All you have to do is look at the Eastern Conference standings to realize how important the next two games are to the Philadelphia Union.
The ninth-place Union embark on a home-and-home series with the seventh-place Columbus Crew starting on Saturday night at MAPFRE Stadium.
The Union had plenty of success against the Crew in 2016, with a pair of 2-1 wins coming in Columbus as part of their clean sweep of Gregg Berhalter’s men, but those results mean little to the Union as they prepare for Saturday.
“The table tells you exactly how important the games are against them,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “The success we had against them last year was just that.”
In order to replicate the 2016 form against the Crew and bounce back from the deflating Wednesday loss to Montreal, the Union will have to rely on their depth and younger players, especially in the attacking part of the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Chris Pontius is away on international duty with the U.S. Men’s National Team, Fabian Herbers just underwent sports hernia surgery and Roland Alberg will be suspended for Saturday after a harsh tackle in Wednesday’s defeat.
That sets the stage for Adam Najem and Marcus Epps to earn more minutes than they have most of the season. Najem’s played 30 minutes in two substitute appearances in league play, while Epps has earned 95 minutes of action in his rookie season.
“They came in against Montreal and left a good impression on the game,” Curtin said. “Adam with his passing and connecting, which is something you need to do against Columbus, go side to side to make them work. Marcus with his 1v1 ability and his ability to run and he’s really improved with his defensive pressure. They will definitely play a major role in the game against Columbus.”
Najem and Epps will be looking to provide more scoring opportunities in the final third, something the Union didn’t particularly struggle with on Wednesday, but when they had the chances, they made the wrong decisions, with Fafa Picault’s poor decision in the third minute being the moment that stood out the most. Picault chose to shoot instead of picking out Ilsinho for a tap-in. The missed chance led to some heated words at halftime.
“The guys were disappointed that (Fafa) didn’t square the ball and we talked about it at halftime,” Curtin said. “It was as heated a conversation as we’ve had. I actually liked it. Guys were yelling at each other all with the same constructive approach that we want to win. Fafa knows that in that situation if you’re going to shoot, you better score that one because the 95 percent option is to just square it across for a tap in.”
Another source of frustration for the Union came after the MLS Disciplinary Committee failed to suspend Sporting Kansas City’s Ilie Sanchez for his choke of Oguchi Onyewu in the 1-1 draw on July 6.
“We were told in our preseason meeting that hands to the face was a zero tolerance policy. Something I’m in full agreement with and then to see it happen in a game by a great player, one have a ton of respect for, but at the same time to put his hands on Gooch’s throat is something I believe that this league is trying to do away with and move on from,” Curtin said. “I’m disappointed that the Disciplinary Committee looked at that. I have screenshots of hands on our players throats and for there not to be discipline there is strange.”
As upsetting as the decision by the DisCo was for the Union, they can’t dwell on that much because they have to face their own issues on Saturday night. Twice this year the Union have lost three games in a row. They know if a losing streak begins on Saturday, it could mean trouble for their playoff hopes.
“We can’t have long losing streaks at this stage of the year where if you go on a long losing streak, that could be the end of it,’ Curtin said. “The series here versus Columbus is one we have to get results.”