What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Another streak begins? Celebrations were short lived and feelings of hope were cast aside as the Chicago Fire were humbled 6-2 in DC this past Saturday. Questionable lineup choices, tired legs, a lack of finishing, and a ludicrous moment from Khaly Thiam cost Chicago dearly. It seems that the side is always battling questions of identity, struggles with consistency, and simply lacks belief in critical moments. All of those things will be put to the test again as the MLS season drudges on. The Fire will host the Philadelphia Union this coming Saturday in the last of three scheduled meetings between the two sides this year.
While Chicago is rooted to the bottom of the standings, Saturday’s opponent comes in on a different trajectory. If Philadelphia manages to get three points from this encounter and results elsewhere go their way they could find themselves in second place of the Eastern Conference. Jim Curtin has really come into his own as a coach and the players brought in by Earnie Stewart have mostly panned out. However, Philadelphia will be missing a few key pieces going into this match and Chicago has turned Toyota Park into somewhat of a fortress.
The storylines are plentiful but it is largely a clash of two teams that were bottom of the table last season and have revamped their roster and Front Office to different levels of success. Will Nelson Rodriguez and Veljko Paunovic salvage some pride from a season that has been all talk or will Earnie Stewart and Jim Curtin humbly walk into the post season from a favorable position in the table?
Philadelphia Form Guide (Last Five Competitive Matches): W-W-L-W-D
Previous Match: A 2-0 home win over SKC.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Rosenberry, Yaro, Marquez, Fabinho; Bedoya, Creavalle; Herbers, Barnetta, Pontius; Sapong
Strengths: The previous two looks at this Philly side remain mostly accurate. We focused our last piece on the fact that Philly takes the MLS workman’s approach to the extreme, we touted their ability to play in a semi-conservative 4-2-3-1 to great effect, and we highlighted the changes implemented by Curtin and Stewart which have meshed together a group of seasoned league veterans and a new core of youngsters. Let’s see where they have continued to thrive.
“Taking the Soccer World by Storm”: We’ll discuss some of the Union’s absences in our weaknesses section but Philly’s ability to get the best out of their young players remains evident. The rookie players who have featured for Philly (Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, and Fabian Herbers) have combined for 66 appearances this season, most of which have been starts. Herbers’ two goals and four assists have been particularly impressive for the Union while Yaro and Rosenberry have often looked like veterans in the backline.
Jim Curtin was asked about his decision to start all three rookies after the 2-0 win over SKC: “When Earnie and I talked about players, we don’t talk young or old, we talk good or bad. We don’t care how old they are, if they are good enough, we’ll put them on the field. We aren’t scared to do that”. Their performances in that match spoke for themselves as Yaro and Rosenberry earned a clean sheet and Herbers helped set up Philly’s first goal. It would also be wise to point out that Eric Ayuk (19), Andre Blake (25), Anderson (23), Ken Tribbett (24), and Richie Marquez (24) have all made significant contributions this season as well.
Another good performance from a youthful Philly side on Saturday would call for some introspective analysis for the Fire as questions about Chicago’s own youth policy came up and answers given raised even more questions during Nelson Rodriguez’s round table on Thursday.
Adding Playoff Experience: The Union’s roster looks slightly different than it did the last time these two teams met. Curtin utilized the last transfer window to ship Le Toux off to Colorado and use the funds to acquire Charlie Davies. Le Toux will always be a club legend and should never have to buy a beer in Philly but the move was a smart one in the long run. Davies is just 30, has experience in making deep play off runs with New England, and has some personal ties to the Union locker room. In addition to all of that, his remarkable comeback from cancer adds an emotional boost to the heart of the squad and his playing style fits smoothly with what Curtin is trying to do.
If he features on Saturday he’ll be looking to get on the end of some crosses from Chris Pontius and Herbers throughout the match while also adding an element of speed and a physical presence against the center backs. He hasn’t made a start yet for Philly and his understanding with Barnetta isn’t completely there yet but one assist in four sub appearances isn’t the worst return; he will certainly be a danger man off of the bench.
Tranquilo Barnetta, Suizo de la Plata: A player that is no longer new to this Philly side has continued his impressive form. The Swiss #10 has acquired a man bun and the armband since last season but his creativity has remained the same. Barnetta has a unique ability to create attacking situations from seemingly simple passes while also having a penetrating long ball in his back pocket. Four goals and four assists in twenty three appearances do not begin to explain his worth as Barnetta continually creates space for others, serves as a leader in tough situations and has hit the bar or forced acrobatic saves from opposing ‘keepers on numerous occasions throughout the season.
