Union-D.C. United 5 Things: Rivalry Night in Crucial East Matchup

Union vs. D.C. United 
7 p.m. on Univision

After rattling off a pair of draws against formidable competition to stay atop the Eastern Conference, the Union (4-3-3) get their first taste of rivalry play on Friday night when they host D.C. United (3-4-4) at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things you need to know for the matchup:

1. Friday night rivalry game
For the first time in 2016, the Union will be facing a true rival in D.C. United. And that gives Friday night’s nationally televised Eastern Conference showdown an added jolt.

“All the East Coast teams, there’s a little something special in the rivalry,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, who then attempted to play down the hype. 

“At the same time, every Eastern Conference team is a rivalry game. We have to get three points, it’s going to be challenging, it’s the hardest thing to do in our league. So, we’ll need to be on our game.”

Though over the years, the Union-United matchup has often featured red cards, excessive shoving and late-game heroics, United coach Ben Olsen also attempted to water down the rivalry. While the fans and players may have a little extra to start the match, both managers are playing it cool.

“To me, it’s an Eastern Conference team that is high in the standings and playing very well,” Olsen said. “It’s right up the road so I guess there’s some significance, but for us, we need to be ready to play a very good team. They’re deep, they’re hard-working and they have a good mindset right now. We have to be at our best and push ourselves.” 

2. Familiar foe for Pontius
While the coaches try to say Friday’s rivalry match is just another tilt in May, it won’t be a typical game for Union forward and former United player, Chris Pontius, who is facing his former team in MLS play for the first time since joining the Union in the offseason (see story).

“It’ll be a bit different emotionally lining up against them,” Pontius, who spent seven seasons with United, said. “Once you step on the field, it’s business as usual, you go out and try to get a win.”

If Pontius brings a little extra fire on Friday, it could be bad news for United. The left winger has been on fire lately with four goals and two assists in 10 games this season — his highest scoring total since he notched 12 goals in 2012. 

“Chris has had a great season,” Curtin said. “He’s been excellent for us offensively and defensively.”

If the 29-year-old can produce against his former club, it would be yet another chapter in the growing rivalry between the two clubs. 

“The rivalry has been very chippy, late-game dramatics and something that both sets of fans enjoy and both sets of players get up for,” Pontius said. “I’m looking forward to the battle on Friday.”

3. United’s struggle
Coming off a momentum-gaining win over the New York Red Bulls, Olsen’s club is feeling cautiously optimistic about itself. For United, beating a rival is just one step in the right direction. 

Now it’s about winning in consecutive games. 

“Our challenge right now is putting together back-to-back wins,” Olsen said. “We haven’t been able to do it this year. We’re focused on going there and getting a result.” 

United’s 3-4-4 record may be an illusion. They hammered the Vancouver Whitecaps, 4-0, trounced the New England Revolution, 3-0, and shut out the rival Red Bulls, 2-0, for their three wins on the year. As for losses, United suffered defeats at the hands of FC Dallas, L.A. Galaxy and Toronto FC — three of the league’s most prominent teams. 

“We have to step on the gas and keep pushing,” Olsen said. “Taking it up a notch, physicality, some of the movement offensively. This stuff has to keep moving forward and we have to grow. If we do that, we’ll be ok. We have to start putting together some streaks and that starts this weekend.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: With Ilsinho fighting off injury, it’s Roland Alberg that will provide the Union’s primary depth. And though the MLS rookie and roaming midfielder has yet to make a significant impact with the Union this season, Curtin is confident the breakout is coming. “Roland is an attack-minded player, he wants to get forward,” Curtin said. “He wants to make assists and score goals, and he’s going to contribute. With every new player that comes to the team, there’s still that adjustment period.” 

D.C. United: While Alvaro Saborio paces United in goals with four, Curtin focused his attention on his forward partner, Luciano Acosta, as the player to watch. “Acosta is very clever,” Curtin said about United’s assist leader. “To drift underneath and be the guy that has a bit of a freer role. He can make a pass and he can pick you apart if you’re not clever. He’s very good on the dribble and runs with the ball well.” 

5. This and that
• Ilsinho appeared to be a major factor in the Union’s offense at the start of the season — possibly even pushing Tranquillo Barnetta to the bench. But as the travel, games and intensity picked up, so did the playmaker’s injuries. Ilsinho is questionable for Friday’s match with a right adductor strain. “We’re anxious to get him back involved," Curtin said. "If we’re going to be a successful team and make a real push at things, we need him 100 percent healthy.”

• Tallying the all-time rivalry, the Union are 5-7-3 against United and 4-3-0 at home since 2010.

• The Union and United are separated by just two points in the East standings. And though the Union have a game in hand, the uncomfortably tight conference isn’t lost on Curtin. “This is a conference of runs,” he said. “Two and three wins here and there can really separate you. That’s something we’re fighting for right now.”

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