After a two week break from league play the Fire are back in action and in need of some points at home. The opponent is off to a good start this season as a pair of young teams and coaches face off. Martin Tomszak takes a look at the challenge from former Fire defender Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union.
What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Nil-nil to Chicago? In what was one of the dullest soccer displays in recent Toyota Park memory the Chicago Fire drew Columbus Crew SC 0-0 before the international break. A loss and a draw is hardly the fortress that Fire supporters were promised by Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic but a clean sheet against last year’s MLS Cup runner up is nothing to be scoffed at. There are positives to be seen by even the most cynical supporters of the Fire. The building process continues this Saturday as the Fire take on Philadelphia.
Although it is only the team's fourth match of the season these sides met recently in preseason play. It turned out to be a 4-2 goal fest in favor of Chicago but the meaninglessness of preseason results has become ever more apparent in the last few weeks as the two sides find themselves on very different paths in the regular season. Both were termed “rebuilding projects” but the Union currently find themselves second in the Eastern Conference while Chicago is once again looking up from the bottom, albeit not the very bottom, as they sit in eighth. It is still early but Saturday’s result could cement intentions for either side. Will the Union coast to the top of the Eastern Conference? Will the Fire catapult into a playoff position, or will they settle for a draw?
Philadelphia Form Guide: W-W-L
Previous Match: A 3-0 home victory against New England.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Fabinho, Marquez, Tribbett, Rosenberry; Carrol Creavalle; Pontius, Alberg, Ilsinho; Sapong
Strengths: While no one predicted that Philly would be sitting in second place at any point of the season reality has painted a different picture. We were scratching our heads and grasping at straws for the preseason strengths section of our Philly preview (we came up with Earnie Stewart, a proper mix of league veterans and young acquisitions, and a nothing to lose mentality) but now we have a plethora to choose from. Let’s take a closer look.
The most logical place to start would be a change in mentality. After defeating the New England Revolution 3-0 in Philly’s home opener Coach Jim Curtin had this to say, “We wanted to show fans and the rest of the league what we already know in our group, that we’re different this year. We have a group that wants to play more, get on the ball, and create chances”. And create they did. The Union had fifteen shots with nine on target and although they had less possession they seemed to be more purposeful than New England when they did have the ball. Curtin’s response to the result was even more revealing than the stats, “We should have done better”. Sapong chimed in with “I’m happy with the two but I should have scored four”. They convincingly defeated a team that has been a staple in the playoffs over the last few seasons and it wasn’t good enough for the coaching staff or the players. This change in expectations from the top down and the bottom up should be a warning to the Union’s opposition this season.
A renewed style of play seems to mirror this new mentality. The Union are not afraid to soak up pressure in specific moments of the game. They have failed to dominate possession in any of their first three matches but have not collapsed in the way that typified their play last season (their performance in the loss to Dallas was admirable and the 2-0 score line does not accurately reflect their grit in a tough away match).
Being solid defensively has been a stressing point for Curtin and company. The new center back pairing of Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez seems to have gelled quickly and their first round draft pick Keegan Rosenberry has slotted in calmly at right back. Throw the veteran presence of Fabinho into the mix and their backline is one that will be looking to build off of the clean sheet earned in their last match. Did we mention the Union has put their goal keeping issues behind them? Andre Blake has been a beast at the back for Philadelphia, not only keeping them in matches with big time saves but also organizing and communicating well. With a cohesive and disciplined back line, the safe hands of Blake, and David Accam’s injury it is hard to see where a breakthrough will come from for Chicago.
Their renewed positive play continues to be evident as you move up the field as well. While they have re-purposed defender Warren Creavalle as a holding midfielder, he has adapted well. Neither he nor Brian Carrol have been charged with creativity but they have been solid defensively and in their distribution. Quick, short passes after recovery typify the pair and allows for attacking play to flow from the newly acquired midfield trio of Ilsinho, Roland Alberg and Chris Pontius.
Pontius has seemingly revitalized his career in Philadelphia with two goals in the win against Columbus and two dangerous shots against New England. His ability to draw in defenders and make dangerous runs has caused his partnership with left back Fabinho to flourish and options abound when the defender gets on the ball and steams up field. Ilsinho has seamlessly made the transition to MLS after leaving Shaktar Donetsk and has started at both CAM (what’s that?!) and RW in Philly’s formation, ensuring that the attack is dangerous no matter what side they are coming down. Earnie Stewart’s Dutch connections immediately paid off with his ability to attract young Eredivisie talent Roland Alberg to the Union. While his acclamation has been slow there have been flashes of brilliance from the attacker that might very well come to full fruition against Chicago.
