Match previews / Union

Match preview: Philadelphia Union vs Columbus Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union @ Columbus Crew

What: 2021 MLS Opening Weekend

Where: Historic Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio

When: Sunday, April 18th at 5:30 p.m. Eastern

Watch: FS1, FOX Deportes

Whistle: TBD

After a long, cold winter, MLS is finally here.

What better way to kick-off the start to the MLS regular season than with a high-profile, big-ticket match up: the reigning Supporters’ Shield winning Philadelphia Union travel to Columbus on Sunday night to take on the reigning MLS Cup Champion’s Columbus Crew.

Is this MLS’s version of a Super Cup? Community Shield? Whatever the name, it’s a great match-up and should offer some of the best soccer of MLS’s opening weekend.

Scouting Report: Columbus Crew

Like the Union, the Columbus Crew are coming off a successful CCL Round of 16 series. The Crew easily took care of business against Nicaraguan side Real Esteli FC via a dominate 4-0 road win in Leg 1, followed by a 1-0 home win last night in Leg 2. The schedule now shifts to MLS, where the Crew enter the season as many experts’ pick to take home both Supporters’ Shield and to repeat as MLS Cup champions.

Some have called the Crew’s roster the best ever constructed going into an MLS season  Viewed from top to bottom, it’s not hard to see why.  The attack is led by MLS and USMNT veteran Gyasi Zardes, who is a legitimate contender for this year’s golden boot award. Behind him is one of the best No. 10’s in MLS in Lucas Zelaryan who, along with winger Pedro Santos, make for a difficult challenge defensively for any MLS team.  The team is anchored defensively by MLS Best XI center-back Jonathan Mensah.

Simply put, this Crew team is solid and lacks any glaring weakness.


Out: Kevin Molino (hamstring)



Scouting Report: Union

The Union, to the surprise of many, rolled through their CCL Round of 16 series against Deportivo Saprissa with a 1-0 road win in Leg 1 and a dominant 4-0 home win in Leg 2. The Union caught Saprissa in one of the Costa Rican side’s worst slumps in club history, but taking down a traditional CCL powerhouse is no easy task. Despite the team’s much documented off-season departures, it’s clear Union still have the pieces in place to make them a difficult team to play.

One area of note is the central back duo of Jack Elliot and Jakob Glesnes. A huge question coming into this year is whether the Union will have a drop-off defensively after losing Best XI defender Mark Mackenzie. From a strictly defensive stand-point, the pairing of Elliot and Glesnes may actually be an improvement over last season. The two may not offer as much by means of building out of the back, but defensively they just played nearly mistake-free soccer against Saprissa.

They’ll need to do the same against the Crew for the Union to come away with a result.

Injury Report:

Status TBD: Cory Burke (groin), Jack De Vries (concussion protocol), Ilsinho (hamstring)

Suspension Report: None
Key Matchup: Union No 10. v. Nagbe

The Union center backs’ ability to handle the Crew attack is crucial in this match-up.  However, another player to keep an eye on is Jamiro Monteiro, who started in the No. 10 slot for the Union’s CCL ties against Saprissa and looked exceptional in both matches. He capped off the two-legged tie with a 2 G, 2 A performance.  Assuming Jim Curtin starts him as the No. 10 again, he’ll be running into a strong No. 6 in the Crew’s Darlington Nagbe, who will make it difficult to penetrate and create chances through the center of the field.

Editor’s note: Columbus manager Caleb Porter announced on Saturday that Nagbe will be unavailable for the match.

Player to Watch:  Oliver Mbaizo

Mbaizo had a mixed-bag performance in his first two starts at right-back in 2021.  He did seem to offer a bit more offensively from the position than the Union were used to with Ray Gaddis. With the Crew fielding such a strong central defense as mentioned above, the Union may have to rely on their fullbacks to push forward and contribute offensively. It will be interesting to see how Mbaizo fairs in this tough match-up.

Prediction:  Union 2 – 2 Crew

As solid as the Union defense looked mid-week (0 shots on goal in the 1st half for Saprissa) the Crew have too much fire power in the likes of Gyzasi Zardes, Lucas Zelarayan and Pedro Santos. It would be an enormous accomplishment if the Union are able to come away with another clean-sheet this weekend.  It’s unlikely and the Union are going to need to bag some goals to come away with a result.


  1. I agree with you that Mbaizo is the player to watch, but for me its more because I want to see how he fares defensively against a really solid club. Last year, one of my biggest problems with Mbaizo was he could get beat repeatedly by high quality wingers and fullbacks (still have flashbacks of Tony Gallacher repeatedly torching Mbaizo when TFC beat the Union 2-1).

    Of course, the Crew have a lot of injuries on the flanks going into this game, so they may not be at their best here either.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      This is my contention. People have lobbied thinking we will be glad Ray retired. I do not expect that…. at all. We’ll see whether he can manage the weekly grind.

      • Its definitely an open question, and may end up being what determines our season. Of course, its worth remembering Mbaizo started last season at age 22 and had very few first team appearances then. The optimistic view is he grows into the role.

    • Olivier Mbaizo crosses balls much better than Ray Gaddis did, at times.
      Ray Gaddis combined with Bedoya, Przybylko and the other midfielders more smoothly than Mbaizo has done so far, to advance the ball into the attacking third in the right channel.
      Gaddis was fast and experienced as a defender.
      Mbaizo is Gaddis’s superior as a raw physical athlete.

  2. An addition to the Columbus Crew injury report. Aiden Morris was hurt in last night’s CCL match and may be out for a while.

  3. A fair assessment and prediction. Hoping the Crew’s Thursday-Sunday shorter turnaround drains a little juice out of their attack.

  4. Harrison Azul at right back and Eloy Room at Keeper were the only Crew starters wo started Thursday in Columbus against the Nicaraguans.
    Will a 4-0 aggregate lead Porter rotated his team and still maintained a clean sheet.

  5. Tough opening match on the road where even a draw is a big ask. It’s also unfortunate that the USOC’s COVID-related qualification process means only 8 MLS teams with the best record in the first three weeks in the MLS regular season will qualify, so it’s a harder task for MLS teams that play top flight teams in their first three matches.

  6. Another addition to the Crew’s Injury report. Caleb Porter announced yesterday that Darlington Nagbe has been ruled Out for today’s match.

  7. With Nagbe and Morris out, while it will still be a hard match I think that tips it into the “Should win” category. If we want to be near the top of the East this year again we need to pounce when another team is missing 2 starters.

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