What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Performing to expectations. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated conference bottom dwellers DC United 3-0 at Toyota Park. A frustrating opening twenty minutes quickly turned into a dominating performance by the home side. An Ian Harkes own goal, a beautiful diving header from Brandon Vincent, and a last-minute PK from Nemanja Nikolic saw Chicago cruise to a victory that puts them within touching distance of NYCFC in second place.
A return to their undefeated ways and two consecutive matches on the score sheet for Nikolic deserves praise, but there are still questions to be asked of this Chicago side. It seems as if beating up on struggling teams is a common occurrence, but convincing performances against the East’s top six are nowhere to be found. Luckily for the Fire, they have another weak opponent coming up this weekend as they take on the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium (6:00 CT on CSN Chicago Plus).
Jim Curtin and Earnie Stewart have been the focus of many of our previews over the last two seasons and Philly had been touted as a potential model for how to establish a winning MLS franchise on a budget. Well, things have not quite panned out in the city of brotherly love and the Union head into this fixture being more of a laughing stock than a model for success. Player acquisition, tactical decisions, and player commitment have all been questionable and the leading duo has just five matches left to salvage something from another horrendous season. Will Curtin do enough to save his job in Philly, or will Paunovic edge closer to Chicago’s first post-season berth since 2012? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide (last five matches): D-D-D-L-D
Previous League Result: A 0-0 road draw against New York Red Bull.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Fabinho, Marquez, Elliot, Rosenberry; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Pontius, Ilsinho, Epps; Sapong
Strengths: For the second straight week, we will attempt to draw some positives from one of the worst teams in the league. However, as Nemanja Nikolic has said throughout the season, “there are no easy games in MLS” and there is always a chance of the underdog running away with the bone. Let’s see where the Union might succeed on Saturday.
Pop Style: Andre Blake’s inclusion here is a no brainer. When he was taken as the number one draft pick heading into the 2014 season many people thought that the Union had wasted their place in the pecking order. Since then, Blake has gone on to be a stalwart between the posts for not only the Union, but one of CONCACAF’s heavy hitters, Jamaica. Blake made it to the final of this year’s Gold Cup and had his appearance not been cut short due to injury, Jamaica may very well have won it all.
The Union have eight clean sheets on the season and all of them can be chopped up to Blake’s heroics. His positioning, shot stopping ability, commanding of the box, and reflexes are quickly becoming second to none in the league and turning heads elsewhere. Although Earnie Stewart denied any such interest during his press conference on Wednesday, Goal.com reported that both Crystal Palace and Brighton and Hove Albion put together multi-million-dollar bids for the youngster in the summer transfer window. Blake was denied the opportunity of an EPL move because his work permit was denied, but the fact that he was sought after by clubs likely to be fighting off a relegation speaks volumes to his ability. If the Union earn any points in this one, rest assured that Blake will be the reason why.
I Don’t Want to Go to the USL: With just five matches left in the season any player on this Union side that has an option on their contract will have an extra spring in their step. Curtin said as much in his midweek press conference by stating that his charges are playing for their jobs for the remainder of this campaign. While this is somewhat of a slighted positive, players become dangerous when their livelihoods are on the line. Conversely, players like CJ Sapong and Andre Blake who have had outstanding seasons could see the next five matches as a way of stamping their ticket to brighter pastures. Both of those players have a lot to offer and have exhibited a winning mentality despite being on a sinking ship.
Weaknesses: Although there are no easy matches in MLS, there are certainly those that look so on paper. This encounter is one that Chicago should win easily and many of the above strengths were pleasantries more so than they were valid visions of hope. At the end of the day, this Union side is mediocre at best. It took Curtin and his charges nearly two months to register a victory in the league, and aside from one four match hot streak they haven’t shown much promise. Let’s see where they will struggle on Saturday.
Abandon Ship: As alluded to above, this Union side was one that had high hopes. Earnie Stewart’s appointment as Sporting Director in January of 2016 was seen as the high watermark of Philadelphia’s history. His impressive background as a player was rivaled by his experience at AZ Alkmaar where he worked as the Director of Football Affairs, a position which gave him oversight over player acquisition for the first team and control over one of the most famous youth academies in Dutch soccer.
