What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Inching closer. As the final weeks of the MLS regular season approach, the Chicago Fire are preparing for their first playoff appearance since 2012. Although their chances of finishing second in the Eastern Conference likely went out the window after their 1-1 home draw with NYCFC prior to the international break, they can still solidify a first round home match. The Philadelphia Union are visiting Toyota Park on Sunday (4:00 CT on NBC Sports Chicago) and a Fire victory coupled with anything less than a win for Columbus will earn them home-field advantage with a week to spare. However, defeating the Union is a task that is easier said than done given their recent run of form as Jim Curtin and his charges are possibly vying for their jobs.
This fixture will not be season defining for either side but it provides an opportunity for both teams to put their character on full display. Philadelphia’s struggles have been all too evident this year while Chicago still has question marks surrounding their ability, commitment, and determination heading into the playoffs. Will the Fire cap off their anniversary week with a victory, or will Jim Curtin arrive late to the party and ruin the hosts fun? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide (last five matches): W-L-W-D-D
Previous Result: A 2-0 home victory over Seattle.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Gaddis, Elliot, Marquez. Fabinho; Bedoya, Medunjanin; Epps, Ilsinho, Picault; Sapong
Strengths: This is the second fixture between these two sides this season with Chicago dropping all three points at Talen Energy Stadium just three weeks ago. Philadelphia’s performances since then have merely muddied the waters more in terms on figuring this Union side out, but we’ll attempt to give our readers an update on their strengths which included Andre Blake and the fact that the players were fighting for their contracts.
Fabinhyes: One of our weaknesses last time around was a lack of consistency in Philly’s back line. However, Fabinho has now started in three consecutive matches and has shown just how important steadiness at the back can be. He’s completed 70% of his passes in those encounters, been an integral part of their counterattacking ability, and notched an assist in CJ Sapong’s goal against Chicago. Additionally, he showed against Atlanta and Seattle that he isn’t afraid to shoot from distance, coming close on a number of occasions in those encounters. He’s another player who has value within the league should he want to push for a move and he has another showcase opportunity coming up this Sunday.
One Way Ticket to Amsterdam Please: After a promising start to his MLS career last season (nine goals and three assists), Roland Alberg showed up at preseason camp out of shape, overweight, and lacking ambition. This form continued throughout the season, earning the Dutchman just nine starts for the Union. Why is this under our strengths section? Well, Alberg’s position in Philadelphia is a precarious one. If he has any intention of continuing as a professional player he has just two more matches to find himself a suitor and it appears as if he is well aware of that fact. He came on for the last twenty minutes against Seattle and turned on the skill for onlookers. In what appeared to be a short corner aimed at running the clock down turned into Alberg beating three defenders and rocketing a shot past Stefan Frei. Should Chicago trot out an experimental line up to rest some of their starters in time for playoffs, Alberg could shine once again.
Ouch: Chicago heads into the weekend with a growing list of players ineligible for the match. A season ending MCL injury to Michael DeLeeuw, a setback in Juninho’s recovery, the revelation that David Accam will need surgery in the offseason, Daniel Johnson and Patrick Doody’s continued absences, and the indication that Bastian Schweinsteiger will likely be rested until the playoffs should give Philadelphia hope. Additionally, the season ending injuries to Jorge Bava, John Goossens, and Christian Dean have left the squad rather thin.
I Like the Role of Spoiler: Although contracts may be one motivating factor, in a structure where promotion and relegation do not exist, there is always a bit of fun to be had by the underdogs in the final weeks of the season. MLS has always been a league in which viewers can expect to see teams with no chance at the playoffs attempt to ruin the fun (and seeding) of other clubs. One only has to look back on last season’s “decision day” to see the likes of Portland and New England missing out on the post season at the last second.
Weaknesses: Much like the strengths listed above, the general weaknesses present for this Union side are largely unchanged from three weeks ago. A 3-0 loss on the road to Atlanta United painted a familiar scene for Union fans the week after a shock victory over Chicago. Last time out we discussed Philly’s inability to put shots on frame, a low goal total, and top down failures across the franchise as weaknesses. Let’s see where else they might struggle this weekend.
Not Even Blake Can Save Us: Despite having one of the best keepers in the league, the Union consistently make childish defensive mistakes. Although inconsistency in their back line has been a product of Jim Curtin’s squad rotation, many of the errors that Philadelphia has made over the course of the season have no place in MLS.
For example, in their loss against Atlanta the Union were completely undone by basic passes either behind the back line or into the feet of the opposition’s attackers. The first goal they conceded saw Julian Gressel receive the ball in the center of the final third before a quick move saw him past three defenders before slotting home with the outside of his foot. The skill level of your goalie matters little when point blank opportunities are afforded to the opposition. Similarly, a quick counter attack saw Josef Martinez step into acres of space on Atlanta’s second and a single pass undid the Union’s backline for the third. The lack of chemistry and sheer will present in this Philadelphia back line—especially the rotating center backs—should provide a unique opportunity for Nemanja Nikolic to solidify his lead in the Golden Boot race.
Tradition, Honor, Passion: While most of the league took a break during the international fixture list, the Fire were busy celebrating their 20th Anniversary. As former Fire players, coaches, and front office staff mingled with the current ones amidst displays of the club’s history, fans couldn’t help but feel that the experience would boost the team’s chances of success. To see the likes of Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent listening to Peter Nowak, Hristo Stoichkov, and Diego Gutierrez talking about trophies and titles with smiles on their faces made the current generation hungry for similar experiences. They’ll want to ensure that their momentum continues to build as the approach the playoffs and a Union side down on its luck shouldn’t stand in the way.
Prediction: Chicago is struggling in terms of their available personnel. They’ll be more concerned about getting into the playoffs with a healthy squad than they will be about beating Philadelphia this weekend. New York cannot possibly reach the Fire and Columbus’ remaining schedule makes their ascent nearly impossible. Chicago will happily take a draw on the back of a strong display from the youngsters. Chicago 1-1 Philadelphia. Nikolic scores for the Fire and Sapong adds an exclamation point to his “Get me out of here!” plea.