What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Below the line again. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost on the road to Vancouver by a score line of 3-2. Although the Fire controlled 65% of the possession, outshot Vancouver, and completed nearly twice as many passes as their opponent, the best chances of the match fell to the hosts who were lethal in their finishing. Chicago’s defending has remained abysmal amidst the absence of Johan Kappelhof and none of the backline covered themselves in glory against the Whitecaps. Additionally, strange tactical decisions from Veljko Paunovic saw Aleksander Katai’s creativity stifled by shifting him further back into midfield next to Dax McCarty while Bastian Schweinsteiger was given the liberty to roam around in the final third underneath Nemanja Nikolic. The result was extra exposure against the counter, a weakness that Vancouver exploited frequently. The loss placed Chicago back in familiar territory beneath the playoff line as they return to MLS action on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Union (7:30 CT at SeatGeek Stadium).
Philly will enter Wednesday’s encounter knowing that a victory could see them leapfrog over Chicago and perhaps even put them into the playoff picture should Montreal lose to NYCFC midweek. While their form has been less than stellar, and unpredictability has been the central theme of the season for the Union, they will take comfort in knowing that they have already bested Chicago this season and have a squad built for taking advantage of the Fire’s inept backline. While this match certainly won’t be a shining light of beautiful soccer, it is perhaps one of the most important matches of the season for either side. Three points are up for grabs, but will anyone take advantage of the opportunity? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide (all competitions): L-L-W-L-W
Previous Result: A 2-0 home loss to Atlanta United.
Formation: 4-2-3-1; Blake; Rosenberry, McKenzie, Trusty, Gaddis; Bedoya, Medunjanin; Ilsinho, Dockal, Picault; Sapong
Strengths: This Union side has as good of a chance to snag the final playoff spot as any other lower Eastern Conference team. There have been flashes of brilliance here and there from several Philly players and their 3-1 victory over Chicago in May shows that they cannot be underestimated. Let’s see where they might succeed this Wednesday.
Czech-mate: In our preview earlier this season, we pointed out that the addition of Borek Dockal late in the winter transfer window could be the catalyst that Philly needs to build a successful side. That has turned out to be the case as the Czech playmaker has been truly revelatory for the Union. Five goals and six assists statistically reflect his transition to MLS but his on field leadership, work rate, and calmness in making key passes are the intangibles that make him indispensable for Philadelphia. With a near 80% pass completion rate on the season, Dockal is the engine of this team and Paunovic should consider utilizing Mo Adams to man mark the influential number ten.
Tactical Advantage: For the second match in a row Chicago will be facing a team that has a powerful forward with hold up ability and a speedy winger to stretch the field. Vancouver’s victory over the Fire was a direct result of Alphonso Davies and Kei Kamara linking up time and time again and if CJ Sapong and Fafa Picault can emulate that performances, the Fire might just be served up back to back losses.
Additionally, the ability of Bedoya and Medunjanin to plug up the midfield could be an advantage on the other side of the pitch. Juarez and Felipe managed to put enough pressure on Katai and Schweinsteiger to stifle their effectiveness on Saturday and Philly’s holding duo are much better on the defensive side of the ball than their Whitecap counterparts. Overall, Curtin’s team is built in a way that negates many of Chicago's strengths.
Weaknesses: As with all of the sides that are competing for the sixth playoff spot in the East, Philadelphia has had some significant struggles throughout the season. The last time these sides met, the Union were a point ahead of Chicago and with the roles now reversed, the Union will feel extra pressure to succeed. Let’s see where they might struggle.
Goals Win Games: The most glaring weakness of this Union side is their inability to score goals. Philadelphia has failed to score on nine occasions this season—that’s half of the encounters that they have played so far—and struggle on the road especially. With just twenty-one tallies, the Union sit in the bottom of that category in the East and only Seattle has scored fewer goals in MLS play. The problem seems to stem directly from an exceptionally bad run of form from the Union forward CJ Sapong.
With just thirty-three shots from seventeen matches (just ten on target), Sapong’s ability to get on the ball has been severely limited this season after a 2017 campaign that saw him finish with sixteen strikes while momentarily competing for the golden boot. This season, he has notched just two tallies. Whether it is because defenders have figured him out, a slump in form after last season’s success, or a lack of creativity and service from the midfield, the result is that Sapong’s struggles are directly related to Philly’s poor form.
Worse yet, the Union have not or cannot turn to anyone in his stead. Former Bethlehem Steal forward Cory Burke was promoted to the first team this season but has largely been relegated to a sub role despite equaling Sapong’s production on the season. Additionally, the David Accam fiasco has largely put the Ghanaian out of the picture even though he thrived as a striker at times in Chicago and Jay Simpson has not made the matchday squad in weeks. For whatever reason, Curtin is tying his fate to Sapong and that will suit the Fire just fine.
Do You Even Watch Video?: The last time we previewed this Philadelphia side we wrote a column on their inability to keep their backline shape during buildup play and the chaos caused by opponents in transition. The Union have continued to be shambolic when defending against the counter and have added ball watching to their repertoire in recent matches.
After being fairly well discipline in the opening half against Atlanta, utilizing a high press and uniform stepping towards the ball, Philly lost the plot in the second half. They allowed continual opportunities on the break as they pushed to earn a win at home and the young center back pairing of Trusty and McKenzie just couldn’t keep up.
The storyline was a similar one against LAFC the week before and has been too common of a theme all season. Both nineteen-year-olds have been charged with adapting to the professional level on the fly and have not stood up to the challenge. Tricky runs from Nikolic and a standout performance from Katai could just do the trick in this one.
History Doesn’t Lie: The last six iterations of this MLS fixture have seen the home side emerge victorious. In fact, the last time the away side won in this match up was 2013 when the Union grabbed a victory at Toyota Park. For whatever reason, we believe in MLS voodoo and it’s scheduled to work in Chicago’s favor this week.
Prediction: This is a must win match for both sides if they want to keep their hat in the playoff ring. Whether or not they can get the best out of their squads is another story. Chicago 2-2 Philadelphia. Katai notches a brace for the hosts, Accam and Dockal for the visitors.