What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union Preview
This is a season defining moment for the Chicago Fire. There is no room for cute quips or funny intros to this week’s preview; it’s time for the squad to show that it has some character and pride left and get it done. Chicago takes on the Philadelphia Union in what is a must win match for both sides. The Fire sit in last place in the East with 22 points while Philly sits just one point ahead of them in 9th place having played two more matches. We can let the statistics and quality of play speak for themselves and conclude that neither team has a realistic shot of making the playoffs. The Open Cup remains a beacon of hope to salvage the season for both sides by offering a piece of silverware, a monetary prize, entry into the CONCACAF Champions league, and perhaps most importantly a reason why the season wasn’t a complete failure. The fact that the two worst teams in the East are in a semifinal reflects the beauty of the Open Cup and both sides will look to make history on Wednesday.
Philly Form Guide (Last Five League Matches): D-L-L-L-W
Previous match: A 0-0 draw away to Orlando.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; McCarthy; Fabinho, Marquez, Vitoria, Gaddis; Carrol, Lahoud; LeToux, Barnetta, Maidana; Sapong
Strengths: These two teams have faced off once before this season with the Fire earning their first three points of the season by narrowly defeating the Union 1-0 in March. Philadelphia had some strengths then and has continued to look good in certain aspects of the game. Notable positives last time out revolved around the dynamism in midfield exhibited by the Union. Sebastien LeToux, Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira, and Maurice Edu have shown that they can control the midfield and all have confidence on the ball. Since then, the Union have also added Swiss International and Bundesliga veteran Tranquillo Barnetta. Missing from the side is an important figure in their few successes this season however. Central midfielder Vincent Nogueira has been out since pulling his right quad on July 28 and isn’t expected back until later this month. Edu has also been sidelined recently with an undisclosed injury although he did make the bench last weekend.
While the Union aren’t a possession based team necessarily, when they are on the ball their midfielders can distribute with precision. Their passing accuracy is visible in the 80% completion rate average seen in their last five matches. What really credits their fluidity in attack however is the number of passes that comes in the final third. For a team that is as low in the standings as Philly, the number of clinical passes made in attack is astounding. While they haven’t always been clinical in finishing their chances, they sure have been creating a lot. Maidana and his eleven assists will be especially worrisome for the Fire (only Feilhaber and Finlay have more in the league). Polster and Cocis will need to continue their bull terrier-ness in the midfield if the Fire are to get the win.
Have a Go: The attacking quality of Philly comes through in more than just their distribution statistics. In a semi-bizarre stat for MLS, twelve of the Union’s last twenty-two shots on target have come from outside of the box. Of those twelve shots on target from outside the box, three have found the back of the net. With some of the errors that Sean Johnson has made this season, LeToux, Maidana, Andrew Wenger, and CJ Sapong will be jumping at every chance they get to shoot from distance. Giving Philly space will not bode well for the Fire.
Home Form: With seventeen of the Union’s twenty-three points coming at home this season, they have been better there, although five of their thirteen losses have come at PPL Park. Two of those defeats were to high flyers FC Dallas and NYRB. When you add the fact that Philly is looking to avenge an Open Cup Final loss to Seattle played at PPL Park last year, the fired up crowd and the home field advantage might give the Union a slight boost when they need it.
Weaknesses: If the section above seemed like it was grasping at straws to find strengths, that’s partially true. The elephant in the room is clearly that both of the teams featuring in this semi-final are bad. It’s just the truth. When focusing on the Fire’s opposition for Wednesday it quickly becomes clear that they are lacking in all aspects of the game at key moments and the weaknesses section could really take up an article of its own.
40: No, that isn’t a player’s number. It’s the number of goals that Philly has allowed in league play this season. No team has allowed more goals than the Union, and although Columbus (39) and Toronto (38) come close in conceding, their goal differentials are nowhere near Philly’s league worst of -11. What’s worse is that the goals come in every possible form. They’ve conceded headers, given up PKs, allowed goals from distance, tap ins, rebounds from goal keeper mistakes, etc. You name it and Philly probably has it on their goals conceded highlight reel. Jim Curtin has tried to remedy the situation by starting four different back four line ups in the last five matches but perhaps a lack of consistency is part of the problem. The chemistry just doesn’t seem to be there.
For example on the second goal conceded by Philadelphia against NYRB last week, Ray Gaddis gets turned inside out and tossed around the outside of the box like a rag doll by Shaun Wright Phillips before he linked up with his brother Bradley for an easy finish. The Union left one of the most prolific strikers in the league completely unmarked on his run into their penalty box. BWP didn’t wait for the Union to finish bickering about whose fault it was as he took off towards the corner flag in celebration. Similarly, in the match against DC the Union gave up a two goal lead to lose 3-2. Arguably all three goals were avoidable as man marking was an issue. In fact, “the Union left ______ wide open” seems to be a common statement on the calls. It’s like every team that the Union play suddenly becomes the prom king on prom night.
It isn’t necessary to continue pointing out flaws in their defensive capabilities, but something that the Fire will relish is the Union’s inability to deal with speed. It is a constant theme of these previews because of Chicago’s quality in that department, but Philly takes the lack of speed to another level. They have gone so far as to sign Warren Creavalle from Toronto right before the window closed. He is one of the speedier RB’s in the league and it might not be a coincidence that they acquired him right before a match against David Accam.
The Ghost of Rais M’Bolhi: Fire fans will remember that deft little Robert Earnshaw chip that came off of a misplaced M’Bolhi pass last season. It essentially eliminated Philly from playoff contention while building some hope for the Fire. Since then he strung together a few more ridiculous displays and the Union have relegated the Algerian keeper to train by himself on a remote island somewhere. In his stead, youngsters John McCarthy and Brian Sylvestre have traded off tenures between the sticks, both with mixed results (12 GA and 19GA respectively). Sylvestre won’t be in the line-up since he is cup-tied to Carolina. There most likely won’t be a clean sheet for Philly in this one.
Misfiring: If the Union were playing Battleship they wouldn’t need very many of their red pieces. Sapong, their leading goal scorer has a mere seven goals. Fernando Aristeguieta and his French Ligue 1 experience were to be a highlight of this Union side and he has found the back of the net just three times this season. If you discount the random daisy cutter from distance by Conor Casey in the loss against Toronto, Sapong and Aristeguieta are the only two forwards who have actually scored this season. That’s a scary stat. If the Fire stick to a compact game plan, close down quickly, and look to spring on the counter, the result is there to be had.
Injuries: Nogueira, Edu, and Wenger have all missed time recently and are in question for this match.
Prediction: This match will not be pretty and it wouldn’t be surprising to see it go 120 minutes and maybe even to penalties. Either way, the Fire will get it done. There isn’t any other option really. Chicago 2-1 Philadelphia. Gilberto will open the scoring to announce his arrival and Mike Magee will serve as Chicago’s savior yet again.