MATCHDAY: If Union want to contend, these are the ones they have to win

MATCHDAY: If Union want to contend, these are the ones they have to win
March 22, 2014, 10:40 am
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Union players celebrate scoring during the second half against the Portland Timbers in Portland, Ore., in the season-opening draw.

It's easy to get hyped for a season-opener in front of a raucous crowd, like the Union did in a 1-1 draw in Portland.

It's VERY easy to get amped up for a home-opener against a playoff team on a beautiful day in front of 18,000-plus, like the Union did in a 1-0 win last weekend.

Now is we see what the Union are really made of.

That's not to say the Union's opponent tonight -- the Columbus Crew (6 p.m. - Comcast Network) -- are not a solid team. Columbus won its only match so far, 3-0, against D.C United. And that's not to say the crowd won't be amped up at Crew Stadium for the team's home opener.

But the vast majority of the Union's 32 remaining league matches will be like this one - a solid (but not worldbeating) opponent without too many huge names in a stadium with some empty seats. You won't always play an archrival or line up against Landon Donovan or Thierry Henry. And while those are the games people remember for the season-ending DVD, these are the games that make or break a playoff berth.

The Union looked dominant for most of the 90 minutes last week against New England. Tons of possession, a lot of patience (sometimes a little too much, actually) and strong defending. They even got moments of brilliance from goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who, despite not being asked to do much. bailed out his defense on the Revs' best opportunity.

On offense, the Union's goal was well-worked, but they really need to turn all of the possession they've had in the first two games into real chances. They actually threatened goal more in the opener than they did last week.

As for injuries (courtesy our friend Matthew De George at the Delco Times), first, the good news: manager John Hackworth said forward Conor Casey is back to full fitness, which likely means he'll be available off the bench today. Midfielder Brian Carroll, who was pulled from last week's lineup with an illness, appears to be fine for a return.

As for the bad news: Sheanon Williams is still working his way back from a preseason injury, and fellow defender Austin Berry is questionable after leaving last week's game with a hamstring strain. 

Assuming Hackworth plays it safe with Berry, you'll likely see Aaron Wheeler at center back alongside Amobi Okugo. Wheeler did all you could ask of a guy still learning to play defense -- namely, don't totally screw up -- after coming on last weekend. With Carroll back, Maurice Edu will slide upfield a little bit, and Leo Fernandes, who assisted on last week's goal and  played well in an emergency start, will be back on the bench.

Edu had another great game last week -- earning a second-straight selection to the MLS Team of the Week -- but I thought he had more influence on the game in Portland playing in front of Carroll. So we'll see if that continues in Columbus.

It's hard to know much about the Crew after one game against a bad D.C. United team. American international Michael Parkhurst is the new anchor in the Columbus defense, while Federico Higuain (2 goals vs. D.C.) is the name you need to no on attack. The opener proved Columbus may be better than people thought, but the Crew are still not a likely playoff team.

For the Union, a draw would be fine, as it almost always is away from home. But a win would really make a statement, especially heading into winnable matches at home against Montreal and on the road in Chicago before a big home date with Real Salt Lake.

Prediction: Union 2, Crew 1

Goals: Vincent Nogueira and Jack McInerney 

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