First-place Union back to work as MLS Cup champs visit

CHESTER, Pa. — Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak is proud of how his team performed against Everton FC and Real Madrid during their recent stretch of international friendlies.

But Nowak also knows they’re called friendlies for a reason — and that the games will become decidedly unfriendly beginning Friday night when the Union host the Colorado Rapids at PPL Park (7:30 pm ET, Fox Soccer) in their first league game since July 17.

“If you think [the Rapids] game is going to be the same as the Real Madrid game, you’re wrong,” Nowak said. “The games we have here in Major League Soccer are about fighting, running, scrapping for points and scrapping for plays and tackles. That’s how you win the game.”

The Union (8-4-7) couldn’t pull out the win the last time they played the Rapids (7-6-10) in early June but still left Colorado content after earning a hard-earned point against the defending MLS Cup champions.

In that game, the Union recovered from what they believed to be a questionable foul call in the box — and the ensuing penalty kick goal from Conor Casey — with a quick strike from distance from Danny Mwanga to tie the contest at 1-1, which was the eventual final score.

Friday’s game will certainly have a different feel since Casey is out for the season with a torn Achilles. But the Rapids have still boasted a strong offense in the veteran striker’s absence, smashing the New York Red Bulls, 4-1, on July 20 before tying the New England Revolution, 2-2, last Saturday.

“Conor Casey, of course, is an integral part of Colorado and was instrumental in them winning the MLS Cup last year,” Nowak said. “But their game vs. Red Bulls shows they are capable of scoring goals. They have a couple of speedsters up front and are a very competitive team from back to front. It’ll be another fight, and a challenging game.”

While the Rapids are dealing with a rash of injuries on top of Casey’s, the Union come into tonight’s contest almost completely healthy. Even attacking mid Veljko Paunović, who’s been out since July 2 with a hip strain, may return to the lineup.

“We’ll try to give him some time maybe,” Nowak said of the Serbian who had a goal and assist through four games before his injury. “I’m not sure about starting. We’ll try to manage this in the right way not just for this game but the next two games as well.”

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