatening Cucho Hernandez and Diego Rossi. It’s a format.  

While Columbus’ offensive output can put you under immense pressure, especially while at home, the weight in which Columbus throws their players into the attack can at times leave them vulnerable at the back and susceptible to conceding a goal or two. 

Columbus have allowed a total of 42 goals this season, which is tied for 7th most allowed in MLS, but only 12 of those have been conceded while playing at home. Columbus also has allowed a total of 131 shots on target, 10 most allowed in MLS. Columbus sits in the bottom half of the league in defensive stats such as Tackles, Tackles Won, Blocks, Aerial Duels Won, Recoveries, and the least amount of successful clearances in the league.  


The departure of Lucas Zelarayan left a lot of Crew fans wondering how they’d fill the void midseason and knew it would take work both internally and in the transfer market to pick up the pieces. The return of Diego Rossi to MLS wasn’t something a lot of people expected, but has added a lively spark notching 2 goals and an assist in his first 5 starts for the Crew. 

But there’s one guy who’s seen the departure of Zelarayan as an opportunity to become the main guy in Columbus, and he’s absolutely relishing that opportunity right now. Cucho Hernandez is having quite the sophomore season for Columbus Crew. 13 goals, 11 assists and 24 total goal involvements so far for Cucho which leads Columbus in all categories. He’s also collected the most Expected Goals total on the team by over double the amount of the next player, and leads the team in Expected Assisted Goals as well.

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Hernandez also leads the team in progressive carries, shots on target, passes into penalty area, shot creating actions, take-ons that lead to shot attempts, and goal-creating actions. When compared against other forwards in the league, Cucho ranks in the top 90 percentile or better in statistics such as Non-Penalty Expected Goals, Shot Totals, Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, Shot Creating Actions, Progressive passes, progressive carries, successful take-ons, touches in the penalty area, and progressive passes received. Cucho is not only lethal in front of net, but he’s very good at getting on the ball, taking players on, and creating goal-scoring opportunities for other players.  

How can the Union combat this?

On the other side of the ball, Union are going to need a big performance from a number of players to slow down a high-powered Crew offense, but they’re also going to need someone to dig deep and find their goal-scoring form down the stretch. Across the previous 4 draws for Union, they have 3 different goal scorers – 1 from Jose Martinez, 2 from Quinn Sullivan, who’s emerging as an attacking threat late in the season, and 2 for Daniel Gazdag – both coming from the penalty spot. 

But it’s not a goal scorer that I’m looking at to be the X-Factor for Union in this one.  Instead, the attention for me turns to a player that has a bit of controversy surrounding him right now – Kai Wagner.  One of Union’s best players, both defensively and in creating chances in the attack. Though he’s only got 1 goal and is credited for 6 assists, which is a considerable amount lower than last season’s 15 assists, Kai Wagner is still an extremely important piece to this Union team, on both sides of the ball. 

And with all the back and forth surrounding Kai Wagner and his contracting ending after this season, Kai is currently showing Union with his performances what a mistake it would be to let the league’s best Left Back walk for free.  In his last 5 games, Kai Wagner collected 4 assists, 3 of which came in one game, and 23 shot-creating actions. Against LAFC in a 0-0 draw, Wagner had a total of 118 touches on the night, showing his ability to play more defensively and keep the other team from getting in dangerous positions themselves. 

CHESTER, PA – NOVEMBER 28: Philadelphia Union keeper Andre Blake (18) celebrates with defender Kai Wagner (27) and defender Jack Elliot (3) after winning the game between Nashville SC and Philadelphia Union on November 28, 2021 at Subaru Park in Chester, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

When compared against other Fullbacks in the league, Wagner is in the 95th percentile in stats such as Assists, Expected Assisted Goals, Non-Penalty Expected Goals + Expected Assisted Goals, Shot Creating Actions, and blocks, and is in the top 85% percentile of attempted passes among fullbacks.  I think Kai Wagner could be a very important key to unlocking Columbus’ defense, and keeping them from scoring a multitude of goals.  

Union vs Crew redictions

Jim Curtin hasn’t been quiet about the influx of fixtures this season and how the fatigue is starting to take a toll on the health and fitness of his players, but also the overall product and entertainment value of MLS.  The game is a better product for everyone when the best players are fit, rested, and available to play in big games. 

Unfortunately for Union, the injury plague has infiltrated Union in recent weeks, which could serve as an excuse as to why Union have 4 straight draws, if excuses are your thing. While Curtin says Julian Carranza has cleared concussion protocol and has returned to training, they need to be cautious with how they implement him back into the squad as much as they’d love to have him back in the full swing of things as soon as possible. 

Nonetheless, it seems like a strong possibility that Carranza will be involved against Columbus to some extent, but I’m leaning towards Carranza being available off the bench as opposed to getting the nod in the starting XI.  It’s positive news for Carranza, and while Jakob Glesnes and Jose Martinez have officially been upgraded from “Questionable” to “Day-To-Day”, I think it’s more likely than not that we see the team lean towards the more cautious side with both of these players, knowing playoffs are just a few short weeks aways. 

It sounds like there is a possibility that either Glesnes and Martinez could come off the bench to get some minutes, but I’m certainly not expecting an overly extended role for those two this weekend.  With that being said, I think Union will go back to the 4-4-2 Diamond.  Andre Blake in net, with Kai Wagner, Damion Lowe, Jack Elliott, and Nate Harriel in the backline. Jesus Bueno should get another start in the defensive midfield position with Jose Martinez still injured. 

Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake was honored for breaking the club record for most MLS starts in team history. Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

There aren’t a ton of options in the midfield right now, so I think Jim likely sticks with McGlynn and Bedoya on either side of the diamond, with Daniel Gaxdag in the 10.  The two forwards are hard to predict right now.  Uhre is struggling in form and played a lot of minutes mid week, with another goal coming up on Wednesday. 

Quinn Sullivan also played a lot of minutes midweek, but has 2 goals in his previous 2 games and has logged a lot less minutes over the course of the season.  Tai Baribo and Chris Donovan came off the bench midweek, which means they’re both relatively rested for Saturday night, and of course Julian Carranza enters back into the mix after returning from concussion protocol. 

But which duo give Union the best chance at infiltrating Columbu’s defense?  It’s hard to tell what Curtin is thinking and planning here, but I’m leaning towards Baribo and Donovan getting the start in this one.  One thing I am sure about, is that I think Quinn Sullivan has earned the right to be involved in some capacity on Saturday night.  In addition to his two goals scored in the previous 2 games, Sullivan has looked lively for Union, looking to take players on and create chances for himself, something that’s been needed in this team this season.  

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

As far as the prediction on the field, I worry about Union in this one a bit, but we’ve been surprised before.  There’s just been so many games for Union recently, with such little amount of time to actually identify, work on and fix the issues you’re having before the next match is upon you.  And when you’re trying to make those tweaks on short rest, amongst dealing with a plethora of injuries to key players, it’s really difficult at times to break that negative streak and get the momentum swinging the other way.  But if they can manage to do that in Columbus, what a spark it be for the rest of Union’s season. 

I know after 4 in a row, a draw is probably the last thing fans want to see Saturday night, but I don’t think heading back to Philadelphia with a point in their pocket while keeping themselves above a team that’s below them in the playoff picture is something to be upset about. 

My prediction for Saturday night is a 1-1 draw between Union and Columbus Crew. Keep it tight, keep it organized, and find a way to keep the standings as in, while more key players get closer to returning from injury by the day.  Be sure to tune into all the action on Saturday night at 7:30pm EST on MLS Season Pass via Apple TV, and stay up to date with all things Union at Philly Sports Network