Last season’s sixth place finish and subsequent elimination from the playoffs in the knock out round was not seen as momentous, but it was a step in the right direction of what had been labeled as a long-term plan for success. The offseason saw them keep almost all of their core players (the exception being Tranquillo Barnetta) while adding strong pieces throughout the lineup. Onyewu’s return to the U.S and Wijnaldum’s move from Holland seemed to be perfect defensive acquisitions; Picault and Medunjanin should have brought stability to the midfield; and a look to the future with the addition of Epps was seen as a positive.
With Philadelphia almost guaranteed to miss out on the post season, serious questions must be asked of Stewart’s ability to transition to MLS. Knowing the ins and outs of league mechanisms (lack of impactful DP signings and apparent misuse of TAM acquisitions), correctly judging which foreign players will adapt to the league, and acquiring league veterans still equipped to succeed are all categories in which this Union project has apparently failed. Whether he has been given the tools to succeed is another question entirely, but if he has, Philadelphia need to take a long hard look at their technical decisions.
Musical Chairs on the Backline: The ability to trot out the same defensive shape game after game has been a major feature of MLS’ winning teams over the past few seasons–one only needs to look at TFC this year, Seattle last year, and LA in 2014. Philadelphia, however, has lacked such consistency throughout the season and this lack of cohesion has cost them dearly. The Union find themselves amidst a six-match winless streak, a streak which has seen them utilize five different defensive line ups. Wijnaldum, Elliot, Yaro, Gaddis, Fabinho, Onyewu, Rosenberry, and Marquez are all vying for a spot in the starting eleven and whether it is injury, suspension, or a lack of clear standouts, they all seem to be in the running week after week.
The communication problems created by Curtin’s apparent policy of rotation and constant competition are ever more evident and it is unsurprising that the 0-0 draw against New York featured their first clean sheet since July (despite Blake’s heroics throughout the season). The Union’s performances against Minnesota, Atlanta, and Toronto earlier this month have been indicative of the confusion present between center back partners that are not used to one another. Set piece marking assignments, stepping together to set an offside trap, synchronized pressing, and closing passing lanes have been areas of struggle and directly led to the six goals conceded in those three matches.
With Fabinho pulling up injured in the final minutes of the match against New York, Philadelphia will almost assuredly feature a sixth different line up in seven matches on Saturday. Nemanja Nikolic and his tendency to play off the shoulder of the last defender could be rewarded against a back line that is out of sorts. Additionally, having Accam and Alvarez (assuming Solignac is not healthy in time) switching flanks throughout the match could add to the confusion.
Heads Up: Another worrying factor for Philadelphia has to be their inability to put shots on frame. Throughout their six-match winless streak, they have averaged just over three shots on target per match. While this might not be the worst haul in MLS (Colorado retains that honor), it should certainly be head scratching for Jim Curtin given his tactics.
Philadelphia’s 4-2-3-1 formation is one whose midfield is set up with an attacking mentality. The “three” behind Sapong consistently features Pontius (a winger who although aging has shown a knack for consistent danger cutting inside from the wing), Epps or Picault (youngsters whose speed match their enthusiasm), and Ilsinho or Alberg (out and out CAMs that other teams can only dream of). The “two” behind them is ideally comprised of Bedoya and Medunjanin, neither of which is strictly a holding midfielder. This provides them with two box-to-box pivots which should provide more mobility and attacking prowess in the midfield.
Why then does Philly have the third lowest goal total in the Conference? It is simply because of a lack of chemistry that leads to chance creation in the final third. When balls are played into Sapong or when the wingers cut inside the box, they often find themselves at weird angles or their play has been so predictable that they are quickly closed down. This has forced Philly to attempt shooting from long range, and when most of your shots on target come from outside the box, there is a serious problem. While Matt Lampson is not statistically or technically one of the better keepers in the league, taking pot shots from distance is not a conducive strategy against any MLS keeper. Chicago’s backline should be able to deal with this Union side fairly comfortably, meaning Lampson will have an easy day of catching practice.
Prediction: Even with missing pieces, Chicago is the much stronger side. They are too close to the finish line to falter against a team like Philadelphia. Anything less than three points should be considered a poor result. Chicago 3-1 Philadelphia. Nemanja Nikolic scores a hat trick to firmly push ahead of Ante Razov for most goals in a single Fire season. CJ Sapong’s stock continues to grow as he scores his fourteenth of the season.