When the Union’s schedule is released each year, many fans look first for clashes with East Coast rivals, or visits from the glamorous teams in Los Angeles and the Pacific Northwest.
Union manager Jim Curtin, it seems, looks for Columbus.
This is in part because of the quality of program Crew manager Caleb Porter has built at one of Major League Soccer’s original teams. But it’s also because just two of the eight Union-Crew games since the start of 2018 were played in Chester, thanks to scheduling oddities and the pandemic.
Columbus hasn’t come here since March 24, 2019, and it might not be a coincidence that the Union haven’t won in the series since.
Curtin has brought this up numerous times over the last year-plus, to the point where one could wonder if it has been overdone. But the truth is that when the Crew finally return to Chester on Wednesday night (7:30, PHL17), the matchup won’t need any extra hype.
» READ MORE: Union’s Jim Curtin earns two-year contract extension
The reigning MLS champions will be in town for the first game with Subaru Park open to full capacity since pandemic restrictions ended — which means the first time since the 2019 playoffs, since there were no home games last year before the pandemic started.
The Union are in third place in the Eastern Conference (4-2-3, 15 points) and the Crew are in fourth (4-2-2, 14 points). And Wednesday is Curtin’s 42nd birthday.
That’s enough to turn the spotlight up high.
“It’s one game of 34, let’s be honest, that’s what it is. But at the same time, whenever you can test yourself against the champs, you want to see where you stand up,” Curtin said. “I’m not saying it’s a playoff game or a must-win game this early in the season, that would be foolish, but it’s a tough game.”
The Union will be shorthanded for the game, and not just because of José Andrés Martínez and Dániel Gazdag’s absences. Curtin revealed that Anthony Fontana suffered a concussion late in Sunday’s comeback tie at Atlanta United, so he’s out for a while. The good news is that Sergio Santos is healthy after having to leave Sunday’s game at halftime following a series of hard hits.
“You know I’m not going to tell Caleb Porter who’s playing tomorrow and where,” Curtin said. But he doesn’t have to say anything to signal that it’s a big opportunity for youngsters Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson to step up.
It could also open the door for Matt Real to see more playing time than he’s gotten lately. The backup left back from Drexel Hill has made most of his appearances this year as a late-game closer on the left side of the midfield diamond, a role Curtin likes.
“Matt’s ideal position might be [with] a back three where he’s a wingback [in a five-man midfield], because his attacking ability is really, really good,” Curtin said. “He’s versatile, he’s a good soccer player, and we’ll have a tough decision to make. But I’m almost positive you’ll see Matthew play a role one way or the other [Wednesday], because he’s been playing really well in training.”