5 Things to Watch Ahead of Philadelphia Union at CF Montreal

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MLS
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Fresh off a cathartic 4-0 home win against Alianza to advance to the next round of the CONCACAF Champions League, the Union look to take that form north of the border for their upcoming away match against a struggling CF Montreal. Now that the Champions League is out of the way (for now), all eyes turn back to MLS, where the Union’s early season form can best be described as inconsistent. Fortunately for them, this seems like a prime opportunity to get a big win and build some momentum. Here are five things to watch heading into the weekend’s matchup.

Union
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Can the Union Get An Away Win?

We all know how good the Union is at home, racking up eleven straight league wins (one-off San Jose’s record of twelve) and going unbeaten since late in the 2021 season, turning Subaru Park into an impenetrable fortress to match the likes of Constantinople. They haven’t been as dominant on the road, as evidenced by the toothless loss at Inter Miami two weeks ago. Even at home against Chicago last week, it took a last-gasp stunner from Joaquín Torres to snatch a win after a disjointed performance.

The pitch at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium isn’t the best, which could also hinder the Union’s attempts to find some attacking cohesion (although in his midweek press conference, Jim Curtin mentioned that it “sounds like they put in a new turf there,” so the state of the pitch remains to be seen). That said, the gaps in talent level and form mean the Union deserves to be considered heavy favorites in this matchup. Last season, the Union won 2-1 at the same Olympic Stadium (and drew 1-1 in Philly), so they’ve proven they can handle whatever curveballs the pitch throws at them.

Can Montreal Get It Together?

CF Montreal was fantastic in 2022. Led by MLS Coach of the Year candidate Wilfried Nancy, and boasting Canadian international defender Alistair Johnston, occasional US international Djordje Mihailovic, leading scorer Romell Quioto, and talented MLS journeyman Kei Kamara, Montreal stormed their way to their best-ever finish, second-place behind the Union by just two points. Considering the historically good season the Union had, finishing so close behind them was a monumental achievement for a club none of the MLS.com experts predicted to finish higher than 4th (and most predicted to be a few spots lower). Disappointing playoff performance aside, Montreal’s season was a resounding success.

Then the offseason smashed the team to pieces.

Those four players I mentioned? Romell Quioto is the only one left. Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar) and Johnston (Celtic) were snatched up by European teams, and, as the Union saw last week (until his red card sent him to an early shower), Kamara is now with the Chicago Fire. And yet, perhaps their biggest loss was their coach, Wilfried Nancy, jumping ship to join the Columbus Crew. 

He was replaced by Argentinian manager Hernan Losada, known in MLS circles for an underwhelming stint at D.C. United (a team he joined on the back of a seven-match winless streak at Beerschot, his first job in management). Losada was let go by D.C. just over a year after joining the team, thanks to poor results and disagreements with the front office. Afterward, several of his former players spoke out about his poor communication, among other issues.

In their first three games this season, Montreal has yet to earn a point or even score a goal. The one positive for them is all three games were away from home. They, and their fans, will expect an improvement in their home opener.

Joaquín Torres Returns to Montreal

The Union picked up Torres in the off-season for $500k in General Allocation Money (plus the possibility of an additional $300k depending on performance-based incentives) to fill the void left by Paxten Aaronson’s January departure to Eintracht Frankfurt (bonus thing to watch for this weekend: Aaronson has made Frankfurt’s bench in three straight Bundesliga games; there’s a chance he makes his debut for them this Sunday in an important match against Union Berlin). Torres had 7 goals and 12 assists in 55 games (37 starts) for Montreal, proving himself to be the kind of difference maker off the bench that the Union were looking for.

Since arriving in Philadelphia, Torres has made quite the impression. On his debut off the bench, he spun around multiple Columbus players before playing a gorgeous, defense-splitting pass for Julián Carranza to score the Union’s fourth and final goal. As I mentioned earlier, he also came off the bench to score the 90th-minute game-winner against Chicago. He’ll surely want to impress against his former team, and with the form, he’s in, it’s hard to bet against him doing just that. While I think he’ll probably come off the bench again, with Julian Carranza playing 77 minutes midweek keep an eye out for Torres possibly starting the match.

Will the Union Rotate Their Lineup?

Up to this point, the Union has stuck with their presumed strongest lineup in league play, using the Champions League to rotate their starters. That being said, the second leg against Alianza saw less rotation, with six players from that “strongest lineup” getting the start on Tuesday. Five of those six didn’t play the full 90 minutes, but it’s still tough on players to play so often this early in the season. 

Kai Wagner was the only player not to come off and is also the only player to have started every game for the Union so far this season. In fact, the German left-back has played every minute of every game up to this point. While fans often joke that he is a robot, even he can’t keep that up across every competition. Jim Curtin has spent two years talking about how impressive Matt Real has looked in training. At some point, he’ll have to show that form on the field so Wagner can get a rest.

Despite playing so many starters midweek, I think it’s likely the Union stick with their typical lineup this weekend. They’ll hope to get a comfortable lead by the second half and bring on some of the stronger performers from Tuesday to kill the game off.

Can Mikael Uhre Get Off the Mark?

I wrote last week (here) about Uhre’s struggles compared to his attacking teammates. While I predicted him to show up big against Chicago, I was wrong. He was hauled off in the 61st minute, replaced by eventual game-winner Joaquín Torres. Considering he hadn’t played at all in the previous game (the midweek first leg against Alianza), only making it about 60 minutes is a cause for concern about a player who has never completed a full 90 minutes for the Union.

That being said, it is difficult to fault Uhre too much for a game in which the entire offense struggled. In that game and in the Tuesday game where he came off the bench, he continued to do well in the areas he has done well all season. Namely, stretching the opposition’s defense to create space while providing a passing option for his teammates. Sooner or later, that will translate into goals for the Danish striker. Let’s hope it’s sooner.

Prediction

I’m looking for the Union to translate their midweek form into an MLS away game. If they do, I see them coming out as 2-1 winners, mirroring their score in Montreal from last season (hopefully finishing with all 11 men on the field this time). Unfortunately, until they can prove otherwise, I anticipate the trend of starting slow and not really getting going until the second half to continue.

With that in mind, I think Montreal score first to get the home crowd into it. Then the Union come out in the second half and silence them with goals from Carranza and Torres, who once again makes an impact off the bench.

For more on the Union’s matchup against Montreal, take a look at Justin Friedberg’s match preview here!

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union