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Union Face Montréal FC Ahead of Playoff Push

Just 8 points that separate the 2nd and 8th place eastern conference teams

SOCCER: SEP 29 MLS - Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Philadelphia Union have been rolling as of late. Winners of four of their last five games, the boys in blue have moved up to third in the packed Eastern Conference where eight points separate second-place Nashville from eighth-place Atlanta with six games remaining in the regular season. However, the Union will be fighting several variables ahead of Saturday’s game against Montréal FC, among them key injuries, players returning from a busy international break, and visa complications.

“Both teams are dealing with the repercussions of having a strong roster, which is players being away on international duty,” Union coach Jim Curtin told the media this week. “So, we’ll both have fatigue in players’ legs, and it will be a race to get everyone back as quickly as possible.”

The Union are unbeaten against Montréal in the last three games, but the two teams tied 1-1 at Subaru Park in late August with Quinn Sullivan providing the equalizer in the eighty-seventh minute to salvage what had been a lackluster Union performance during a period where the team’s form had dipped for several weeks. Sullivan’s goal was the only Union shot to hit the target that game.

Since the Club América second leg, the Union have found their defensive balance and have outscored their opponents 10-3, with several goals coming from the run of play, including both goals against FC Cincinnati last Saturday. “We didn’t have our best start,” Curtin said about last game, “maybe could have been down a goal or two but really showed a lot of character, regrouped, got the big goal from Kacper, who makes an incredible play, and we’re able to build momentum into the second half.”

Faced with a number of squad changes due to multiple starters being out for World Cup qualifiers, Curtin had to tweak his regular lineup and call on some of his less experienced players, who responded well in the win. “I’m really proud of the all-hands-on-deck mentality of everybody,” he said, “guys asked to play out of position, young guys stepping up and playing big minutes, Paxton scoring a great goal, Nathan stepping in and doing a great job as an outside back.”

Kacper Przybylko has returned to scoring goals in bunches as he did in the beginning of the season and has four goals in the last five games. He scored his tenth goal of the MLS season against FC Cincinnati and his fifteenth overall in 2021. His 33 MLS goals puts him three behind C.J. Sapong for second among Union all-time scorers, and the two strikers are now tied with 38 goals in all competitions.

Montréal FC should be a stark contrast from FC Cincinnati, who were the first team eliminated from playoff contention. Montréal holds the final playoff spot in the East by one point and will attempt to continue their strong home record since returning to the Stade Saputo in July after a season and a half playing home games in the U.S. Montréal has won five of eight at home, and their only losses came against New England and Nashville. Romell Quioto leads the team with eight goals and scored a brace in Montréal’s win over Atlanta before the international break, but the Honduras international also suffered an injury during World Cup qualifying and could be a game-time decision. Djordje Mihailovic leads the team with 13 assists and scored Montréal’s goal against the Union in August. Montréal will likely roll out an experienced midfield with Joaquín Torres, Samuel Piette, and Victor Wanyama, who gave the Union troubles in the last matchup.

The Union will likely be without Sergio Santos, who picked up a minor hamstring strain in the opening minutes against FC Cincinnati. Cory Burke is still recovering from a stress fracture and could be out at least another week, and Ilsinho’s return to action is unknown as he continues to rehab from groin surgery in May. Jamiro Monteiro was back in training after two games for Cape Verde and should be available. Olivier Mbaizo was pulled from warmups in Cameroon’s game against Mozambique on Monday due to a minor knock but is expected to play. Alvas Powell strained a hamstring while with Jamaica and will likely be out, but Curtin said both Dániel Gazdag and Andre Blake should be fine.

Curtin called José Martinez’s status tricky due to Venezuela’s late game in Chile Thursday night. “For the South American players,” he said, “it’s more complicated getting their visas and getting them over the border then say the Jamaican players.”

Despite the congested schedule, Curtin is confident with his squad’s fitness as he balances the playing load of his experienced internationals ahead of the next five games in two weeks that includes three road trips, two of them to Canada. “The good thing is everybody’s fit right now,” he said. “Whether second team games or intra-squad games, everybody’s fit for 90 minutes. Our guys that have logged 2,000 plus minutes already don’t need a ton during the week.”

And with the growing contributions of the younger players, Curtin may finally have the depth needed to keep his squad fresh over the remaining games with another international break looming in early November at the conclusion of the MLS regular season. “You are weighing now as guys come back the risk of the load. If they’ve played ninety minutes three games in a row and Paxton is in the form that he’s in or McGlynn’s playing as well as he is or Sullivan, you have more belief in throwing them out there for the first 75 minutes of a game.”

The Union will be back on the road Wednesday night at Minnesota FC before returning home next Saturday against Nashville, who led the Union by two points, in what could be the defining game for determining home-field advantage in the second round of the playoffs.

Kickoff is scheduled for 1:00 p.m. at the Stade Saputo. The game will be aired on PHIL 17, ESPN+, and philadelphiaunion.com. Fans can also listen to the action on Fox The Gambler via 102.5 FM, 104.5 HD2, or 1480AM.