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Big test for Union in Columbus

YES, THIS is a big game. There are still 11 games to play and 2 months to go in MLS' regular season, but take Danny Califf's word that the Union's match with the Columbus Crew tomorrow night is a big game.

YES, THIS is a big game.

There are still 11 games to play and 2 months to go in MLS' regular season, but take Danny Califf's word that the Union's match with the Columbus Crew tomorrow night is a big game.

"It's the most important game of the season so far," Califf said. "It's not too early enough in the season to be saying it. We're approaching it in that manner."

The game in Columbus matters because first place in the Eastern Conference is on the line. The Union, which has never been below second place in the standings all season, is 8-5-10 for 34 points, while the Crew has 37 points from a 10-7-7 record.

On the Union side, that means they've already surpassed last season's 31-point total and matched the eight wins of 2010.

"We've been doing the right things," said Califf, who was with the team in its inaugural season and has been on the field for every minute of the 22 league games he has played in this season. "We've gone through ups and downs. That's always going to be there. It's been a different mentality, a different mind-set. But it's been great to feel the confidence about what we're doing."

What you should not expect is a lot of goals. The Union's 22 goals allowed and the Crew's 23 rank first and second in the East, and third and fourth overall in the 18-team league. The Union's most noticeable physical difference from last season's 49 goals allowed has been Faryd Mondragon in goal. But what has happened in front of him has been significant. Mondragon has faced only 65 shots in the 23 games; last year's goalkeepers faced 147 shots in 30 games.

"We give Faryd a really good chance to make saves," said Califf, a defender. "That has to do not only with our organization in the back but the guys in front of us are doing a really good job. From top to bottom we've been more committed to defense this year."

Now the offense looks to pick up with last week's signing of Freddy Adu. It's not going overboard to say that Adu's signing is to American soccer what recent Phillies and Eagles signings have been to baseball and football. And if Union manager Peter Nowak ever wanted to send out Adu, Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney and Danny Mwanga at the same time, he might want to give them a relay baton to pass instead of a soccer ball.

"We went out and made a big move. That shows that we're committed as an organization to try to get better," Califf said. "Hopefully [Adu] will be huge for us down the stretch and into the playoffs."

Columbus is 6-3-1 in its last 10 MLS games (to the Union's 2-2-6), but was knocked out of the U.S. Open Cup competition by the minor league Richmond Kickers.

"[Columbus] defends really well and has a lot of pace up front," Califf said in a quick scouting report. "They're good on set pieces and do a good job of creating with their front five. It will be a good test for us."

Califf said Nowak has not been downplaying the significance of this game.

"[Nowak] said a couple different times this week about how we need to set the tone for the rest of the games this season," Califf said. "You go to Columbus, who's in first place, it's really important for us to establish how we're going to play over the final games of the season."

So, for the first time in its year-and-a-half existence, the Union has a big game on the line. First place . . . a playoff berth . . . respectability. All there for the taking.

AGENDA

 Who: Union at Columbus Crew

When: Tomorrow, 7:30

Where: Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

TV: TCN

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