Columbus Crew SC-Philadelphia Union a Potential Knockout Round Preview

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Columbus Crew SC-Philadelphia Union
COLUMBUS, OH - SEPTEMBER 01: Federico Higuain (10) of Columbus Crew SC in action during the MLS regular season game between the Columbus Crew SC and the New York City FC on September 01, 2018 at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, OH. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It’s very possible that Saturday’s duel between Columbus Crew SC and the Philadelphia Union is a preview of the MLS Cup Playoffs knockout round.

But who will host?

If the season ended today, it would be the Black and Gold. Columbus is currently fourth in the Eastern Conference standings which means MAPFRE Stadium would see at least one postseason game this season. But the Union are hot on their tail, just a point behind and cognizant of the fact that should they win Saturday, they’d overtake Crew SC for fourth in the East.

Columbus Crew SC-Philadelphia Union: This Might Not Be the Last Time These Two Sides Face Off in 2018

Circumstance may favor the home team on Saturday. They welcome a Union side coming off a disappointing 3-0 defeat to the Houston Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup Final midweek. Losing the game in the manner they did is troublesome enough. But the fact Philly became the first MLS team to come up short in the championship game of American soccer’s oldest club competition three times added salt to the wound.

But Crew SC can’t bargain on their opponent feeling sorry for themselves. Saturday’s contest is a definite must-win and the trends favor Columbus somewhat. The Black and Gold are currently in the midst of a five-game home winning streak. That said, Philadelphia have proven themselves road warriors during the home stretch of the 2018┬áregular season. They’ve won five of their last seven on the road including a 1-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in their last road game on September 19. It’s notable in that it ended Seattle’s franchise record nine-game winning streak.

Containing the Union’s Attacking Weapons

There are a few key players Columbus needs to be wary of and looking to shut down. One of them is forward Cory Burke. The 26-year-old Jamaican joined the club this season from the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And he’s put together a mighty impressive maiden campaign, scoring eight goals and adding an assist. Among the more eye-opening stats in MLS this year is the fact that Philly is 9-1-1 in games where Burke is in the starting XI.

Another player of note on this 2018 Union squad is attacking midfielder Borek Dockal. The 29-year-old, who has 27 caps for his native Czech Republic, joined the team on loan from Chinese Super League club Henan Jianye. He’s proved a reliable presence on the field from a chance creation standpoint. That becomes readily apparent considering that the current MLS assist leader isn’t a Sebastian Giovinco or Kaku or Miguel Almiron. That accolade goes to Dockal at the moment.

There’s no doubt that Crew SC is more than capable of neutralizing those two players in addition to the Union’s other attacking weapons. Only four teams in MLS have allowed fewer goals at this point in the season than their 36. Their cadre of center backs that includes Jonathan Mensah, Lalas Abubakar, Gaston Sauro, and Josh Williams have all done their part when inserted into the lineup. More yeoman’s work is needed this weekend for the Black and Gold to collect the full three points.

Crew SC Needs a Team Effort in the Goal-Scoring Department

In addition, Columbus needs to continue putting the bulge in the old onion bag at MAPFRE Stadium. They currently average 1.93 goals per game at home which ranks in the top half of MLS. Crew SC also has yet to be held scoreless at the friendly confines in 2018. The usual suspects have to remain lethal around the opposition’s goal. Gyasi Zardes is just a goal away from setting a new career high and if he can find paydirt on Saturday, it will go a long way to ensuring the full three points.

But others will need to step up. I wrote last week that Crew SC can’t overly rely on Zardes’ goal-scoring exploits if they want to contend for MLS Cup. Niko Hansen certainly made an impact against the Portland Timbers in a losing effort. The club’s other wingers, particularly Justin Meram and Pedro Santos, must also become a threat around goal. And Federico Higuain needs to continue providing that authoritative presence as a provider in the center of the park. If that happens against the Union, it will signal to the rest of the league that Columbus can hang with any team come the playoffs.

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