Union vs. Real Salt Lake
8:00 p.m. on CSN
Hitting the road with a club record four-game win streak at their back, the streaking Union (4-4-4) will face a cross-country test Saturday, as they take on Albert Rusnak and inconsistent Real Salt Lake (3-8-2) at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here are five things to know.
1. Keeping momentum
With four-straight wins and six unbeaten to catapult them up the Eastern Conference standings and nearly in playoff position, the Union are rolling.
But despite the hot streak, Union manager Jim Curtin doesn’t want his club’s demons returning.
“The biggest thing we’ve tried to stress how hard we had to work to get out of that hole and the feeling we had while we were in that hole, we don’t want that back ever against,” Curtin said, with regards to the Union going winless in their first eight games of the season. “The good run of games helps that and the performances have been really good, but you’re guarding against that ever creeping back in and kicking it down when it does.”
Curtin shouldn’t have to worry about that. His players have proven to possess a steady mental quality, one they put on display throughout the eight-game winless streak to start the season. There wasn’t infighting or finger-pointing, the club went to work and are now fighting for a playoff position.
“We’re not going to get too high or get too low,” Curtin said. “We’re going to stick with what we believe in.”
Along with mental strength, Union leading scorer C.J. Sapong, who has eight goals on the season, believes it’s positive vibes that will help the team continue its streak in Utah.
“It’s the collective energy of the group,” he said. “Through our rough spell, we still had belief in ourselves. We finally got that one win and have been flying high since then.”
2. Haris on fire
Playing quarterback of the Union’s offense and spearheading his club’s recent hot streak, Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin is quickly warming up to MLS.
“Haris has been excellent for us,” Curtin said. “There’s a couple statistics now where we’re at the top of the league and he has one — it’s called usage percentage. Fourteen-percent of our touches are distributed by him, so if you want him to be a quarterback, point guard, he’s third in the league in that. We want him on the ball as much as possible and that’s including restarts where he’s proven to be lethal.”
Lethal is right. After registering three assists in his first nine MLS games, the veteran defensive midfielder is pacing the Union’s attack, scoring two goals and two assists over the Union’s last four wins. That includes the game-winner against the Colorado Rapids last Saturday, where he ripped a free kick through the Rapids’ defensive wall to beat Tim Howard from just outside the box.
And while Medunjanin is known as an adept playmaker, it’s that free-kick scoring ability that takes his game, and the Union offense, to another level.
“He has an ability to serve a ball to get an assist and the shooting he possesses to win a game for you, it’s huge,” Curtin said. “Other teams have to be cautious in and around the box which leads to us being more dangerous around the box.”
3. Trusting the process
The Union and RSL have a lot in common this season. Both teams went winless from August onward to finish the 2016 season and both clubs suffered losses in the early going of 2017, falling to the bottom of their respective conferences.
The difference is while the Union have recovered from that depressing ordeal, RSL hasn’t.
“The process is going,” said RSL coach Mike Petke, who took over the team in late March. “It takes a while and you have to be willing to go over a lot of speed bumps. We’re working through some stuff and we’ll be better off in the end.”
While RSL has five losses in their last six matches, the players do feel that tide turning.
“You gotta keep pulling out the positives of every game we play and keep building on them,” RSL’s Luke Mulholland said. “We have to keep working on the positives, shooting and hopefully we’ll find the back of the net here.”
With a 2-1 home win over New York City FC on May 17, RSL traveled to CenturyLink Field last weekend, where they stood toe-to-toe in a 1-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. They were not outmatched, which should give the Union pause.
“I consider it a loss on paper but we gained so much in there,” Petke said. “To look at the game and rewatch it again, the players did 95% of what we wanted. It was ugly, we dumbed it down because that’s what we had to do. We were bleeding goals so we wanted to limit certain things. It’s an incredible stepping stone. But it’s all for nothing if they don’t carry it into the Philadelphia game.”
4. Keep an eye on …
Albert Rusnak: While RSL doesn’t have much going for it offensively, it’s not for lack of trying from Rusnak. The 22-year-old first-year MLS midfielder has three goals and four assists in 11 games. He’s the player the Union will have to stop Saturday.
Haris Medunjanin: The midfielder will look to keep his hot streak alive Saturday, as he goes for his fifth point in five games. It’s becoming abundantly clear that as Medunjanin goes, so does the Union.
5. This and that
• In the Union’s history, they have never defeated RSL. The club is 0-3-6 all-time against the Western Conference side.
• During the Union’s 4-0-0 streak, they have outscored opponents, 11-1. The lone goal against came in the first half of the Union’s come-from-behind win over the Rapids on Saturday.
• Despite a very success past few weeks, the Union are picking up injuries. Midfielder Fabian Herbers strained his hip/groin against the Rapids. He’s out two-to-four weeks. Roland Alberg is also expected to be out with a quad injury. Defender Josh Yaro is healthy and training with the team but is a conditioning track.
• For the hosts, MLS veteran Tony Beltran is expected back in the lineup against the Union. The defender missed 10 matches with back and calf injuries.