Looking back at the last two matches provides some insight into Barnetta’s style of play as well as his versatility. Against Columbus Barnetta’s heat map was all over the place. He spent most of the match in the opposition’s half as the lynchpin between Alejandro Bedoya and the front three. He completed 77% of his 50 attempted passes. However, during a tough spell early in the second half the attacking midfielder could be seen making recovery runs and winning tackles to cover for and advancing Rosenberry. His efforts were rewarded with an assist on the game winning goal.
The win over Kansas was much different as Philly’s midfield was stifled throughout the match. There wasn’t much space to work in and the angles weren’t there to exploit (Barnetta only completed 60% of his pass attempts), Sporting certainly wasn’t going to be adventurous on the road. Barnetta read the match well and knew that bunkering in created opportunities from distance. All five of his shot attempts were from outside the box and the last one finally went in to ensure the three points. Chicago’s seemingly constant pockets of space in the midfield will be exploited on Saturday.
Weaknesses: Philly is certainly flying high at the moment but as always, MLS can turn on you quickly. With just seven matches remaining in the regular season we don’t foresee the Union missing out on playoffs, but we aren’t entirely convinced that they will secure a top three berth in the post season. Let’s take a look at why.
Imposter’s Syndrome: While we cannot know for sure what’s going on in the heads of the players and coaching staff, Philly’s results against the top four seem to indicate that they have a lack of belief against the leading teams in the East. They dominate opposition that is below them in the standings and have even nicked a few surprising points off of Eastern conference teams, but they have only won once in all of their matches against Toronto, New York Red Bull, NYCFC and Montreal.
After Saturday’s match the Union will play four of their remaining six matches against those teams as well as a fixture against defending champions Portland. Jim Curtin and his men know that three points in Chicago is a must if they want to keep momentum going. Not only would it be a franchise first streak of three consecutive road wins, but the three points would add a much needed late season cushion in the standings. On the downside, some added pressure might creep in and the above mentioned results have shown what Philly plays like under increased pressure. If Chicago can use their eleven match unbeaten run at Toyota Park as an advantage in the mental side of the game then Philly could leave an opening.
Can you be a bit less aggressive?: In the last three matches Philly has struggled in the box against target forwards as well as with penetrating runs in behind. The Union might have kept a clean sheet against SKC but Dom Dwyer was a constant threat running in behind Yaro and Marquez. Two clear misses from the Englishman saved the blushes of the young defenders. The same was true of Columbus as Ola Kamara made great runs in behind the line but lacked service in the match. Adam Jahn subbed in for Kamara and equalized for Columbus after some miscommunication in the box and some physical play created a chance.
The best example of their struggles to contain quick and physical forwards came in the loss against Toronto. Yes, Chicago does not have Giovinco but the Italian’s constant splitting of defenders and running at Blake 1 v. 1 should serve as a lesson to the Fire players. One of those break aways led to a free kick that was almost converted by Giovinco, another was put just wide, and a third led to Giovinco’s place on the score sheet. Some poor marking and pure determination by Drew Moor to get on the end of a cross resulted in Toronto’s second with Jozy Altidore tallying late in the match for the third.
The Altidore play should be particularly relevant on Saturday because it served as an indicator that Yaro and Marquez struggle with strong forwards. Altidore treated the pair as if they weren’t there, shoving both aside while running directly through the middle of the box to coolly finish. If Solignac and de Leeuw can use their strength and positioning appropriately then the result is there for the taking. Accam’s speed will be missed but Goossens and Alvarez can make up for it with delivery to the two forwards.
Missing Pieces: While Accam, Arshakyan and Fernandez have been called up for Chicago, Philadelphia has a few more integral players missing on Saturday. Maurice Edu has been missing for a few months with a tibia stress fracture while Brian Carroll and Ilsinho are on the short term injury list. To add to this, Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya have received call ups from their respective national teams.
John McCarthy has proven himself to be a great back up keeper but has featured just once this season and that was in the Open Cup against USL opposition. An MCL injury for third string keeper Matt Jones also means McCarthy is the only available keeper on the roster. Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac should look to test the youngster early and often. While we would never condone questionable play, the “Chicago Way” being utilized on set pieces could lead to a tough goalkeeping situation for the Union.
Prediction: Weakened line ups, congested schedules and Chicago’s home form make for an exciting match. Neither team comes out on top as the season series between these two is split evenly. Chicago 2-2 Philadelphia. Razvan Cocis and Arturo Alvarez put the youth to shame to secure a point for Chicago.