Union-Crew 5 things: Aiming to maintain Eastern Conference lead

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Union (5-3-5) vs. Columbus Crew (3-4-5)
7 p.m. on TCN

The Union dodged their way through a grueling road swing, grabbing two dramatic draws from Orlando City SC and the league-leading Colorado Rapids. But those points won’t mean much if the Union can’t grab three points against the Columbus Crew on Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know:

1. Keeping the East
By earning five draws in their last six games, the Union remain in the Eastern Conference lead. But if they want to stay there, the club is going to need some wins, starting at home on Wednesday.

“We set goals for ourselves at the beginning of the year — to go into the [international] Copa America break in first place,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “We have the possibility of doing that.”

But that’s easier said than done. The Union are just two points clear of three teams in the East — the New York Red Bulls, Montreal Impact and New York City FC. Suffering a loss or draw against the Crew could see the Union plummet in the standings.

“We’ve had some success, we’ve achieved some good things,” Curtin said. “At the same time, it’s still very early in the season. Nothing’s been finalized yet.”

While the Union understand the importance of Wednesday’s match, it won’t come easy. Curtin’s club is coming off a grueling road swing that had it travel to Orlando for a Wednesday game and then to Colorado on Saturday.

Now, facing their third game in a week, the players are battling weary legs.

“We had a tough trip the last week,” midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta said. “But we recovered well and we’re looking forward. We want to finish the tough run well and try to get three points.”

Ray Gaddis agreed, shrugging off the notion of being tired.

“We’re physically ready for the task,” the full back said. “It’ll be a good one.”

2. No Blake, no problem
With Andre Blake serving international duty with Jamaica for the Copa America tournament, the Union have tapped Matt Jones to take over starting duty for Wednesday’s match.

Jones beat out John McCarthy for the spot.

“It’s always difficult to lose Andre, but Matt is a more than capable backup,” Curtin said. “I know he’ll step up and do his job.”

Jones, 30, who is a veteran of Portugal’s first and second division, signed with the Union this offseason to be closer to his wife, who worked in the United States. But that’s not the only reason Curtin believes in Jones. The goalkeeper recently had a son, giving him some extra motivation to succeed.

“He’s riding a little bit of a high right now after having his first-born son, Jackson,” the coach said. “We expect Matt to have a strong performance. He’s been excellent in training and he’s confident right now.”

3. Crew unbeaten in last 4
While many may have given up on the Crew after a slow start and the departure of Kei Kamara, the club has kept chugging along. Gregg Berhalter’s team is unbeaten in its last four games and is 3-1-3 in its last seven games.

“We’re looking forward to Columbus, a very good opponent,” Curtin said. “Gregg has them playing very well right now. They’re dangerous, good in possession. We have our hands full going into this match.”

The Crew also have revenge on their minds. The Union and Crew faced off in the second game of the season at Mapfre Stadium, where Curtin’s team claimed the 2-1 win.

“We know that they are a team that battles hard, they play physical, they have that will and desire,” the Crew’s Michael Parkhurst said. “We feel like if we can match that and let soccer take over the game, we have a good chance. We need to show from the start we’re there for a fight, and coming off a win, we think we can do that.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Vincent Nogueira: After missing three games with an oblique strain, Union midfielder Vincent Nogueira is finally healthy and ready to make his return. “Vincent is available tomorrow,” Curtin said. “He is feeling a hundred percent.” With Nogueira back in the mix, Warren Creavalle will likely take a bench seat. That has less to do with Creavalle’s play and more to do with Nogueira's stellar ability to run the Union’s possession game. If Nogueira is going, the Union are, too.

Ola Kamara: If it’s not one Kamara, it’s another for the Crew. Norwegian forward Ola Kamara came alive last weekend against Real Salt Lake, scoring three goals and 10 shots — seven of which were on net. “He’s a handful,” Curtin said. “He’s a little different than the other Kamara in that he’s not as much of a target guy as he is a holdup guy, but he is busy. He runs and runs and runs.”

5. This and that
• As Curtin stated before, the Union’s goal this season is to allow an average of one goal per game. With a shutout on Wednesday, the club could reach that pace heading into the Copa America break. They have currently allowed 14 goals in 13 games — good for second in MLS.

• Union central defender Josh Yaro can’t seem to shake a shoulder injury suffered against Orlando City SC last Wednesday. “Shoulder’s are tricky,” Curtin said. Yaro is still suffering discomfort and expected to remain out against the Crew, with Ken Tribbett taking his spot (see story).

• The Union are 5-10-1 against the Crew all time but 4-4-0 at home.

• Chris Pontius netted two goals on March 12, as the Union defeated the Crew in the club’s first meeting this season.

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