CHESTER, Pa. – If the Philadelphia Union wish to climb out of ninth place in the Eastern Conference and make a push for the playoffs, the first step is passing the team in eighth.
Luckily for them, the Montreal Impact – the aforementioned eight-place squad – are coming to PPL Park on Saturday (7 pm ET, watch LIVE online) for the first-ever matchup between the two clubs.
“We’re going to have to make up a lot of ground we lost earlier in the year,” interim manager John Hackworth told MLSsoccer.com. “Playing Montreal when they’re right in front of you in the standings, and you know that swing in points, it’s almost like double.”
The Union (5-9-2, 17 points) can’t catch the Impact (6-11-3, 21 points) with a win, but they would move to within one point of them with three games in hand. At that point, they’d also be in striking distance of a slew of other teams in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack.
“There’s a little extra motivation because they have a couple of games in hand over us and we’re a couple of points behind,” center back Amobi Okugo said. “The game means a little more. It’s kind of like a six-point swing.”
The Union have already made up some ground with back-to-back league wins over Toronto FC and the LA Galaxy over the past 10 days. But because of their US Open Cup run, the Union are in the middle of a nine-games-in-27-days stretch, which has Hackworth concerned they might be running out of gas.
They come into Saturday’s game fresh off a USOC loss to Sporting Kansas City on Wednesday, and they follow up their Montreal matchup with a friendly against Aston Villa next Wednesday before finishing with a road tilt against the rival New York Red Bulls next Saturday.
“Until we get through it and have time to breathe and truly rest and recover, it’s difficult,” Hackworth said. “These things add up and it’s a big challenge for us. But I think the team responded remarkably well to challenges so far and I hope to continue that.”
Welcoming back Mapp
Union fans will see a familiar face Saturday as Montreal starting midfielder Justin Mapp returns to PPL Park for the first time since the Union lost him in the 2011 Expansion Draft.
And while they naturally hope to send him back to Canada with zero points, the coaches and players are also excited to see Mapp, who was a key player for Philly last season and at the end of the 2010 campaign.
“I’ve known Justin for a while,” Hackworth said. “It will be good to give him a hug and tell him I’ve been watching him and that I’m glad he’s successful. He’s a good guy.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.