What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Sweet, sweet victory! This past Saturday the Chicago Fire defeated Florida Gulf Coast University 1-0 with a debut goal from Nemanja Nikolic. Aside from building fitness, experimenting with formations, and getting an immediate return on their investment in the Hungarian, Chicago was able to trot out a few trialists as they look to fill out the roster before the MLS season begins. Boyd Okwuono, Drew Beckie, and Miguel Alvarado all logged minutes in the friendly and will look to do the same as the Fire play the Philadelphia Union on Thursday at noon.
Although David Accam, Luis Solignac, and Nikolic looked impressive in the attack and Juninho brought an air of coolness to the midfield, the rest of the Chicago squad largely failed to impress against a college side. Ultimately the results from these matches don’t matter, but to say that they aren’t indicative of anything is a mistake. There was a lot to be desired from that performance and as March 4th draws closer the stakes will only get higher. Displays like the one against FGCU will not be enough when the Fire trades in those warm up kits for the chic new gray ones.
Will Chicago forge the winning mentality that has been lacking in years past, or will year two of the Curtin/Stewart partnership prevail? We won’t get a definitive answer but we’ll get a glimpse. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Possible Formation: 4-2-3-1: Blake; Wijnaldum, Marquez, Onyewu, Rosenberry; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Ilsinho, Alberg, Herbers; Simpson
Strengths: We noted on several occasions last season that Philly’s shift in club culture came down to the appointment of Earnie Stewart as the Sporting Director and the decision to keep Jim Curtin as Head Coach. The duo shed light on the parity present in MLS while returning a bit of pride to a much beleaguered Philadelphia audience. Just days after finishing 9th in the 2015 Eastern Conference (only ahead of Chicago), Stewart was brought in to revamp the project. By the same time the next year, Philly found themselves preparing for the knockout round of the playoffs. Although they lost to eventual 2016 MLS Cup finalists TFC, a new page had been turned for the Union. Let’s take a look at where they could continue their success.
Dutch Connection: Stewart’s tenure as Director of Football for AZ Alkmaar not only prepared him for the rigors of the job, but it also provided him with one of the most crucial elements to success in soccer, an advanced social network. Adding the European market to his already impressive understanding of North American soccer (he appeared for the USMNT in three World Cup tournaments) allowed him to immediately strengthen the team. He brought in the likes of Roland Alberg from Excelsior in the Netherlands and Ilsinho from Shaktar Donetsk while also bolstering the squad with domestic talent like Chris Pontius before splashing some cash to sign Alejandro Bedoya. To fully round out the mix of internationals, league veterans, and a higher profile DP the duo was also able to utilize the draft particularly well. Their two first round picks, Keegan Rosenberry and Josh Yaro collectively logged almost 5500 minutes with Rosenberry starting 34 matches.
Those successes seem to be continuing in this offseason as well. It was no secret that Philadelphia struggled at the back last season. Aside from NYCFC, the Union conceded the most goals of any team that made the play offs. In order to address that issue, the Union bolstered the backline with the additions of Giliano Wijnaldum, who played at Alkmaar when Stewart was Director of Football there, and Oguchi Onyewu, the longtime USMNT center back who was out of contract after a storied European career (fun fact, Onyewu attended and played for IMG Academy in Bradenton where Thursday’s friendly will be played). The Union also added depth on the wings by signing Fafà Picault (formerly of St. Pauli), secured a box to box midfielder in Bosnian international Haris Medunjanin, and also erased any possibility of complacency from Davies and Sapong by signing Jay Simpson (last with Leyton Orient) to push them for a starting spot.
Competition: In a media conference call on Wednesday Jim Curtin alluded to the fact that there are open roster spots up for grabs in the match against Chicago. The team has 28 signed players and has two first team positions, one to be filled by a third string goal keeper and one supplemental player, as well as a spot for a player to be loaned out to Bethlehem Steel. Indications were that he wants to solidify the roster before moving onto the next phase of preseason. Thursday’s match could be the last chance for some of the trialists to impress. Curtin unapologetically told reporters that he has no interest in treating preseason matches as blow-off encounters. He stressed the importance of chemistry and proving that the players want to succeed. Look for a quicker tempo and a competitive edge to the friendly.
Flexibility: With the added depth alluded to throughout this strengths section, the Union have several option in terms of formations and tactics. We could see Alejandro Bedoya step into the role of a number “ten” to fill the void left by Barnetta rather than continuing in the “eight” spot. Alberg could also shift in from the wing to fill that void, or Ilsinho could through his name into the ring for the orchestrator as well. The previously mentioned addition on the wing offers speed and athleticism as well as skill on the ball that could exploit an uncertain defense. Look for a lot of dynamism in midfield and some shrugging shoulders on the Chicago back line.
Questions at the back: While the complacency at the back was addressed on paper, we aren’t so sure that the additions will work out so well for Philly. Oguchi Onyewu is certainly a huge question mark. He last played for Charlton athletic in the 2014-2015 season and only made three appearances in that span. Fitness issues, his reputation for being injury prone, and a short fuse have plagued him throughout his career and he seemed to reflect some of those stereotypes as he looked sluggish before receiving a red card against DC United in Philly’s first preseason match this year. He is sure to feature next to Marquez in the friendly as they test the likeliest partnership for the season, but let’s not forget that Marquez was one half of the duo responsible for that atrocious goals against tally last season… Rosenberry isn’t the quickest kid on the block and we have no idea how Wijnaldum will adjust. This could be the perfect encounter for Accam’s speed to shine in and we expect the interchanges between Nikolic, de Leeuw, Solignac, and Juninho to dazzle onlookers.
Why Even Have a Striker?: Curtin and Stewart will really be hoping they got it right by signing Jay Simpson. Last season their forwards were responsible for just 21% of their goals. Although Davies bravely battled cancer before being signed by the Union midseason, his one goal tally and the seven goals that Sapong notched are all that Philly’s current forwards bring to the table. If Chicago plays Juninho, McCarty, and Goossens in the middle to clog any creativity that Philly has, the Fire might not even need to worry about their backline woes. Unless the Union have a summer window signing up their sleeve or their midfielders shoulder the goal scoring responsibilities, they will struggle up top this season.
Prediction: Fitness, Chemistry, Identity. Chicago 1-3 Philadelphia. The harsh reality of missing pieces will once again come to the fore. But remember, “losing doesn’t make you a loser, quitting does”.