Union-Impact 5 things: Andre Blake, Alejandro Bedoya return

Union vs. Impact
7 p.m. on TCN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Separated by just three points in the Eastern Conference standings, and with both teams coming off lopsided losses, the Union (11-10-7) and Montreal Impact (9-8-10) will kick up the intensity Saturday night as they battle for playoff position at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup.

1. Returning stars
Missing last weekend’s match against the Chicago Fire, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and goalkeeper Andre Blake will return to the Union from international duty, just in time to face the Impact. 

“We’ll have Alejandro and Andre back [Saturday] with us,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose club lost, 3-0, without the pair of standouts. “It’s great to get them back, they are two players that played very well for their national teams and contributed in big ways. To have them back coming into the team makes us a lot stronger.”

It also makes the Union midfield a more cohesive group. Without Bedoya at the No. 8 spot, the Union were forced to use Tranquillo Barnetta at the No. 8 and Roland Alberg at the center attacking midfield position. It hasn’t been a successful setup for the club all season and proved itself unsatisfactory against the Fire, as the Union were held off the scoreboard.

On Saturday, Bedoya will play the No. 8, with Barnetta playing a more offensive role.

“It’s a different role than I’m used to,” Bedoya said. “But I’ve adjusted just fine and done what the coaching staff has wanted me to do. It’s not so much being involved offensively but being the link guy between the defense and the offense and make sure we don’t get scored on.”

2. Playoff importance
If the Union want a favorable spot in the East playoff picture, they need a result against the Impact on Saturday. As it stands, the Union, in the fourth position, are three points ahead of the Impact, though Montreal has a game in hand.

“It’s no secret, you don’t want to just get in at the six or five spot because you put almost nine or 10 months of work together to get thrown out there on a Wednesday,” Curtin said. “It can be over in a second on the road. That’s not what we want to work towards.”

With a top-two spot nearly out of the question, what the Union do want is the three or four spot in the East, which would guarantee them a first-round home game. That’s easier said than done, as the Union host the Impact, then hit the road for three straight games against Toronto FC, Portland Timbers and New York Red Bulls. 

Saturday’s match is of utmost importance if the Union want to see home in the playoffs.

“The value of home field in our league is more so than any pro sport that there is right now,” Curtin said. “[Seeds] three, four [are] critical because you want to play a home game, and that’s one off game, too, it’s do-or-die. You don’t want to work for nine months to have to go on the road and have it be over on a Wednesday.” 

3. Stopping Drogba, Piatti
The last time the Union faced the Impact, they were destroyed, 5-1, with Didier Drogba and Ignacio Piatti combining for six points (four goals, two assists). 

“They’re class players,” Bedoya said. “Drogba, his name speaks for itself, and Piatti has been one of the best players in the league. You have to be tight on them. If we can stop those two guys, we’ll be in better shape.”

That’s an easy strategy to draw up. Piatti has 14 goals and five assists in 25 games, while Drogba has nine goals and five assists in 18 games. Drogba scored in the Impact’s 4-1 loss to Orlando City on Wednesday.

“I’d put Piatti, [Sebastian] Giovinco and [David] Villa as the top three guys right now in our league in terms of form and difficulty in shutting down,” said Curtin, who also called Drogba a world-class player. “Piatti is a handful, he’s a real handful.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Returning from international duty, it’ll be Blake’s job to help stop the dynamic attacking duo of Piatti and Drogba. If anyone can do it, it’s Blake. The Union will need him.

Impact: Drogba has absolutely crushed the Union this season. In two games against the Union, the Impact have six goals. Drogba has four of them. If the Union want to stop the Impact, it starts with the legendary forward. 

5. This and that
• Maurice Edu made his in-game season debut last weekend with Bethlehem Steel. After a little over 30 minutes, he was replaced by doctor’s orders. However, it was just a start for the midfielder who is on the mend from a broken leg but will not play against the Impact (see story). “We want him to get a little sharper each time as we go,” Curtin said. “And get him back integrated with the first team.”

• The Union are still one win away from tying the franchise record for wins set at 12. 

• The Impact lead the all-time series, 5-3-4, and have a win and draw over the Union this season.

• Since joining MLS last season, Drogba has 20 goals in 29 games.