Rounding out the starting XI is CJ Sapong who has also reinvigorated his career and this Union side under the guidance of Curtin. After a promising start in the league with Kansas City in 2011 and 2012 the hype and expectation surrounding the traditional “#9” seemed to get to his head. Add a few injuries and his contribution was minimal in 2014 and 2015 leading to a trade at the beginning of last season. He contributed nine goals to a Union side that struggled to find the back of the net scoring just 42 goals in the ‘14/’15 season. He’s back at it again with a brace against New England and great hold up play against Columbus. He will be a handful for Chicago’s defense as his growth as a player has added strength and tactical awareness to his finishing skills. If he can’t get it done the Union have a certain Sebastian Le Toux on the bench, a player who has relished scoring against the Fire with multiple teams (2015 Open Cup Semifinal anyone?).
Paunovic often speaks of respecting opponents but that approach will be a must on Saturday if Chicago is to get anything from the match.
Weaknesses: With our praise above you’d think that Philly should just be handed the MLS Cup but as always we’ll have to bring ourselves down to Earth. The Union is much improved but there are still gaping holes in the squad and their results have been skewed for a number of reasons. They lost their opening match but despite a valiant effort they were simply outplayed. Their win against Columbus has to be taken with a grain of salt given the Crew’s uncharacteristic start to the campaign, and the win against New England was slighted by their sixty-plus minute man advantage, lucky deflections, magic posts and two missed penalties. Yes, it’s a process but Chicago will be looking to take advantage of an incomplete project to continue their six game streak of not losing to Philadelphia in the league.
Can you slow down a bit?: The most glaring weakness for the Union is their inability to deal with speed on the counter. Fabinho likes to get forward but his lack of want or ability to track back has already been exposed several times this season and Rosenberry is no speed demon either. Both goals scored by Dallas came on quick counters with the backline simply getting torched in foot races and if Fabian Castillo and company had been more clinical with their finishing it could have been worse. The same was true in the match against Columbus. While a combination of poor finishing and some good stops from Blake ensured victory for the Union, many of the Crew’s chances came on the counter or on the back of some fluid ball movement. It doesn’t help that Ilsinho, Pontius, and Alberg don’t seem interested in defending either. Chicago will be kicking themselves for having Accam on the injury list but perhaps Kennedy Igboananike will get the nod against the Union in attempts to go after their slow back four.
Wait, I thought that was your guy: Poor marking on set pieces and crosses has become a hallmark of MLS and the Union’s first three matches could be used as a highlight reel of how not to defend. Unmarked forwards, late runners being allowed to waltz into the box, getting caught on the wrong side of the ball, etc. were blatantly obvious in all three encounters. Aside from Kei Kamara’s emphatic header to put Columbus within reaching distance late in Phily’s second match, there were numerous unconverted aerial chances for both Dallas and Columbus against the Union. Chicago has not scored many set piece goals over the last few seasons but the meticulous preparation put in by Paunovic and the coaching staff this week may have included some heading drills.
Squad Depth: While Chicago will have its own personnel issues the Union aren’t in much better shape. Maurice Edu is out long term and Tranquilo Barnetta and Vincent Nogueira are questionable for Saturday. If they need to utilize substitutes for injuries or tactical changes they could be forced to use what are essentially third string players like Michael Lahoud, Leo Fernandes, and Eric Ayuk.
Crapshoot: Look guys and gals, it’s still early in the season and to be quite honest you never know what you’re going to get with this league. This season especially the manual of expectations has to be thrown out of the window. Paunovic’s tactics, instructions and style of play might finally break through on the day while Philly could just drop the ball like they did against Dallas. Your guess is as good as ours.
Prediction: While Chicago’s defense is improving their offensive capabilities seem to rest solely in the hands of Accam. His health and form fluctuate and so will Chicago’s results. For those that remain in hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel but it is a long tunnel indeed. Chicago 1-1 Philadelphia. A Kappelhof header for Chicago and a Le Toux goal haunts the Fire yet again as the realization that TAM and GAM are not actually players slowly sinks in.