Coming off the heels of a disappointing loss in Montreal, the Philadelphia Union heads to Ohio for the first of two face-offs with the Columbus Crew in the next week.
Though the playoffs are still in the distance of the MLS calendar, the two-game home-and-home series against Columbus will be a pivotal stretch for the Union's shot at the playoffs. Columbus has hovered just under the red line, ranked seventh in the Eastern Conference. A set of victories — one on the road on Saturday, and one at home next Wednesday — could tip the scales for a shorthanded Union team struggling to clinch wins.
With 23 points, the Union have jostled between eighth and ninth in the Eastern Conference for weeks. But the team has yet to break into playoff territory, adding points with ties and struggling to clinch victories outside of Talen Energy Stadium.
For a team inside the top 6, a draw or two wouldn't impact conference standings. But the Eastern Conference has been dominated by top teams who clean up at home and rarely lose — Toronto and Chicago sit at the top, with 39 and 38 points respectively and only three losses apiece.
In order to advance in the standings, the Union must create separation from the other bottom four teams. To successfully make the slow climb up the rankings, the Union must add points in sets of three. The next few weeks will be critical for making that change, but the team will have to do it shorthanded, as injuries and national team duties will once again sideline the team's top talents.
"The series here against Columbus is one where he have to get results," Union coach Jim Curtin said. "It's a hard time for us in terms of personnel. You look across the league and it does happen to other teams as well. A lot of difficult things we have to overcome, and we have to do it with some urgency."
After spending several weeks with the U.S. national team and returning home for the birth of his daughter, Alejandro Bedoya will make a much-needed return for the Union on Saturday. He will bolster a midfield lacking Derrick Jones, who remains on the sidelines after suffering a concussion against Swansea FC.
The Union will also be missing midfielder Chris Pontius and Andre Blake, who remain with their national teams for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Fabian Herbers will also sit out with a hernia injury.
Additionally, Roland Alberg will not suit up after receiving a suspension from the MLS Disciplinary Committee on Friday. Alberg's absence will leave an opening to give a first start to Marcus Epps or Adam Najem, two players who have made an impact off the bench throughout the season.
For some teams, digging this deep into the bench would be worrisome at this point of the season. But Curtin believes that the depth of the Union is one of its strength, saying that there isn't as large of a gap between a Union starter and bench player as on other teams.
"It's a big opportunity for them," Curtin said. "The one thing we do have is not a huge drop off from our starters to our second-teamers. We do have that depth."
Where: MAPFRE Stadium
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: The Comcast Record
MLS records: Union (6-8-5); Columbus (9-10-1)
Union on the road: 1-5-3
Columbus at home: 6-3-1
Goals: Union, 26; Columbus, 30.
Goals against: Union, 23; Columbus, 32.
Last game: The Union fell on the road to Montreal on Wednesday in a 2-1 loss, with the solo goal coming from Fafa Picault. Columbus handed a loss to Minnesota United on the road on July 4th.
Last meeting: The Union defeated Columbus on their home turf in a 2-1 victory, with goals coming from Fabian Herbers and Keegan Rosenberry. Andre Blake notched three saves.