Union vs. Toronto FC
7:00 p.m. on TCN
Feeling good after a slump-stopping win over the New England Revolution, Alejandro Bedoya and the Union (9-8-7) prepare for an Eastern Conference challenge when they host Sebastian Giovinco and powerful Toronto FC (10-7-7) on Saturday (7:00 p.m., TCN) at Talen Energy Stadium.
Here are five things to know:
1. Bedoya & Davies coming home
With Bedoya and Charlie Davies coming home for the first time since being acquired two weeks ago, the Union are eager to show the two what home-field advantage at Talen Energy Stadium is all about.
“It’ll be good for our fans to show love to them and embrace them like I know they will,” said Union manager Jim Curtin. “Charlie and Alejandro just need to do what they do best. I’m excited for them to get their first opportunity to play in front of this crowd. It’s a special place and it’s been a very good place for us to play this year. The fans have made it a real home-field advantage for us and we need to continue that.”
The pair got off to a flying start in a 4-0 win over the Revs, with Davies collecting an assist. But while Bedoya had a quiet match on the scoresheet, Curtin still noticed game-influencing play. Bedoya was steady and poised, and the Union dominated.
“I thought Alejandro brought a real calming presence to the group in possession,” he said. “He did the little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Just to get us out of some tight spots, connect us from front to back.”
And that calmness is all part of the skill set Union fans can expect to see on Saturday.
“He’s a guy that wants the ball under pressure,” Curtin said. “He has the ability to pick his head up, run with the ball when he should run with it, play a forward pass with confidence. He was able to calm us down a little bit in the run of play in New England in a hostile environment.”
Still, Curtin isn’t satisfied quite yet.
“Alejandro is a guy who we’re incredibly happy with,” he said. “It was one game, though.”
2. Red-hot Sapong, Pontius
Much of the Union’s success this season has come from up top in the form of Chris Pontius and C.J. Sapong. The pair, who are both two goals away from tying career highs, have combined for six goals in the club’s last five games.
“We’re looking the strongest we’ve looked all season,” Sapong said. “We hope to be firing on all cylinders heading toward the playoffs.”
For Pontius, the production is something the Union expected, even after the dropoff with his former club, D.C. United. The forward maxed out at 12 goals in 2012, and only managed six in the three years before joining the Union.
He currently has 10 goals and five assists.
“Chris is a great professional, a great person and has fit in very nicely with the group,” said Curtin, who mentioned Pontius’ target of 10 goals, 10 assists to end the year. “Down this stretch of the last ten games, he can surpass what his goal was from the beginning of the season. That’s what I want him to do.”
Sapong is in a similar position. With a career high of nine goals, the athletic forward currently has seven, including the opening goal against the Revs on Saturday. However, Sapong, who said he felt good on Wednesday, was forced to leave that match with a possible concussion, putting his eligibility for Saturday in question.
“First and foremost, you only get one brain,” Curtin said. “We don’t mess around with head injuries. It looks like he’ll be fine for the weekend and cleared to play. We were smart with it, I thought. Hopefully he’s ready for the weekend.”
3. Stopping Giovinco
To stop Toronto FC, any club must first stop Giovinco, who leads MLS with 15 goals. The Italian, widely considered as the best player in the league, can destroy the opposition easily and without breaking a sweat.
“I’m glad I didn’t play when he was in the league,” Curtin said. “He’s a handful and as dangerous a guy as there is right now. You try to be physical with him and he can draw a foul, he’s strong enough to hold the ball and go by you. He can beat you in so many different ways and that’s what makes dealing with him so tough.”
Yet, while Giovinco may be the best scorer in the league, the Union have a potential equalizer in goalkeeper Andre Blake, who has been known to steal games for his club.
Giovinco leads MLS with 128 shots. Blake is tied for seventh in saves with 74.
“Giovinco is a great player, we know that,” Blake said. “It’s going to take a team effort to shut him down, the guys know that. We’ll have to work together to do that job.”
4. Keep an eye on
Toronto FC - Jozy Altidore: It would be easy to say Giovinco here, but Altidore is on fire with three goals and an assist in his last four games. That includes an absolute stunner of a goal against the Houston Dynamo this past Sunday.
Union - Tranquillo Barnetta: Moving from the No. 8 to No. 10 position on Saturday, Barnetta flourished on the ball, suffering seven fouls. That’s 13 in his last two games, accompanied by a goal and six shots over the same span. He hasn’t just been good, he’s been a game-changer for the Union. “He’s our engine,” Curtin said. “When he gets on the ball, he’s dangerous. He deserves a heck of a lot more credit than he gets in this league.”
5. This and that
• The Union are 6-5-4 against Toronto FC all time and a dominant 4-1-2 at home.
• Momentum of a lopsided win hasn’t helped the Union much in 2016. The Union are 0-1-2 after wins of two-plus goals this season. Of course, they defeated the Revs, 4-0, last weekend.
• Brian Carroll (foot) and Maurice Edu (knee) are both on the cusp of returning to the Union midfield. But they aren’t quite there yet. “Brian is bouncing back quicker than we thought, which is good,” Curtin said. “He’ll hopefully be back on Monday in training. [Edu] is fully involved in training now, it’s just a matter of time.”
• If the Union want to contend for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, a win on Saturday is crucial. Toronto FC has 37 points in 24 games, while the Union have 34 in 24 games. A Union win would also give the two clubs an identical record of 10-8-7.