What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
A diversion or a U-turn? This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated Orlando City SC 2-1 on the road in Florida. A make shift line up saw a few consistent starters benched after a series of poor performances and the newcomers got the job done in a gritty match. The result and Chicago’s ability to shut down a creative Orlando side raises the question of whether or not it was wrong to criticize Veljko Paunovic’s tactical awareness in recent weeks. Over the course of ninety minutes Chicago was able to limit Orlando to just six shots on target despite the home side enjoying 60% of the possession. Goalkeeper Patrick McClain had a standout performance in his first start of the season. Whether the play on the field was an anomaly or a sign of things to come, only time will tell as Chicago continues a busy May by taking on the Philadelphia Union at Talen Energy Stadium this Wednesday (6:30 CT on ESPN+).
Philadelphia enters the match just one point ahead of Chicago in the standings but could elevate themselves above the red line at the final whistle with a victory over the Fire combined with a New England loss to Atlanta. A rather shaky start in which the Union won just two of their opening nine matches has perhaps been overturned as they currently boast a three-match unbeaten run—albeit against questionable opposition. Although the season is still young, this could be a campaign defining match for the sides involved as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows in the Eastern Conference. The top four slots have almost certainly been decided as the rest of the teams attempt to show who is the best of the worst for the final two playoff positions.
There are struggles aplenty for both of these teams that won’t be washed away by a small bump in recent results and this match will certainly be anything but pretty. Will it be Earnie Stewart who saves his blushes as he vies for the USMNT GM position, or will Nelson Rodriguez add a slide to his Process PowerPoint? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide: D-W-W-L-L
Previous Result: A 0-0 draw away to New York Red Bull.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Gaddis, Trusty, McKenzie, Rosenberry; Medunjanin, Bedoya; Picault, Dockal, Epps; Sapong
Strengths: We previewed this Union side in February during Chicago’s preseason and pointed out that Andre Blake, a reinvigorated pressing style, and dynamism in midfield might be reasons to rate this Union side highly. Although they certainly haven’t been a model of tactical brilliance as the season has panned out, Blake is his usual sturdy self (recording four shutouts in his twelve starts) and they are still spoiled for choice in the midfield. Let’s see where else they might succeed.
Epps Coming Good: Towards the end of last season Jim Curtin was asked why he was not giving chances to some of the team’s youngsters after the playoffs were mathematically out of reach. Without hesitation the head coach responded by saying that he did not think they were ready to step up. The transition from USL affiliates to first team action is steep but one second year player for the Union seems to be making an impact on the field this season.
Marcus Epps featured in seven starts last year and although he was seen as an adequate sub, he spent a large portion of the season with Bethlehem Steel. This year, he has been one of the standouts on the pitch, notching a goal and two assists in five appearances and has effectively knocked David Accam out of the starting lineup.
The ability to stretch the field seems natural to him as he creates space for the players around him both on and off the ball. That is best exemplified by the match against RSL earlier this month. A goal, an assist, and another tally that was ruled offside were the statistical highlights, but time and time again the twenty-three-year-old forced Salt Lake’s wingers and outside backs wider and deeper than they would have liked. His ability to play on either wing cannot be overlooked and Epps will certainly be a handful for whoever he matches up with.
Czech Quality: One of our preseason qualms with Philadelphia was that they had failed to utilize the transfer window properly up until that point. A few days after the friendly, the Union signed Czech international Borek Dockal. A creative midfielder, Dockal comes to Philadelphia with Euro Cup experience, Champions league experience, and an extensive run in the Europa league.
The shortcomings of Ilsinho and Roland Alberg had been well noted and Dockal seems to have steadied that position for the Union. Two goals, four assists, and an average of 77% passing completion on the season highlight why the Union snapped at the chance to pick him up on loan from Henan Jianye when the Chinese league implemented a limit on foreign players. Pass and move is Dockal’s preferred style—he’s attempted just two dribble possessions over the last three matches—and he has the technical ability to pull the strings for Epps and Picault on the wings as well as to put balls over the top of CJ Sapong. He seems to be the one trophy on Earnie Stewart’s signing mantle and he will be a severe headache to a side that might be missing Dax McCarty and Mo Adams.
