What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union (Away)
The streak continues. Chicago lost yet another road match as the Fire fell 2-1 against the Colorado Rapids this past Saturday. Veljko Paunovic was visibly angry as he and his players walked off the pitch in Commerce City and his weekly conference call showed hints of deviating from the usual “everything is fine” party line. Injuries, fatigue, contract issues, and a lack of cohesion on the pitch seem to be plaguing his charges at the moment but the MLS season won’t wait for the weary. Paunovic’s players will be lacing up their boots on the road again tonight as they look to take on the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Union.
Having met once in preseason and once in league play already the two sides are familiar with one another (Chicago won both encounters). This time around the fixture will mean a bit more as the teams find themselves on very different trajectories. Philadelphia is coming off of their best start in franchise history while Chicago is tied for its franchise low points total from 13 matches (2011). Paunovic talked about the need for a change in mentality from his players and an increase in the will to win. The loss to a Colorado team that has lifted itself up from the ashes had to sting just a little bit more than normal and a follow up loss to Philadelphia would certainly cause shoulders to slump even lower in the Chicago camp. Will a much needed road victory come on the back of a shift in attitude from Chicago or will it be more of the same as Philadelphia extends its lead at the top?
Philadelphia Form Guide (Last Five Competitive Matches): L-W-W-D-D
Previous Match: A 3-2 loss to NYCFC away.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Gaddis, Marquez, Tribbett, Rosenberry; Carrol, Creavalle; Pontius, Barnetta, Le Toux; Herbers
Strengths: Chicago will face a Union side looking to go undefeated in its first ten home matches of the season, a feat never before achieved in the club’s history. Their offseason changes have clearly paid dividends and the record looks within reach. Let’s take a look at where Philadelphia has excelled this season.
Undefeated at Home: “Win your home matches and you’ll make the playoffs”, or so they say… The Union are 5-0-2 at Talen Energy Stadium with all five victories coming against Eastern Conference opposition. Jim Curtin and company have made it a priority to win at home and have incorporated their fans as part of their winning strategy. In his weekly press conference Curtin alluded to the vociferous Union supporters as having a direct impact on results. “They’re the reason that we’ve had success on our home field and they’re the reason it’s difficult for teams as it gets late and it gets louder. They will our guys on and they make the other team uncomfortable, let’s just say.” While Curtin’s personality reiterates that he is not merely paying lip service to the Union faithful, their play and his tactical astuteness also have something to do with the results.
Style of Play and Personnel: While many of the Eastern Conference teams rely on a holistic team effort rather than star players, Philadelphia takes this mentality to the extreme. Curtin and Earnie Stewart have built a team with a grounded work ethic and good understanding of roles and organization. The Union has only filled one of their allotted three DP spots and that is with American stalwart Maurice Edu. The rest of the roster is made up of a mix of league veterans, Generation Adidas members, draft picks, and a few international journeymen. The one thing that unites them is their commitment to Curtin and Stewart’s vision. The goal scoring burden has been spread among ten different players while eleven different names have notched assists. It truly is a workingman’s team and while they aren’t always displaying beautiful soccer, Union supporters know that a result is always there to be had.
Philadelphia has consistently lined up in a defensively conservative 4-2-3-1 this season. Their preferred back four has been made up of Ray Gaddis, Richie Marquez, Ken Tribbett, and Keegan Rosenberry over the last few months and the four of them have served as catalysts for building from the back.
The bank of two in front of them has been made up of a mix of Vincent Nogueira, Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll. With Nogueira initially out injured and now mutually terminating his contract with the Union, Carroll and Creavalle will continue to serve as the preferred holding midfielders. Their heat maps indicate that their responsibility largely revolves around stopping the opposition’s ability to keep the ball moving in the center of the pitch. They rarely venture into their attacking third but an 80% pass completion rate over the last five matches shows that they serve as a vital connecting point in transition.
The attacking three in midfield can be made up of any combination of players but Tranquillo Barnetta or Roland Alberg have served as the CAM with a resurgent Chris Pontius, the ever dangerous Sebastien Le Toux, or Ilsinho on the wings. Pontius, Barnetta and Le Toux have seemed like the most dangerous trio utilized combining for roughly a third of the team’s goals and almost half of the team’s assists and they seem to thrive off of situations were Philly is in control of possession statistics. Those three lined up together in the last match against New York and if they are fit, Curtin could look to them again against a Chicago side that has struggled to make an impact on possession. The Fire will need to look out for Le Toux snapping at any chance to put a shot on target and will also need to be mindful of Pontius making late runs into the box to clean up any loose balls.
