Union manager Jim Curtin still hasn’t forgotten the sting he felt the last time the Montreal Impact visited Talen Energy Stadium.
At that point, the Union were still in the midst of the 15-game winless streak that stretched from the start of last September through the end of this April. There was no end in sight, but a game against an Impact squad that was in pretty bad shape itself had potential to be the tonic.
For the game’s first 40 minutes, it proved to be just that. The Union jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and seemed on course to snap out of their funk.
But when Ignacio Piatti scored late in first half for Montreal, there was that familiar sense of worry again. Then Anthony Jackson-Hamel cut the lead to 3-2 midway through the second half, and those worries turned into something more. It almost seemed inevitable when Jackson-Hamel tied the game in the 87th minute.
Curtin did not need reminding of any of that this week. But he got it anyway, and took it head-on.
“It was at a time when we did not have a lot of confidence,” said Curtin, whose team hosts Montreal on Saturday at 8 p.m. “When that [Piatti] goal went in, you could almost feel the life go out of the stadium.”
The final whistle, Curtin said, “was probably rock bottom” for the season.
“Going through that time can only make a group stronger,” he added, “because it couldn’t get much lower than it was early on in the year.”
It’s easier to reflect on that game now than it was at the time. The result was still a tie, after all. The Union got another tie at Los Angeles the next weekend. A week later, they finally got a win, and won three more in a row after that.
Now the collapse is in the record books as the first game of six straight unbeaten.
The Union are 8-5-2 in the 15 games since the Impact’s last visit. And with 11 games to go in the season, they’re very much alive in the playoff race. Yes, they’re in eighth place, but just three points back of sixth-place Columbus with a game in hand. And fourth through 10th in the Eastern Conference are separated by only nine points.
If that isn’t enough motivation, Curtin can easily raise the ghosts of April. At this point, anything that works is worth it.
Transaction: The Union traded a spare international roster slot to the Columbus Crew on Thursday, receiving $50,000 in general allocation money in exchange. Columbus needed the slot to accommodate its new $2 million Designated Player signing, Portuguese winger Pedro Santos. The international slot will return to the Union for the 2018 season.
Union vs. Montreal Impact
8 p.m. Saturday at Talen Energy Stadium
Broadcast: CSN, MLSSoccer.com (paid subscription)
Union's record: 8-10-5, 29 points (8th in the East); 7-3-2 at home
Montreal's record: 7-8-6, 27 points (9th in the East); 1-5-5 on the road
All-time series: Impact 6 wins, Union 3 wins, 6 ties
At Talen Energy Stadium: Union 2 wins, Impact 0 wins, 5 ties
Montreal players to watch
M Ignacio Piatti: The Argentine is a playmaking wizard on the left side of midfield, and a perennially underrated MVP candidate. He's also a lethal scorer, as shown by his team-leading nine goals this year.
F Anthony Jackson-Hamel: His size, strength and speed make him a perfect super-sub off the bench. So does his knack for scoring clutch goals. Two of his six tallies this year were game-winners, including last weekend vs. Orlando.
M Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla: He's one of the most talented young players in MLS, but he's been in the headlines this week for the wrong reasons. With clubs across Europe pursuing the 18-year-old, his agent tried to claim the Impact were preventing a move abroad. But it backfired, as rumors of interest proved to be nothing more than that. Tabla apologized publicly, and now must return his focus to the field.