MLS Voodoo: Whether you believe in this kind of thing or not, there is something to be said about the way in which history has a strange part to play in MLS fixtures. The home team has won this encounter in the last eight matches across all competitions. You have to go back to 2015 for a different result—a draw at Talen Energy Stadium—and the last time the away team won this fixture was in 2013, a Fire victory on the road. When you add the fact that Philly has only lost once at home this season (2-0 to Orlando), the Fire have a tough task ahead of them.
Weaknesses: In our pre-season preview we discussed the aforementioned transfer window failures, regrets about the hiring of Earnie Stewart, and a sense of desperation exuding from Jim Curtain in what might be his last year at the helm of this Union side. All of those factors have been present throughout the campaign alongside other clear struggles. Let’s see how the Fire can get at Philly on Wednesday.
Can We at Least Get Store Credit?: In a move that shocked the Fire community and perhaps even David Accam himself, the Ghanaian was shipped to Philadelphia during the offseason after renewing his MLS deal just months before. Although his attitude was well documented, and he clearly wanted to utilize Chicago as a stepping stone to Europe, it is safe to say that no professional player deserves to have the rug pulled out from under them in the way that Accam did. Despite offers from clubs in France, Italy, Germany, and Turkey, Neslon Rodriguez gave the speedy winger the pay increase he deserved and assured him he has a bright future at the club. He was then shipped him off to the Union without so much as a phone call from Rodriguez himself (sources with knowledge of the trade have indicated that Accam found out directly from the Union) amidst what can only be described as a league attempt to keep the scintillating player in MLS.
The move has had devastating effects on all of the parties involved and continues to be a head scratcher. Accam has yet to recover from the trade and has failed to score or notch an assist this season and is now watching from the bench; Curtin and Stewart gambled $1.2 million in funny money on a player that clearly had other ambitions and are now stuck with a dud; the Fire have missed the contributions of the winger while failing to utilize the assortment of allocation money they acquired for him; and the league has shown once again why it cannot be taken seriously by mid-level foreign players weighing it as an option. This surely has to go down as one of the worst high-profile MLS trades in its short history.
Narrow at the Back: Returning to on-field struggles, the most obvious shortcoming of this Union side is its inability to keep its shape defensively. All five of their most recently conceded goals have come on the heels of the wingbacks being pushed too far up without being able to track back, or their wingbacks tucked too far inside in transition. Whether it’s Rosenberry and Fabinho or Rosenberry and Gaddis, Curtin is asking too much of them in terms of going forward without actually providing them with any cover by ingraining defensive responsibility into the wingers or utilizing more mobile defensive midfielders.
The match against TFC was especially damning in this respect as all three goals were virtually carbon copies of poor shape. The first goal sequence in which Nico Hasler received the ball on the right flank saw Gaddis at least twenty yards away from the winger in a central location and marking no one before the man from Lichtenstein found Vasquez for a cool finish. Giovinco’s goal saw him isolate Jack Elliot on the flank with Rosenberry nowhere to be found and the third came as Jay Chapman turned on the after burners against Auston Trusty with Ray Gaddis barely visible in the camera shot. Chicago will need to find a way to widen the field against a Philly side that has shown time and time again that they won’t remedy visible mistakes.
Prediction: We continue to be flummoxed by the soccer gods. There is no apparent reason or rhyme to Chicago’s results and predicting the outcome of their matches has proven elusive. Alas, it wouldn’t be a proper preview without one, so here it goes. Chicago 2-2 Philadelphia. Alan Gordon and Kevin Ellis for the visitors, a David Accam brace for the hosts.