If someone told you at the start of the MLS season that the Union would have just two losses by this point in the year, you might not have believed them.
Of course, what you might have believed about the coronavirus pandemic in late February is a story on its own. But the Union have played 11 games in 2020, and they really have lost just two.
Now it’s time to add another caveat: A lot of the teams the Union have played this year are good but not great. On Wednesday night, the opponent will be a step up.
The Columbus Crew are in second place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind a Toronto FC team that can play only Canadian opponents for now because of U.S.-Canada border restrictions.
Columbus’ playing style is as attractive as you’ll find in the league, led by midfielders Darlington Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayán. Striker Gyasi Zardes, so often the bane of U.S. national team fans, has scored in five of his nine appearances this year. And the Crew’s defense is MLS’ stingiest, with just two goals conceded this year.
Add that up, and you get quite a challenge for the third-place Union: an opponent that’s good when it has the ball and good when it doesn’t.
“You want to test yourself against the best teams,” Union manager Jim Curtin said Tuesday, and that’s what will happen Wednesday night at MAPFRE Stadium (7:30 p.m., PHL17). “I don’t know whether this is a third of the season, I don’t know if we’re at the halfway point. I have no idea where we are, but this is a big game no matter how you shake it out.”
(For the record, there are supposed to be 15 games left in the regular season, but any autumn virus surges will have the final say in that.)
Curtin will have Mark McKenzie and Ray Gaddis refreshed and ready to step back into the starting lineup after getting Saturday night off. José Andrés Martínez should also have close to a full tank after playing just the first half in the 4-1 win over D.C. United, and he’ll likely be tasked with marking Zelarayán.
Alejandro Bedoya, Brenden Aaronson, and Jamiro Monteiro haven’t gotten a game off yet in this stretch, in part because there isn’t much backup for them. Anthony Fontana is next on the central midfield depth chart but hasn’t played much this year, and Curtin hinted that Fontana hasn’t earned the playing time.
But Curtin isn’t worried about his starters’ ability to go at it again.
“Those guys can run forever,” he said. “We’ll utilize them in the best way possible to try to get another result.”
There will be more squad rotation overall, though, Curtin said, “because there has to be with the amount of games we’re playing in such a short time – and the intensity of the games.”
The biggest question will be about left back Kai Wagner, who left Saturday’s game with an unspecified leg injury. He’s listed as questionable, and the Union could really use him to contend with Columbus winger Pedro Santos.
“It will be what he can tolerate,” Curtin said. “Hopefully he’s a part of the game. Obviously we’re a better team when he’s on the field, but it will be close. … Just being honest, I’m not 100% sure if he’s one way or the other right now.”