Points pivotal as Union, Crew open home-and-home set

An 0-4-4 start ensured that the Philadelphia Union would face a season-long battle to climb into the top six to claim a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia stopped the bleeding and, despite a 2-1 loss at Montreal on Wednesday, carries a 6-8-5 record into Saturday’s opener of a home-and-home series with Columbus Crew SC in Ohio.

The Union’s 23 points put them ninth, five back of the seventh-place Crew (9-10-1).

“At this point in the season, you can start to see how many positions you can fall out of if you don’t get results — and how many positions you can climb when you do,” Union forward C.J. Sapong said.

The Union will go into the match at Mapfre Stadium short-handed again.

Andre Blake, the 2016 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, will play for Jamaica in its CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal vs. Mexico on Sunday while midfielder Chris Pontius is with the United States for its semifinal Saturday against Costa Rica.

Philadelphia will also be without midfielder Roland Alberg, who was suspended one game by the MLS Disciplinary Committee. Either Marcus Epps or Adam Najem will likely make his first league start in his absence.

“It’s a hard time for us in terms of personnel,” Union coach Jim Curtin said on his teleconference call Friday. “The one thing we do have is not a huge drop off from our starters to our second-teamers. We do have that depth. You look across the league and it does happen to other teams as well.”

A positive is that midfielder Alejandro Bedoya is expected to return after missing the last match for the birth of his child.

The Crew, who have not played a league match since a 1-0 win at Minnesota United on July 4, will be missing midfielder Federico Higuain (nine goals, five assists) because of a right knee sprain.

But Columbus will have an inspired midfielder in Justin Meram, who was not named to the MLS All-Star Game despite eight goals and six assists.

“To me quite frankly, it’s pretty hard to understand how he’s not on the team,” Crew coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s not just the assists and the goals. It’s the chances he’s creating. He’s one of the top three most dangerous wings in the league. No question he deserves it.”

The teams will meet again Wednesday in Philadelphia.