Winless at Red Bull Arena, Philadelphia Union eye marquee victory that could vault them into first

CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union have differing theories as to why they’ve never been able to win at Red Bull Arena.

Midfielder Sebastien Le Toux thinks it’s because their field seems bigger. Forward Aaron Wheeler pointed to the atmosphere. Manager John Hackworth credited New York’s top-flight players.

Whatever the reason for Philly’s 0-5-0 all-time record at Red Bull Arena, the Union have never made the short trip up the Jersey Turnpike with this much on the line. And perhaps the fact that Saturday’s game between the Union and Red Bulls (8 pm ET, NBCSN) means so much could help the Union finally end their Red Bull Arena drought.

“This is going to be kind of a marquee matchup,” Hackworth said. “I would say, not knowing exactly what’s being said out there, that New York’s got to be the favorite. And that puts us in a position where we’ve kind of been all year long. We like it. We’ll take it. And we’ll try to use it to our advantage.”

The Union (10-7-7) enter Saturday’s game in third place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the Red Bulls (11-8-5). A Philly win, coupled with a Sporting Kansas City loss to San Jose on Sunday, would not only push the Union ahead of New York but also into first place.

In previous matchups between the rivals, the game hasn’t had this many playoff implications. The last time the two clubs met at Red Bull Arena – back in March – the Union dropped a 2-1 decision in a game they felt they played well.

“We’re going to have to do a good job managing the early part of the game emotionally to not let it get away from us, and then we hope we can put our gameplan into effect and play with the rhythm and tempo that we like to play,” Hackworth said. “We kind of battled them in a similar way when we played up in New York earlier this year.

"But at the end of the game, we let the thing slip away from us. We think we’re a better team than we were then. And we have to see Saturday if we can go back up there and finish what we started early in the year.”

To snap their Red Bull Arena skid, the Union will have to beat a New York team that should be at full strength, as Designated Players Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill are poised to return from injury.

Between those players coming back and the Union’s history against the Red Bulls, it may seem like it’s an unlikely time for Philly to win their first-ever road game vs. New York.

But for the Union, it’s the perfect time.

“The guys don’t talk about it much,” Wheeler said of Philly’s 0-5 record at Red Bull Arena. “We have a lot of confidence in our group and we’ve outperformed expectations so far. We have a lot of goals we’re trying to reach. The expectation is to go in there and get a result. We’re not going in there preparing to lose or playing for a 0-0 draw.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.