Union wants to stymie Red Bulls' two top stars

Posted: July 17, 2014

THE NEW YORK Red Bulls' position in the standings doesn't necessarily jump off the page, but a simple glance at the MLS statistical leaderboard serves as a reminder of the club's firepower.

Bradley Wright-Phillips and Thierry Henry will arrive at PPL Park tonight as the league's leaders in goals and assists, respectively. Thwarting their efforts will be crucial for the Union (4-8-7) in what interim manager Jim Curtin yesterday deemed "a real swing game" regarding the direction of his team's season.

"They have quality players all over the field, especially in attacking areas," Union defender Ray Gaddis said. "Henry is Henry and Wright-Phillips is the hottest forward right now in MLS, leading the league in goals. And then you always have to worry about the presence of [Australian World Cup veteran Tim Cahill] making a late run, and Lloyd Sam.

"They have a variety of weapons. I just think we need to play our game and play tough and play hard, and everything else will take care of itself."

Sitting in seventh place in the 10-team Eastern Conference, the Union could really use three points tonight. Despite all its first-half struggles, it's only four points behind fifth-place New York (5-5-8) and fourth-place New England (7-8-2), the clubs in position for the final two playoff spots. Sixth-place Columbus (4-6-8) is only a point ahead of the Union, which Saturday at home blew a two-goal lead in a 3-3 draw with Colorado.

New York is coming off a 4-1 win over Columbus that same night. Henry, the Arsenal star, scored and tallied three assists en route to earning MLS Player of the Week honors. The 36-year-old Frenchman has nine assists on the season, while Wright-Phillips has 15 goals in 17 games, including four goals over the last three contests.

"I don't need a scouting report of 20 pages to tell me that Thierry Henry's good at soccer. This is something all our guys know," Curtin said. "He's a top player in the league. He is a handful and, obviously, we'll have to focus on him. As he goes, New York goes."

One player will not be tasked with stopping Henry, Curtin said, explaining that a collective effort from all 11 players is needed to slow down the Red Bulls' attack. Maurice Edu's return from a red-card suspension should give the Union a boost, but the club will be without midfielders Amobi Okugo and Michael Lahoud, both of whom picked up red cards on Saturday.

This week is pivotal for the Union, as it also visits eighth-place Chicago on Saturday in its last league game of July.

"I said to [the team], 'At some point, we're going to have to go on a run that's a real run, not just win one here, lose one, win two, lose two.' It can't be that," Curtin said. "It has to be a real upward movement now, because we've dug a deep hole. We have to get out of it and the only way to do that is putting consecutive results together."

Pfeffer impresses

While readying for tonight's match, members of the Union staff kept an eye Monday night on the action in Carson, Calif.

Zach Pfeffer, the Philadelphia-area's homegrown 19-year-old midfielder, is competing with the United States' Under-20 national team in this year's National Training Center Invitational. In a come-from-behind 2-1 U.S. victory against Chile on Monday, Pfeffer came off the bench, assisted on the game-tying goal, then scored the game-winner.

"He's a guy I've had since he was 16 years old, so we know what kind of quality he has," Curtin said. "It's just doing it, day in and day out. You look at his performance last night and that's the Zach we all know."

Pfeffer, a Dresher native, has appeared in four games for the Union this season, but none since June 7. He had one shot on goal in 81 minutes.

The U-20 team is back in action tonight at 7 against Bermuda.

"People forget how young [Pfeffer] is," Curtin said. "The fact that he's still at the U-20 national team makes me smile, because it feels like he's been on the Union for 10 years. But [he had a] great performance [Monday] night and we're proud of him."

Free kicks

Midfielder Vincent Nogueira (groin) and center back Austin Berry (illness) fully participated in training and are available for selection tonight . . . Jim Curtin said the Union remains hopeful it can bring back Colombian center back Carlos Valdes. "It's taking a little longer than we had hoped," he said, "but we're still cautiously optimistic that maybe we can get something done and come to an agreement" . . . Curtin and assistant Mike Sorber spoke this week with head of officials Peter Walton regarding three of the calls in Saturday's draw. Without any audio or video evidence of Amobi Okugo's alleged post-match "dissent," the Union decided it was not worth appealing the controversial red card . . . The MLS Disciplinary Committee suspended Colorado defender Shane O'Neill one game and fined him an undisclosed amount for his dangerous tackle of the Union's Danny Cruz in Saturday's 11th minute. During the match, O'Neill was presented with only a yellow card.

On Twitter: @jakemkaplan

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