I am going to go out on a limb and say that if you looked at the MLS schedule at the beginning of the season you likely did not think first place would be on the line during a late August match between Columbus and Philadelphia. Well, here we sit in late August and the Union travel to Crew Stadium with first place in the Eastern Conference at stake (8PM/The Comcast Network - the game was originally scheduled to begin at 7:30, but due to travel issues the Union did not arrive in Columbus until 2PM this afternoon).
Coming off of their inagural season there was little to suggest the Union would challenge for the conference crown. Similarly, after gutting their roster most experts believed this would be a rebuilding season for the Crew. How did these two teams find themselves in this position? In a word - defense.
The Union and Crew are one-two in the East in goals against - with the Union having conceded just 22 goals in 23 games, and the Crew 23 goals in 24 games. Both teams rely heavily on the combination of a strong goalkeeper and versatile center back.
The Crew back line is led by two-time MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who was selected second overall, one spot behind current Union player Freddy Adu, in the 2004 MLS Superdraft. At 6'4" Marshall is an absolute monster in the back. Good luck winning a ball in the air against him. Goalkeeper Will Hesmer, who recently returned from injury, leads MLS with a 0.72 save percentage.
A year after giving up 49 goals the Union shored up its defense by acquiring goalkeeper Faryd Mondragon and center back Carlos Valdes. All Mondragon has done is assume the captain's armband, provide a much-needed veteran presence between the sticks, and help to organize one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
Valdes has provided an athletic presence alongside Danny Califf in the center of the Union back line. He's been so solid the Union front office moved quickly to secure his rights on a permanent basis from former club Independiente Santa Fe.
Both teams have also struggled offensively. The Union are 12th in the 18-team league in goals scored with 29, while Columbus has scored just 27, which is good enough for 14th in the league.
Designated Player Andres Mendoza leads the Crew with seven goals. Here's hoping Union keeper Mondragon is not left screaming "Mendoooozzzza" a la McBain.
Emilio Renteria, who is listed as probable with a quad strain, is the Crew's second leading goal scorer. Eddie Gaven, who made his MLS debut at age 16, has contributed four goals this season, but is listed as doubtful with a leg contusion.
The Union, whose struggle to score goals has been a season-long storyline, did score two last week against F.C. Dallas - although both came from the penalty spot. As a Union fan you have to hope that Sebastien Le Toux, who converted both PK's, gained some confidence from simply seeing a ball he kicked hit the back of the net.
Freddy Adu, who played just over 60 minutes last week, should feel slightly more comfortable with his new team having had the opportunity to actually practice with his teammates for a full week. Last week Danny Mwanga came in off the substitutes bench and replaced Adu.
Perhaps this week we'll see both Adu and Mwanga get starting nods. It'd certainly be nice to see Adu, Le Toux, and Mwanga develop some sort of chemistry.
Finally, Brian Carroll, who is listed as questionable with a foot contusion, returns to Columbus where he helped the Crew win the 2008 MLS Cup. Carroll, who tirelessly disrupts plays from his defensive midfield position, has certainly fit in well with the Union. You could argue that acquiring Carroll has been just as important to the Union defensive turnaround as were the signings of Mondragon and Valdes.
This is obviously a huge road test for the Union. These are the sort of matches - on the road against a conference opponent with first place on the line - Union players and fans have wanted to see. Hopefully the travel issues the Union encountered en route to Columbus do not interfere too much with their pre-game routine.
Here's the lineup I hope we see tonight: Mondragon, Sheanon Williams, Califf, Valdes, Gabriel Farfan, Justin Mapp, Brian Carroll (if he can't go you'll likely see Stefani Miglioranzi), Le Toux, McInerney, Mwanga, Adu.
Final Score Prediction: I see it 1-1 as the Union tie for the ninth time in their last 13.
The Toni Stahl Memorial Union Player Most Likely to See Red: I'll go Califf for persistent fouling against Mendoza.
Photo Credit: Greg Bartram, US PRESSWIRE