CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union are in a unique position.
It a turn of events from previous seasons, the gritty Union head to Red Bull Arena on Saturday riding a two-game winning streak, while the winless and battered Red Bulls are searching high and low for answers.
“It’s nice to be on this end of it for a change,” said Union coach John Hackworth, whose club has relied on striker Jack McInerney for two late-goal wins. “You only do that by earning it. We still have to go out and prove we can do it over the long haul. That is very different than having some success in our last couple games. This game is very important to us for a lot of reasons but mostly because they are one of our biggest rivals and that they stand in the way of us achieving our goals early in the year.”
The early-season game is important because it comes at interesting time for both clubs. The Union, who are 2-1-0 and are looking to prove they belong with other Eastern Conference heavyweights, are cooking while the high-profile Red Bulls, at 0-2-2, are trying to get on the winning track.
“We’ve gained a lot of momentum since the start of the season and things are coming together, which is a good feeling for us,” said Union midfielder Michael Lahoud, who called Saturday's contest a “statement game.” It’s still early on but it changes our mentality. We understand it will be a tough place to play and they are a really good team, one of the most talented teams in the league, on paper. But I think we’re going to go with a collective mentality because playing together is what has gotten us momentum. The biggest thing for us is managing because they are going to come out and go for the gusto.”
Although the Red Bulls have been disjointed early, unable to put their massive talent together and get a win through a tough schedule, Hackworth sees them as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“They have played much better than their record reflects,” said Hackworth. “When I’ve watched their games I see a team with a lot of quality and some exceptional players that haven’t done things collectively to get the results. Our records might be a little different right now but we go in knowing they are a very good team and that the quality is still there.”
That quality could take a hit on Saturday, as the Red Bulls could be without superstar Thierry Henry, who is day-to-day with an MCL sprain.
“We’ve prepared the whole time like he would be on the field,” said Hackworth of Henry. “If you know the history of Henry and this league, you would think he would play in a game of this magnitude -- that was this important for his club. If he doesn’t play on Saturday, it’s an advantage for us because he is one of the best players, if not the very best player in this league.”
New Red Bulls striker Fabian Espindola is questionable with a hamstring injury and Tim Cahill also missed training sessions during the week.
“Espindola is one of the best forwards in this league, he has quality and is very competitive,” said Hackworth. “He’s very smart and finds space. He’s dangerous. they made some very wise acquisitions that made them a better team.”
For the Union, midfielder Gabe Farfan is struggling to recover from a hamstring injury that won’t seem to go away. Forward Conor Casey is expected to make his return to the Union roster after an equally as frustrating hamstring ailment.
“Only continuing issue for us is Gabe Farfan, with a nagging hamstring that has been bothering him,” said Hackworth. “Not fully sure how that will play out. Conor Casey, and I’ve said this for the last three weeks, I think he will be available and 100 percent healthy.”
Regardless of who plays, the Union players are expecting a fight.
“From my experience of playing against the Red Bulls, it’ll be a heated matchup,” said Lahoud. “They are feeling a lot of pressure right now and there’s a lot of questions being asked within their team. There might be some desperation on their part.”
Hackworth agreed about the matchup but doesn’t think the Red Bulls, despite being winless, will come out desperate.
“I wouldn’t say they are desperate,” said the coach. “I think with the leadership they have and with Mike [Petke] at the helm, they know what they are capable of, it’s just a matter of doing it. I don’t think they will be desperate but they will come out and try to work on the little things they’ve done well over the first couple weeks and that presents a huge challenge.”
A challenge that the Union are used to facing. The Union are 2-6-0 all-time against the Red Bulls and 0-4-0 at Red Bull Arena. The Union went 0-3-0 against their rivals last season.
“We have a very different team than we did last year and it’s something that sticks in the back of the minds of some players who were here last year,” said Lahoud. “They have a different team and different manager. We are focusing on the present and we know we have a chance to make a statement.”
Making Saturday a statement game is something Hackworth agreed with. But he set parameters.
“We have to be humble,”he said. “Understand our strengths, know our weaknesses. We have to go to New York and play a very good opponent and see if we can get a result.
“The one thing we know is that we need to go to New York and get a result. And we haven’t done that. I think it weighs on everyone’s mind. It’s a motivating factor when you set the goal to be the first team to go and do that.”