What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated the University of South Florida 2-0 in their first preseason game of 2018 on the back of goals from Nemanja Nikolic and Elliot Collier. Their time in Tampa continues with a matchup against the Philadelphia Union this Thursday at 10:00 am CT (a stream will be made available on Chicago-Fire.com) before the team returns to Chicago for a well-earned weekend off. In addition to some good news on the pitch, the Fire made headlines off of it as well, signing Serbian midfielder Aleksandar Katai on loan from Deportivo Alaves to help round out a seemingly thin roster. Although the former Serbian SuperLiga golden boot winner will not receive his work permit in time to participate in the friendly against the Union, his imminent arrival will remind the current roster that nothing is guaranteed about their place in the squad, adding some much needed competition to the Fire ranks.
We would be remiss if we did not mention here that Katai’s loan comes as Nelson Rodriguez’s response to a record breaking MLS deal to send former winger David Accam to Thursday’s opponents. The Return of the King may be coming earlier than anticipated for all involved, but the preseason label of this match will certainly mean little to the Ghanaian with a huge chip on his shoulder. Sources with knowledge of the situation have revealed that Accam was not made aware of the trade until Philadelphia’s media team announced the deal. It is no surprise then that his goodbye message to Chicago made no mention of his former GM or that his praise of the Union organization was a bit over the top. This may be the most competitive preseason match that Accam has ever taken part in given that he will be eager to disprove many of the stigmas surrounding his style and work ethic. As we approach a fixture that will certainly be about more than just fitness, let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Preseason Form Guide: W-L
Previous Result: A 5-1 victory over USF.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; McCarthy; Fabinho, Trusty, Elliot, Mbaizo; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Accam, Najem, Ilsinho; Sapong
Strengths: Although it is hard to gain many take aways from two preseason matches, including one against college opposition, there seems to be a distinct shift in the Union’s style of play from last season. Additionally, head coach Jim Curtin has a bit of determination surrounding his side heading into this campaign given that failure for a fourth consecutive season would surely spell the end of his time with Philadelphia. Fitness, shape, and attitude have been focal points in both of his preseason press conferences but there is also a sense of urgency present among the Union camp. Let’s see where they might succeed on Thursday.
Dynamism: If there is one thing that Fire fans will know heading into Thursday’s match it’s that David Accam can change the complexion of a match in an instant. The Ghanaian tallied thirty-three goals and fifteen assists in just seventy-eight appearances for the club (sixty-six starts) and was the club’s MVP in 2015 and 2016. Despite questions about his ability to stay injury free, his attitude, and continual questions of commitment to his current team, there was never any doubt about his ability to contribute. A Philadelphia side that was among the lower quarter of scoring teams in MLS last year has already notched eight goals in their preseason and although Accam has yet to secure a tally, the space he creates for the likes of CJ Sapong has been immediately noticeable. Often stranded up top as a lone striker charged with taking down long balls with his back to goal and holding up play or going at it alone, Sapong’s utility is maximized by Accam stretching the field and providing more one on one scenarios or the ability to put in accurate balls in behind the defense. Complaints of Philadelphia’s narrow approach will be nonexistent this season with four of their eight preseason goals coming from play on the wing and two more being penalties created from wide runs cutting into the box. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster will be all too familiar with Accam’s tendencies but can they be effective against their former teammate?
High Press: Another change that was evident in both of the Union’s preseason matches was Curtin’s insistence on a high press. While both matches saw a format where three groups played thirty minutes each (thus allowing for a high tempo without the worry of fatigue), the instructions from the coaching staff were clear. Everyone from Sapong down to the center backs was charged with closing down immediately upon conceding possession, leading not only to pleasant viewing but to a more concise identity. Last season the Union suffered from a bout of schizophrenia which saw the likes of Roland Alberg, Maurice Edu, and Giliano Wijnaldum attempt to play a more technical and possession based game, while Fabinho, Pontius, Sapong, and Ayuk would try to facilitate playing on the counter. There was never a sense of cohesion within the side stylistically and based on the departures list and his concise instructions, it looks as if Curtin has made it a goal to solidify their playing style.
Safe Hands: The recent announcement of Andre Blake’s contract renewal had many fans just as captivated as the Accam signature. Blake’s breakout year of 2016 saw him make the MLS Best Eleven and earn the coveted MLS goalkeeper of year honor. The Jamaican shot stopper also had an outstanding 2017 MLS season and was the shining star of the Gold Cup, a competition his side might have won had he not come off injured in the final. The new deal sees Blake enter into the range of the ever more frequent TAM player category and is rumored to keep him in Philadelphia for three more seasons (details of the length and salary were not disclosed per MLS policy). Nemanja Nikolic notched a hat trick against Blake last season and the youngster will sure want his revenge on Thursday, this is certainly a matchup to keep an eye on.
Weaknesses: It may not be difficult to pick apart a side that finished eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, an occurrence that has become a little too frequent for Philly fans, and Earnie Stewart has not exactly inspired confidence with his acquisitions or the rumors of his impending move back to the Netherlands. Let’s see where the Union might struggle in this fixture.
What’s a Transfer Window?: Despite the departure of ten players who saw significant minutes in 2017, the only acquisitions that Philadelphia has made thus far in the offseason is the move for Accam and the signature of Homegrown defender Mark McKenzie. It’s not just that international acquisitions or trades within the league are lacking, the only draft picks Philly utilized—two third-round draft picks, Mike Catalano and Aidan Apodaca—were not even invited into camp. With all of the praise that was heaped on the appointment of Earnie Stewart as the Union’s Sporting Director, there has been very little to show for it. Many of the internationals that Stewart brought in (and even the MLS veterans) have come and gone and there are only a handful of starters on this Philly side that would be considered for the eighteen of clubs elsewhere in the league. If Chicago fans thought they had it bad in terms of expenditures, Union fans arguably have a lot more to gripe about. Accam may have answered a few questions, but the utilization of league allocation money to acquire him, the unaddressed issues in the backline, and the complete lack of depth with any professional experience remain daunting tasks for Stewart to answer. To burden the fans further, an acquisition that was meant to reinvigorate the franchise has been rumored to be mulling over the possibility of becoming the Netherlands sporting director. The federation has recently hired the youth minded and tactically astute Ronald Koeman as their head coach, a project that Stewart might see more worthy of pursuing than the navigation of MLS’ intricacies.
Whatever we may have said about stability and identity above goes out the window when the day to day operations of the club are seemingly in flux. A convincing win against a college side is nothing to be proud of and as the Fire very well know, preseason trophies are meaningless come December. The Union have a lot to figure out and not much to work with.
Prediction: We will forgo a score prediction here but we will say that Accam will impress in this one and Philly will test Chicago in ways that USF couldn’t. Ultimately, deficiencies will be visible for both sides but the moment of truth will come with how they respond to those deficiencies both on the field and in the transfer market.