The Fire face Philadelphia on Thursday at 3pm (stream at Chicago-Fire.com) in their second match of preseason. Martin Tomszak takes a look at Chicago's first test against MLS competition this year.
What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Possession, passing, fluidity and goals! The Chicago Fire put together a dominating preseason performance on Saturday beating USF 3-0. Not only did the match build cohesion, confidence, and fitness, but more importantly Fire fans saw that Paunovic is more than just a smooth talker. Chicago looked great, albeit against a college side and the style of play that fans have been promised came through. They continue phase two of preseason with a match against the Philadelphia Union in Clearwater on Thursday. Paunovic spent one season with the Union in 2011 as a player and he will certainly be relishing a chance to face them even if it is just a friendly.
Last year’s 20th place team vs. the 18th place team may not seem like an attention grabber but these two teams find themselves on very similar trajectories and this match could be an early indicator of things to come. Both sides are attempting to crawl out of the gutter; will they succeed or find out that there is in fact a gutter of the gutter?
Philly Form Guide: 0-1 in Preseason.
Previous Match: A 1-0 loss to former Chicago Fire marksman Matt Fondy and the Jacksonville Armada.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Fabinho, Anderson, Marquez, Gaddis; Noguiera, Alberg; Le Toux, Pontius, Barnetta; Sapong
Strengths: This is a Philly side that finds its self in a similar situation to Chicago. They are in the process of completely revamping not only their roster, but their entire club. USMNT legend and former AZ Alkmaar Director of Football Earnie Stewart was brought in as the Union’s first ever Sporting Director to help coach Jim Curtin build a solid foundation and revamp the club’s business and soccer philosophies. This is singlehandedly the biggest strength of this side. It may not bring success this year but this is a solid move going forward.
Fresh Faces: The Union saw a mass exodus this winter with 14 players leaving via trades, expired contracts, and declined options. Only Colorado (15) and Chicago (14) came close to having that much change. While we will analyze the negatives of this below, you have to say that this makes for an interesting preseason camp. Starting spots are up for grabs, a new style of play is being promised by Stewart and Curtin, and second chances abound for those that are sticking around or coming into a new situation.
Dutch connection: Stewart didn’t wait long to cash in on some favors from across the pond. The Union have finalized a move for AZ Alkmaar academy product Roland Alberg from ADO Den Haag. The creative attacking midfielder is only 25 and has made 59 appearances in the last two seasons, scoring 16 goals and tallying 15 assists. His visa has gone through which means he will likely be a handful for Chicago on Thursday.
Veteran Presence: In a shrewd piece of business Philly sent some Garber Bucks to DC United for their longest serving player, winger Chris Pontius. In a move that suited everyone, Pontius happily proclaimed that he needed a fresh start to keep his mind off of injuries and the monotony of being with the same team for his whole career. He is ready for a new challenge and hopes to offer some experience to the newly forming Union side. With 152 matches played, 31 goals and 17 assists in his seven year career, Pontius is just what Philly needs in terms of a league veteran. Look for him to give the new Fire backline a headache or two.
Hey, I Know You: Joshua Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry spent the past three seasons together at Georgetown University and were consistent starters in their time there. Yes, MLS is a different beast entirely but their partnership and experience together has set a good foundation for their transition into the professional scene. A Yaro/Rosenberry pairing at some point would put their common understanding on display and could prove troublesome for a Fire front line still trying to figure one another out. The pair had an excellent thirty minute outing in the friendly against Jacksonville.
The Frenchman: No Philly preview would be complete without reminding you that Sebastian Le Toux still plays for them. The all-time leading Open Cup goals scorer (15) has played 154 career MLS games for the Union and scored an impressive 48 goals in that time. Only three of those have come against the Fire in league play, but Le Toux is responsible for sending Chicago out of the Open Cup last season. He will likely want to establish himself as a non-disputed starter early in preseason and that could make for a fun outing on Thursday.
Weaknesses: Again, honesty is our policy here at Fire Confidential so we’ll just say it: this Philly side is pretty bad. Curtis had three separate line ups against Jacksonville on Saturday and they all failed to score, ultimately falling to a clinical one time finish from former Colorado Rapids striker Charles Eloundou. New faces and new philosophies aside, they should have been able to dispatch the last place NASL side with ease and their lack of goal scoring opportunities should worry a side that managed just 42 goals in last year’s campaign. The stats from the match were pretty much even across the board between the two sides and Curtin should be disappointed with that, no matter the stage of the season or the level of the opponent.
Winning is not the primary goal for preseason but the fact that Philly trotted out multiple trialists, USL affiliate trainees, and draft picks that have not yet been offered MLS contracts does not ooze confidence. The exodus of 14 players was met with a conservative player acquisition policy that has seen the arrival of just seven new faces. Having an official roster of just 21 players means that Philly can’t even field a full 11 v 11 scrimmage, much less engrain a new philosophy and a new set of tactics while attempting to compete in the Eastern Conference. Stewart and Curtis have argued that time and trust is needed more than a flurry of signings (where have we heard that before?), but the season is quickly approaching and words may not mean much on March 6th. Much like the Rodriguez and Paunovic project the Stewart and Curtis project needs time, patience, nurturing support, and a dash of optimism but it is hard to see any short term positives and even harder to see a Philadelphia victory against Chicago.
The reality of the situation is that the Union didn’t look very good on Saturday. If their starting 11 against Jacksonville is to be their regular season starting 11 (as alluded to by their own media recap of the match) then there isn’t much of a positive change from last season. It could be another year without soccer in November for Philadelphia.
Prediction: Even though it is just preseason you have to think this is an opportunity for the Chicago players left over from last season to exorcize some Open Cup demons. Affairs between the two sides are usually heated and this matchup has made for interesting viewing recently. This match will be more than a friendly as the Fire look to continue building momentum and put last year behind them. Chicago 2-0 Philadelphia. Goals from Gilberto and Arturo Alvarez.