Just ask head coach Caleb Porter, who reflected on his team’s difficulty with breaking down FC Cincy’s deep-lying, defense-first approach as Jaap Stam’s group develops a clear identity. But the Union, who like Columbus occupy a top-three Eastern Conference spot, provide a more ambitious, forward-thinking challenge.
“This is going to be a really fun game,” Porter said via virtual conference call. “It'll be, I think, more of a balanced game. Last game was about us trying to score and them trying to not let us score. This is going to be a game where they're going to want to attack, scored four goals last game, they're unbeaten in three and they try to disrupt you with their pressing.
“We'll definitely have more time and space to play, but with that they're more dangerous as well in the attack and we need to make sure we're smart in how we manage the game with and without the ball.”
The Crew have been held scoreless in back-to-back games for the first time since June 29-July 3 of last season. To prevent that streak from stretching even further, the Crew will likely need to solve goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has three shutouts on the year and took home MLS is Back Tournament Golden Glove presented by Allstate honors earlier this summer.
Darlington Nagbe doesn’t feel there’s any need to worry, though. If anything, he views their frustrations as a sign of growth after Columbus missed the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“I think we keep doing what we're doing,” Nagbe said. “Nothing's broken, there's confidence in our guys and our attacking group. If that means we have to push a little bit more than we push a little bit more, I just think it's credit to our team. Teams are sitting back on us and trying to disrupt our game or committing fouls, trying to disrupt our play. It's just a sign of respect and I'm happy with that.”
Getting midfielder Lucas Zelarayan back to 90-minute fitness will prove crucial, too. The club-record signing logged 67 minutes in the 0-0 tie against Cincinnati, with Porter asserting the Argentine would have scored if capable of going the distance.
Zelarayan similarly isn’t worried about any offensive struggles.
“If you look at the teams that we played, they're two very good teams,” Zelarayan said through a translator. “Against Cincinnati we played a team that was content to sit back and just defend their goal – they didn't give us any space, so that happens. But then if you look at the standings we're in second place, we have five wins, we only have one loss and we've only allowed two goals. So overall I would say we're doing OK.”
Porter also struck a balanced tone before hosting Columbus at MAPFRE Stadium. He takes solace in their defensive structure, and is confident they’ll return to their explosive offensive form in short order.
“We have, I believe, five or six clean sheets, which is ... more or equal to what we had the entire season last year,” Porter said. “So it's definitely a real positive and I've never seen a good team that isn't a good defensive team. But we're certainly wanting to not leave games without scoring, and that's an area that I know the guys are eager to show in this next game, that we're a team that can keep the ball, not only keep the ball but consistently score goals."