Union-NYCFC 5 things: Aiming to extend unbeaten streak

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Union vs. New York City FC
1:00 p.m. on TCN

With fresh legs from the Copa America break, and oozing confidence from an opening win in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday (see story), the Eastern Conference leading Union (6-3-5) travel to Yankee Stadium on Saturday (1:00 p.m., TCN) to take on inconsistent New York City FC (4-5-6) for the second time in 2016.

Here’s five things to know:

1. Blake is back
Out of the Union lineup since late May, star goalkeeper Andre Blake experienced Copa America, as he manned the goal for Jamaica. Now, with Blake back, Union manager Jim Curtin knows the international experience could only help his All-Star caliber keeper on Saturday

“I think he’s coming back even better, which is good for us,” Curtin said. “He’s a very good goalkeeper, he’s young and he still has room to even get better, which is scary. We’re happy to have him back.”

If Blake is coming back a better player, it’s indeed a scary thought for NYCFC. The young keeper has a 73.6% save percentage and 39 saves in 13 starts, but is still wary of NYCFC’s potent attack and the target on the Union’s back for being the Eastern Conference leaders.

“Everyone wants to beat us right now,” Blake said. “Playing at home, they are going to think they can beat us. But it’s more about us and focusing on what we’ve been doing. Hopefully we can be successful.” 

2. Injuries biting Union
Despite the lengthy Copa America break, the Union enter Saturday’s match at a slight disadvantage. Top scorer C.J. Sapong is battling a sprained ankle and is questionable against NYCFC. 

“C.J. didn’t train, he has an ankle injury that is pretty standard,” Curtin said. “He’s in good spirits, he’s walking around and he’s able to move so there’s nothing to limit his mobility. He’s not quite ready to train yet, but we’re hoping for the weekend as a possibility. He’s progressing.”

The injury occurred during the match against the Columbus Crew on June 1 and surprised the Union.

“It kind of ballooned up on him and just got really swollen,” Curtin said. “His swelling is down a great deal, but he’s still in that final phase of getting the full strength back in it.”

If Sapong can’t go, which appears likely, Curtin would tap Fabian Herbers to start up top, with Sebastien Le Toux as depth. Yet, while the team believes in the rookie Herbers, losing Sapong, who has five goals this season, would be a problem.

“When he’s not in the lineup, we’re different,” Curtin said. “We can’t press quite the same just because he does such a good job running and fighting for balls. Fabian’s done a great job in a short time in his place but hopefully C.J. is not out for too long.”

3. NYCFC's struggle
NYCFC is an enigma. There was a span of five matches between April 27 and May 18, in which the second-year club appeared like it was ready to make a run at the Eastern Conference lead. Then things fell apart, starting with a 7-0 loss to rival New York Red Bulls. 

Still, Curtin isn’t overlooking the Union’s competition. 

“They’re a good team and they’re dangerous,” he said. “They have pieces that you have to keep your eye on. You don’t want to let them get comfortable, they are a good passing team. They can put the ball on the ground and pass and move together. We’ll have to disrupt that.”

But inconsistency isn’t the only issue with NYCFC. The club, which features the league’s leading scorer in David Villa, is also 1-3-5 at home, which is worse than most teams' road records. The Union defeated NYCFC, 2-0, on April 23.

“No team is happy when they lose at home,” said Union midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta. “They put everything into winning that next game. We have to accept this battle against a good team.”

4. Keep an eye on
Warren Creavalle: On Thursday, the Union announced that midfielder Vincent Nogueira ripped up his contract to go back to France and take care of a personal health issue. Creavalle will look to fill the freshly vacant No. 8 spot, which shouldn’t be a departure for the veteran player. He started nine games and played in 11 this season -- much of his time coming in to spell Nogueira.

David Villa: While NYCFC might be a mess, there’s been one consistent player in David Villa. The superstar leads MLS with 10 goals and in shots with 88. He’s a player that can win games for NYCFC. “He’s really dangerous,” Curtin said. “He works his tail off.”

5. This and that
• Including the 7-0 loss to the Red Bulls, NYCFC is 0-2-1 in their last three games, allowing 12 goals over that span. They were even ejected from the Open Cup tournament on Wednesday with a loss to the New York Cosmos of the NASL.

• On the other side, the Union are riding a franchise-record eight-game unbeaten streak. They haven’t lost since April 16 against the Seattle Sounders.

• Because of the small field at Yankee Stadium, Curtin is preparing for an offensive slugfest. “It’s small, it’s really small,” he said. “It’s tough to put together a ton of passes, so we’ll need to be able to roll up your sleeves, be ready to fight.”

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