When the Union traveled to Montreal in May, their season was heading nowhere fast. They were in ninth place with only eight points from their first nine games, had yet to win a road game and their starting striker C.J. Sapong was unavailable with a hip problem.
Montreal was doing only slightly better at the time with just a point on the Union in the standings and a similar string of dropped points.
Cory Burke ended up making his first MLS start that day for the injured Sapong and marked the occasion with his first MLS goal. The Union won 2-0 to end a two-game skid and grab three points on the road since the previous May.
So much has changed since then. For both teams.
As they prepare to complete their fixture at Talen Energy Stadium on Saturday night, both teams are above the playoff line and playing some of their best soccer of the season. The Union are unbeaten in their last five league matches and the Impact have lost just once in their last five.
The Union have four points and a game in hand on Montreal and are within striking distance of fourth place Columbus at just three points back.
The aforementioned Burke, who had his first start cut short by a deserved red card for a harsh challenge, has become the Union’s most reliable goal scorer, leading the team in that category with eight.
“When we played them earlier at their place they were in a tough time, a tough stretch,” head coach Jim Curtin said at his weekly news conference on Wednesday. “They’re playing really well, they have themselves in the playoffs above the line and have done so by playing some good soccer. You watch tape of the recent games and they’re a handful.”
Their last time out on September 1st, Montreal beat first place New York Red Bulls 3-0 behind goals from defenders Rod Fanni and Bacary Sagna and Ignacio Piatti, who leads the team with 13 goals on the year.
“Piatti for me is one of the best players we have in our league,” Curtin said. “You talk about a guy that’s fun to watch, who plays the game the right way, who when he runs with the ball it takes more than one defender, it takes the help of a second defender not allowing him to get into open space.”
While the international break came at a good time for a banged up Union squad, there remains a question mark about Borek Dockal’s status. He returned to full training on Wednesday along with Anthony Fontana, who Curtin expects to be in the 18 for Saturday. Ilsinho is out after also picking up an injury in Orlando, but Curtin said he’s progressing quickly enough that a return for the U.S. Open Cup final on September 26th isn’t out of the question.
“We have a couple ideas of different things we could do or go with,” Curtin said. “It’s been a positive week of training, we’re getting bodies back quicker than maybe we anticipated in some cases.”
However the lineup shakes out, the Union will need a win not only to chase Columbus but keep Montreal and the teams just behind them in the standings at bay. Entering the weekend, D.C. United is six points back of the Union in seventh place and New England Revolution is seven points back. The top six teams in the conference make the playoffs.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. and will be broadcast live on PHL17.