Union focused on regaining first place in trip to Columbus

Peter Nowak - July 2, 2011

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CHESTER, Pa. — Like all coaches, Philadelphia Union manager Peter Nowak stresses the importance of every game. But even he knows Saturday’s contest at Columbus (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online) carries with it a little more significance than most.

“I think everyone realizes,” Nowak said, “that this is a very important game for us.”

The Crew head into the showdown atop the Eastern Conference table with 37 points and a 10-7-7 record. The Union (8-5-10) sit three points back, but have a game in hand. For Philly, a victory would not only put them into a first-place tie, but it would also snap a troubling four-game winless skid that began after a 10-day layoff in July to play a pair of international exhibitions.

“We’ve been trying for so many weeks to come back to where we were before the friendly games,” Nowak said. “The last couple of weeks were not easy for us. But we’ve got to go back to where we started and play the game we did in the first 19 weeks, when we were consistent and aggressive. We need to go back to that.”

It certainly won’t be easy against a red-hot Columbus side that has won three of its last four to stake its claim as Eastern Conference leaders. And it’s how they’ve been winning — with a stingy defense and without any huge stars — that has Nowak most impressed.

“I think the collective effort of Columbus shows that winning in Major League Soccer is not about single, individual players,” the Union manager said. “Collective effort is more important than anything else. I think Robert [Warzycha] has found a good formula right now, finding players that have nothing to lose, finding players that whatever comes their way they’ll make the best of it.”

Nowak hopes his players show that same kind of character this weekend in Ohio as they prepare for one of their toughest games of the season. The Union have been on top of near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for most of the year, but never have they played a game of this magnitude with first place taking on second place.

“I think it’s still a very inexperienced group of players we have in our locker room,” Nowak said. “Any time you’re in first or second, of course the pressure is a little bit bigger when everyone is chasing you. … But whether we’re in first or second, we have to deliver the best soccer we can.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.