Mercurial Union face tough challenge against champs

The Philadelphia Union currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference and roll into this weekend’s action coming off the most convincing victory in their young franchise’s history.

The turnaround from last season has already been stark, but the Union can continue to prove themselves as they prepare to play the last two MLS Cup champions, starting with Saturday’s road contest against the Colorado Rapids at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park (9 pm ET, MatchDay Live).

For Union manager Peter Nowak, however, taking on the defending champs in hostile territory doesn’t hold with it any extra significance.

“During a season like this, we don’t need a statement game,” Nowak said. “This is where we are. This is who we are.”

Well, who they are may still be up for debate.

Through the first nine games of the season, the Union scored just six goals, getting by mostly on guile and staunch defense. During their recent two-game surge, however, the Union (6-3-2) enjoyed their first multiple-goal game of the season with a 2-1 win over Chicago before dismantling Toronto, 6-2.

“We made a step against Chicago, we made a step in Toronto – I think this is a good sign,” Nowak said. “With the future, I’m not sure. We proved we could score a goal from a couple of different places in our team – from different angles, from different positions. If you have those pieces, surprise moments can come.”

That kind of balance will be vital for the Union as they go into a tough stretch – following Saturday’s game in Colorado, they host 2009 champs Real Salt Lake on June 11 – without striker Carlos Ruiz, who’s on Gold Cup duty with Guatemala, and a couple of other injured midfielders.

Philly also has the unenviable task of trying to win on the road, at altitude, against a tough Rapids squad that handed the Union their worst loss of the season last year, a 4-1 defeat in Colorado.

Coming off their championship campaign, the Rapids (4-3-6) haven’t been especially dominating – as their six ties, including five straight, would indicate – but Nowak knows they are still a tough team that are hard to break down.

“They proved they can win a championship without a very talented group of players,” the Union manager said. “They proved to the whole league that you can pick up a couple of guys, then come together pretty fast and play good football. It’s always a good challenge going there.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.