The Philadelphia Union’s season is just days (or, by the time you’re reading this, hours) away. The time for complaining about preseason streams has come to a close; now is the time to complain about lineup graphics that move ever so slightly.
It is also time to start checking out the Union’s opponents. This week, Philadelphia hosts Columbus Crew SC at 7:30 p.m. on February 25. To find out more about the Crew, we reached out to Thomas Costello and our pals over at Massive Report.
Philadelphia Soccer Now: Last season was slightly disappointing for the Crew. The club moved on from two-time MLS Cup-winning manager Caleb Porter after it failed to reach the playoffs, despite holding some real star talent. What’s the mission of the club going forward, more specifically in 2023?
Thomas Costello: Anytime a new coach comes in there will be growing pains, but Columbus will always be a team that stands by the idea that they want to compete every year. This season looks like one of transition, but still near the playoff hunt. Cucho Hernandez and Lucas Zelarayan are back, which means that other teams should be nervous on the defensive end of the field. However, questions surround the Crew’s defense.
Joe Lister: If it won’t be Mikael Uhre, Cucho Hernandez will likely be this year’s prime example of the David Gass theorum. What’s to come from the forward this year?
TC: If Cucho Hernandez didn’t join in the summer of 2022, and had a full season, there’s no doubt that Columbus would’ve made the playoffs. There are many more goals in the boots of the Colombian forward and supporters will see them this season. I expect him to be better this year, now with a full preseason and half of last season with many of the same facilitators on the team. Zelarayan and Cucho showed flashes last season and now have 34 regular season games to do the same this year. If he’s not in the hunt for the MLS Golden Boot this season, it’ll be a disappointing year for him.
JL: What additions to the roster and coaching staff did the Crew make this offseason? Who will be crucial to watch in 2023?
TC: The biggest one between coaches and players is of course new head coach Wilfried Nancy. The former CF Montréal replaces Porter at the helm after four seasons and an MLS Cup win. Nancy was a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year, losing graciously to someone you know well. It’s hard to know everything that’s going on in training but his impact already feels felt. In interviews this preseason, the players seem happier than in years past. There’s an openness to what everyone is sharing and from the outside looking in the side seems to be in a positive place with this coaching change. Player-wise, the big changes came in adding Christian Ramirez and Jimmy Madranda. The two MLS veterans, with Ramirez returning from a stint with Aberdeen FC in Scotland, will bring experience to the attack in roles that Columbus has struggled to fill over the years.
JL: Will the Crew have any notable absences? What are your lineup and score predictions?
TC: Notable absences seem to be everywhere for the Crew. Three fan favorites and MLS Cup champions in Pedro Santos, Artur and Jonathan Mensah are all out of black and gold, going to D.C. United, Houston Dynamo and San Jose Earthquakes respectively. The toughest of those is Mensah. Not only was he Columbus’ captain and a foundation of his community off the pitch, but he was also a consistent starting center-back. With his absence, Columbus will likely go into Nancy’s three-center-back system with only three true center-back choices at the position in Miloš Degenek, Josh Williams and Phillip Quinton. Fullback Steven Moreira’s played the position all preseason, so him starting in the back three shouldn’t come as a shock this weekend. Elsewhere on the field, I think Medranda and Ramirez get the start in their Crew debuts, and I envision a midfield of Darlington Nagbe and Aidan Morris. With that said though, I think it’s a loss to start the season for Columbus. Going into Philadelphia for the first match of the season, with a brand new coach, holes in the defense and incorporating new players is a tall task out of the gate. Union wins 2-1. A consolation goal from Hernandez, but with Union’s MLS Cup loss, there has to be some strong motivation coming out of Chester this season.