Barnetta has been the focal point of their attack in recent matches and his ability to create chances through his passing vision as well as his skill on the ball means that he will be a handful for a Fire midfield that will still be missing Matt Polster. A few expertly weighted cross field balls, dangerous set piece deliveries and a slaloming run or two against New York highlight his abilities.
The lone striker role has been best filled by CJ Sapong this season and he has rewarded Jim Curtin’s faith with five goals and an assist in 14 appearances. A lot of Sapong’s work goes unnoticed as his physical presence often draws defenders away from the attacking mids. The understanding between Sapong and Le Toux/Pontius has been growing of late and the aging wingers/second strikers constantly look to take advantage of the space created by the tall forward and his aerial presence. Luckily for Chicago, Sapong is questionable for Wednesday’s match with an ankle injury. Reports suggest that he resumed training this week but he shouldn’t feature. Look for Fabian Herbers to make his second consecutive start up top. Chicago will hope the youngster doesn’t make it two in two on Wednesday.
Weaknesses: In a conference where first place and the final playoff spot are separated by just four points you are bound to have room for error. Philadelphia has exhibited some clear weaknesses this season and while exploiting those weaknesses is another matter entirely, the Fire should at least be able to come up with a cohesive game plan. Let’s take a look at where Philly have not lived up to their status as conference leaders.
“Well, as long as we score more goals than the other guys…”: Philly hasn’t exactly been stingy in defense this season. Eight of the remaining nineteen teams (including the Fire) have conceded less than the Union’s 19 goals. Philly boasts just three clean sheets this campaign and one of them came against a DC United side that couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat (they’ve scored just 14 this season, second only to Chicago in Goals For). We’re not saying the Fire are going to miraculously find their shooting boots, but if they did this Union side is the perfect opponent.
The match against NYCFC was a good example of the Union’s frustrating ability to concede from anywhere. The first goal they gave up saw RJ Allen cover 60 yards before cutting back to an unmarked Tommy McNamara who scuffed a shot into the path of Frank Lampard (also unmarked) for the final finish. The second goal came on a counter that featured former Fire player Jack Harrison blow by his marker and two other defenders before back heeling to an onrushing David Villa who obliged with a tidy finish. Lastly, a needlessly given away free kick was buried past Andre Blake by Andrea Pirlo.
Their league match against Columbus saw Philadelphia give up a pair of needless goals as well. Ola Kamara easily volleyed in an Ethan Finlay cross after the winger broke free of his mark and Kamara outmuscled his defender to win the ball. Finlay notched his second assist of the match late, as Cristian Martinez slotted home from a late run.
Again, creating and finishing chances won’t get any easier for Chicago but if they can somehow manage to spark some attacking play, Philly gives away goals needlessly at times. Heck, even the Harrisburg City Islanders snuck two in against a fairly strong Philly starting eleven in the Open Cup. The main question will be whether or not Chicago can stop Philly from going forward while also finding at least a goal from a heavily depleted and dejected squad.
Injury Plagued: When the two sides meet on Wednesday Philadelphia will be without Maurice Edu while Josh Yaro, CJ Sapong, and Warren Creavalle are doubtful. They have decent squad depth but Chicago will take solace in the fact that the Union will not be at full strength.
Schedule Congestion: To further stress squad depth, Philadelphia will be playing three matches in seven days. They will of course want maximum points against Chicago but with tougher tests against Vancouver in league play and an Open Cup tilt against New York Red Bull you would think that Curtin trusts some of the fringe players to get the job done against the bottom dwelling Fire. Colorado did the same and the gamble worked for them (just barely), underestimating an ever more desperate Chicago side might prove dangerous for the Union.
Prediction: Philly may have issues marking set pieces and defending the counter but that won’t matter much on Wednesday. Chicago has resorted to re-calling Drew Connor from his loan to Saint Louis FC to round out the 18. That should tell you all you need to know about Chicago’s chances to end the away winless streak. Philadelphia 3-1 Chicago. Accam adds a goal to his Ligue 1 highlight video.