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Union can set a mark down against Columbus in season-opener



Photo by Morgan Tencza

The Philadelphia Union open a highly-anticipated campaign in 2023 at home on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Subaru Park against the Columbus Crew. 

The match will be broadcast through Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass, with Steve Cangliosi and Danny Higginbotham on the English-languge feed. 

The Union are one of the easiest teams to predict and talk about in the league this season. The entire starting XI from the run to the MLS Cup final is back, and the Union have depth at every position, solidified through another canny transfer window from Ernst Tanner. The expectation is to be near the top of the table with the best roster in the Eastern Conference. 

The Crew are trickier. They won MLS Cup in 2020 and have since missed the playoffs two times in a row, which led to the departure of head coach Caleb Porter. Some of the core players from that run are still contributors for the team: Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, Aidan Morris and goalkeeper Eloy Room. And despite just missing the playoffs last year, the Crew pulled off one of the splashier signings in MLS history by bringing in striker Cucho Hernández from Watford mid-season. The Colombian international delivered on his Premier League pedigree with nine goals in two assists in 16 matches with 14 starts. 

The Crew’s biggest acquisition in the offseason was at head coach, where they landed Wilfred Nancy, an MLS Coach of the Year finalist in 2022 who led Montreal to the second seed in the Eastern conference. Nancy implemented an attractive possession-based system with three center backs, free-flowing attacks and creative sequences.

The Crew lost some significant contributors in Artur, Derrick Etienne Jr. and Jonathan Mensah. The last departure, which came on February 10, leaves the center back room thin and uninspiring. The Crew did add left wingback Jimmy Medranda, a solid two-way player, and forward Christian Ramirez, who has 35 goals in 105 MLS games. 

All of that adds up to a team that projects to be… right on the fringes of the playoffs again. BetMGM lists the Crew tied for the seventh-best odds to win the Eastern Conference with Atlanta and Cincinnati. The Union are first, by the way, with +300 odds. 

The Union are -145 to win in their home opener while the Crew are +360, with a draw at +190. The model at 538 has it at Philadelphia to win at 66% and the Crew at just 13%, with a 21% chance of a draw. (If you were setting a moneyline with 538’s model, it would be -190.)

The Union are massively favored at home with the third best chances of winning on the weekend behind Cinicinnati hosting Houston and Austin hosting St. Louis in its MLS debut. It makes sense. The Union are a whirring machine, and the Crew are thin and adapting to a new manager on the road in a season opener. 

All of that being said, it’s hard to count on a cakewalk. Columbus has plenty of firepower with Zelarayan and Hernandez, and there’s always uncertainty before a new season actually kicks off. 

It will be thrilling for the Union to be back in front of their fans. And for those watching at home, it will be fun to see how the first Union broadcast feels on Apple TV. For neutrals, the Union are going to be one of the must-watch teams in MLS all year and the clash of styles in the opener should make for fun viewing. 

Keys for the Union

The Union will be more flexible this year, probably. But their bread and butter is the 4-4-2 diamond and we know the personnel. Can the press get up to speed and disrupt Columbus’s attempts to build out of the back with three relatively lackluster center backs?

Nancy will probably start Milos Degenek and Josh Williams at center back with a few other options for the third spot. It could be Philip Quinton or Keegan Hughes, center backs with little to no experience, or Steven Moreira, a traditional right back.

Degenek is an okay short-pass distributor and an experienced, sound defender who helped Australia at the World Cup in Qatar. Williams has high completion percentage stats, but very low marks for progressive passes. Degenek ranked in the 45th percentile among MLS center backs in 2022 in progressive passes, while Williams was in the 17th percentile. 

For reference, Nancy’s four top choices at center back last year – Alistair Johnston, Rudy Camacho, Joel Waterman and Kamal Miller – respectively ranked in these percentiles for progressive passes: 62nd, 81st, 90th and 99th. 

