After three long months, Black & Gold soccer is finally returning to MAPFRE Stadium, along with Crew SC’s steadfast supporters. And for the second time in three seasons, Crew SC will host the Philadelphia Union for Opening Match presented by MAPFRE Insurance.
“We look forward to getting back in front of those fans,” Captain Michael Parkhurst says. “We know it won’t be the exact same crowd [as MLS Cup]; but we hope that the stadium’s full and we always want to play well in front of our home fans. We know every season opener brings a great opportunity for us to bring new fans in, to play well and to show that we’re going to be a contender this year.”
It’s an opportunity for Columbus to prove itself and capture its first three points of 2016. Both Crew SC and the Union are looking for their first win of 2016 as road losses were a shared outcome last Sunday. The Black & Gold have historically seen a great deal of success in home openers, boasting an undefeated record (6-0-5) over the last 11 seasons.
“You look up and you see these bleachers and it kind of reminds you of where you were a little over three months ago, so it gives us a little bit of perspective—it’s a good reminder,” Ethan Finlay says. “It’s a good sign going forward that we’re going to have a great crowd and we hope that that continues throughout 2016. We’re excited but we also know it’s our it’s just our second game of 34 and we know it’s going to be a long season.”
The midfielder coupled his first appearance of the season with an assist on Federico Higuaín’s unstoppable bicycle-kick goal in Portland. Despite the 2-1 loss, there were positives in the club’s season debut, and Finlay says the Black & Gold won’t change too much for Saturday’s meeting.
“Just sticking to what we did in Portland and then just executing a little bit better in the final third and in transition moments,” he says. “Those are two things that we picked out that we didn’t do a great job at.”
A large contributor to success in the final third is Kei Kamara.
The standout striker had an impressive run against the Union in three meetings last season, scoring three of Crew SC’s six total goals versus Philly. Two of those were scored within five minutes and counted for his 19th and 20th goals of the year.
“For me, it’s always a good opportunity every game I play to be able to score a goal; but at the same time, the most important thing is always getting three points,” Kamara says.
But in order to earn those points, Kamara recognizes he must be effective in his role by scoring goals and getting his team ahead. And as much as he’s looking forward to that first goal celebration, he’s more eager for his team’s first win.
It could come as early as Saturday night, but an Eastern Conference showdown is no easy task.
“It’s a big game for us,” Parkhurst says. “We know that every Eastern Conference game especially is a dog fight. We know each other well enough, even if we don’t know their exact players yet. It’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be a tough game, it’s going to be the little things that decide it—that’s just how it always is.”
The Union featured seven new faces in their 2016 debut in Dallas last weekend, formulating a slightly different lineup than Columbus faced last year. This early in the season, it’s common to see any club test its capabilities, but Crew SC is confident in its playing style and is focused on what it can control.
“All points against them are going to be big going forward,” Kamara says. “It’s early on in the season, so everybody is kind of on and off into what they’re doing in the game plans and all that. What I’d have to say is, our team, game plan has always been there and nothing really has changed. So we just have to stick to our game plan and play against them.”
Crew SC thrived in several areas in Portland, notching 19 shots, 32 crosses, 84 percent passing accuracy and over 60 percent possession. As Finlay mentioned, though, the Black & Gold faced a little trouble in transition. Although midfielders Maurice Edu and Tranquillo Barnetta were both sidelined with injuries, the Union pose some dangerous players on offense.
“Philly’s got a lot of threats on the break as well in [C.J.] Sapong, [Chris] Pontius and [Sebastien] Le Toux, so we gotta be aware of those guys,” Finlay says. “Then when we get to the final third, just executing, just being a little bit sharper, having better runs in the box and getting better crosses in there.”
The game plan is laid out and now the only step remaining is the execution. Maybe history could repeat itself, as Gregg Berhalter made his MAPFRE Stadium debut as Crew SC Sporting Director and Head Coach in a home opener against the Union—a 2-1 win for Columbus on March 22, 2014.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. ET. Tickets are still available here.
The match will be televised on Time Warner Cable SportsChannel as well as the CW Columbus. You can also catch it locally on CD102.5 FM and in Spanish on La Mega 103.1 FM.