AMOBI OKUGO has known Jack McInerney since high school, when both were part of U.S. soccer's residency program. They were drafted a pick apart in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft and roomed together on countless road trips throughout four-plus seasons with the Union.
So for Okugo and other Union mainstays, tomorrow's match at Montreal might feel a bit strange. Three weeks and a day after the Philly club made the surprising deal to send their star striker north of the border, McInerney will rejoin his former teammates on the pitch, as an opponent in an important game for both teams.
"I might call his name thinking he's on my team once or twice," Okugo said ahead of tomorrow's 4 p.m. game at Stade Saputo. "I'm gonna get some hits in on him for fun."
In search of its first win since the March 15 home opener, the Union (1-2-5) will have to pay close attention to McInerney, its leading scorer the previous two seasons. The 21-year-old has played in two games for Montreal (0-4-3) and scored in his Impact debut on April 12. He played the entire game that day, but only 34 minutes in a start last Saturday.
"It's going to be interesting," Union manager John Hackworth said. "I know, personally, I'll look forward to seeing him. There's no ill will between us. In this game in particular, our whole goal will be to deny, not only Jack but [Marco] Di Vaio and the rest of their attacking players, the time and space that they need to do what they do best.
"He's an opponent right now. But I'm sure after the game, we'll have a word and wish him well, until we see him next time, when he's the enemy again."
Hackworth's squad could really use three points from this match, its last of a so-far winless month. April has consisted of three draws and a defeat for the Union, which has netted only nine goals in eight games. This will be its second meeting with Montreal; the teams played to a 1-1 draw on March 29 at PPL Park.
Okugo, the starting center back who will go head to head with his close friend, looks forward to the reunion match. When McInerney was traded, Okugo became the only member of the Union to be with the club in each of its five seasons thus far.
"It will be fun," Okugo said. "We've already talked about it. I think he's still [living] in the hotel, so we'll probably get dinner the day before, and after the game swap jerseys and everything. But during the game, he already knows we battle it out, just like we were when he was here, at practice. Now it's just game time."
For Andrew Wenger, the 23-year-old forward the Union acquired for McInerney, this weekend marks a trip back to a place where he didn't have the greatest two-plus seasons. The Lancaster native and former No. 1 draft pick scored six goals in 51 games with the Impact. For whatever reason, it just didn't work out.
"I think it was a rough time in Montreal for me, personally," said Wenger, who's started the last three games for the Union and, like McInerney in Montreal, scored in his team debut on April 12. "Clearly, it didn't go the way I would've planned it, though nothing ever goes to plan. But there were a lot of positives taken. I learned a lot playing there, specifically playing under Marco."
Tomorrow's match is one Wenger would love to win. He didn't hide that fact when speaking to reporters Wednesday. McInerney likely feels the same way. The April 4 trade is still fresh in everybody's minds.
"You always want to prove something," Wenger said. "How much worth there is in just winning one game. Who knows? But that would be nice and just always playing well for the rest of the season would be great."
Wheeler still 'first choice'
For the third consecutive game, it appears Aaron Wheeler will start at center back over Opening Day starter Austin Berry.
Hackworth made it clear during his weekly news conference Wednesday that Wheeler remained ahead of Berry and Ethan White on the depth chart. Berry, acquired in the preseason from the Chicago Fire to bolster the defense, struggled in his start against Real Salt Lake on April 12, his lone appearance since the March 15 home opener, during which he injured his hamstring.
"Aaron has done well in the minutes that he's played and because we had a positive result like getting a shutout and doing it against a team like Houston who is going to come out firing, I think Aaron right now is still the first choice," Hackworth said.
Hackworth said Berry might have come back from his injury a bit too soon, but added that the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year is performing well in training. He played well in his first two games with the Union before the injury.
"There's good, healthy competition in training," Hackworth said, "and I think that translates to guys pushing each other and performing better in games."