Quinton was taken at No. 25 overall in the MLS Superdraft in 2022 and helped the Crew win the MLS Next Pro Cup in 2022 after a college career at Notre Dame. He is 6-foot-6. He would be making his MLS debut. Hughes just finished his four-year career at Stanford in 2022 and is a Homegrown product of the Crew’s academy. 

There’s no way around it – Nancy asks a lot of his center backs on the ball, and including an MLS rookie in the system against perhaps the scariest team off the ball in the league would be a tricky proposition. 

Nancy might be inclined to start Moreira instead, and while he has strong distribution stats, there is a definite tradeoff to playing a natural right back as a center back. It would have the ripple effect of forcing a start at right wingback from Mohamed Farsi, who made just five appearances last year with the Crew first team.

Additionally, the Crew will be without goalkeeper Room, as Nancy revealed on Tuesday. It’s yet another spot the Crew will be without starting-caliber talent. From Massive Report:

“Nancy is expected to turn to veteran goalkeeper Evan Bush. Bush is in his third season with Columbus and 12th overall in MLS, having made six appearances for the club and 294 across three teams. Bush did not appear in an MLS game last season but did start in a game at Philadelphia in 2021, a 3-0 loss for the Crew.”

If the Union can force mistakes, win the ball in dangerous areas and let Uhre, Carranza and Gazdag flood the box, there should be chances galore. The Crew’s only benefit is that their center backs are strong physically and should be excellent in the air.

The Union have superior depth, whereas Columbus has virtually none at center back and central midfield. If the Union need to chase a result, this will be a great game to see what Joaquin Torres can do. 

The Crew’s recipe for success in this game is to hope the Union are not at full bore. If they can weather 15 hard minutes of pressing per half and get some finishing variance, they can find some chances in transition or on set pieces where they have the talent to capitalize. Zelarayan and Hernandez have to be ruthless with their space and any touches in the box, while Nagbe needs to single-handedly break the Union’s press repeatedly to ensure Columbus can even build up to start with. 

Key matchups

The key matchup is the work rate of Uhre and Carranza against Columbus’ back three. If the Union win that battle decisively, Columbus is either going to bleed chances, or abandon Nancy’s system and hit long balls into the Union’s spine. 

Daniel Gazdag will have a fun defensive assignment trying to disrupt Nagbe’s rhythm, and he can have some help with the efforts of Leon Flach, who will also be working against Aidan Morris. The Union can outnumber the Crew’s two central midfielders whenever they want by having Bedoya slide inside or Gazdag drop deeper.

I don’t think Jimmy Medranda is a game-breaking talent, but he should have an intriguing battle with Olivier Mbaizo on the Union’s right side. Both players like to get involved in the attack, and the ensuing space will be available for the other player to storm into. Mbaizo and Bedoya will need to protect crosses from deeper lying positions. 

Lastly, the Union must be mindful at all times of Hernandez and Zelarayan. The first task falls to the ever-reliable Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, while the second will be for José Martínez, who routinely has to grapple with the star-studded cast of No. 10s in MLS. The best way to stop Zelarayan is to limit his touches running at a backline.

We’re at the end of the preview, but it’s worth reiterating that Andre Blake’s match-winning quality could be on display against Columbus’ array of talented ball-strikers.


I’m not sure the Union will be in full gear and there might be some early season rust to go around on both sides. That being said, enough huffing and puffing from the Union should get the job done, as they can make life miserable for Columbus’ backline and suffocate entryways to the offensive outlets. 

I’ll say 2-0 Union, without it being the prettiest game, or even the most eventful. There is a chance the Union could see this as an opportunity to make an early statement to the rest of the league and really romp at home, but I do think Nancy will have his team organized and up to scrap, regardless of talent.

Amit grew up in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and has been a Union fan since the franchise started. He has contributed to coverage of the Union and the United States Men's National Team for this website dating back to 2017. At his previous job, Amit was a collegiate sports information director, including time with men's and women's soccer programs. He also was one half of the World Cup After Dark podcast in 2018 and 2022. He is pursuing a master's degree in data science and lives in Chicago.

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