What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Another unwanted record. This past weekend the Chicago Fire lost to Real Salt Lake by a score of 2-1. The result marked a club record sixth consecutive loss. The streak can be added to the current ownership’s trophy cabinet which also includes the lowest points total in club history, the most draws ever in an MLS season, and the first league franchise to finish last in the Supporters Shield standings in consecutive seasons. Perhaps more importantly, the loss ended any realistic hopes of the Fire making the playoffs this season, a fifth post-season absence in the last six years. To say that the club is in turmoil is an understatement but there is yet a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as the Fire take on the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday in the US Open Cup semifinal (6:00 CT ussoccer.com).
The Union enter this contest amidst their own identity crisis which includes the departure of sporting director Earnie Stewart, an up and down season in terms of results, failed offseason additions, and looming contract option decisions for a good chunk of their squad. To further explicate the situation, Stewart’s final press conference included a statement about his regret of leaving a project largely unfinished but hoping that the foundation is strong enough to sustain the vision he had. Although the Union’s ownership has alluded to having a candidate in mind, no formal announcement on Stewart’s replacement has been made, keeping Philly in a strange limbo; a limbo that could be remedied with the arrival of the club’s first ever trophy.
Ultimately, Wednesday’s encounter will make or break the 2018 campaign for these two sides. A chance at a trophy goes a long way in justifying a project, it boosts morale, provides a potential berth in the CCL, and reminds supporters that there is a bit of magic in soccer after all. Both of these sides need a victory on Wednesday, but for one of them the light at the end of the tunnel will turn out to be an oncoming train. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philly Form Guide (all competitions): L-W-L-W-W
Previous Result: A 3-0 away loss to Portland.
Formation: 4-3-3; Blake; Fabinho, Trusty, Elliott, Rosenberry; Jones, Dockal, Creavalle; Epps, Sapong, Herbers
Strengths: Our readers will know this Union side well as this is the third meeting between these two clubs this season. Philly won both previous encounters, 4-3 and 3-1 respectively, and currently sit within touching distance of a playoff berth. One would think that the recurrent ability to get the better of Chicago will continue on Wednesday.
It’s Borek’s World: The progression of Borek Dockal this season has been one of the brightest spots of this Union side. In our preseason Union preview we discussed the necessity for Philly to find a quintessential number ten, they went out and signed Dockal. In May we talked about him needing to settle in a bit better, he went on to score four goals and notch five assists that month including a goal and two assists against Chicago. In July we said he has become an integral leader of the team and as it stands he sits on five goals and nine assists heading into Wednesday’s match.
In addition to those stats, the Czech playmaker brings a unique perspective to cup competitions. Having participated in the Europa League with Rosenborg, won the double (Czech Cup and Czech League) in 2014 with Sparta Praha, and being an integral part of the Czech Republic’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Dockal has experience that lends itself well to playing in a semifinal. Look for him to play another pivotal role in this fixture.
The Kit Man Finally Found the Scoring Boots: While the Union still have the lowest goal tally in the East and the third lowest tally in the West, four goals in their last three matches shows that perhaps they are on the upswing. A key weakness in our other previews this season, their conversion rate has improved since the last time these two sides met, and the utilization of Cory Burke instead of CJ Sapong has paid dividends for the Union.
Additionally, if Philly utilizes a similar tactical set up as they did against Houston two weeks ago—a 4-2-3-1 in which both Accam and Picault are used to stretch the field and give Dockal outlets on the touchline—Chicago could be in trouble. An injury to makeshift right back Diego Campos and the inexplicable mutual termination of Rafael Ramos’ contract leaves the Fire very thin in an area where they have already struggled this season. Inconsistency at the back has been a glaring issue for Chicago and communication struggles amidst yet another personnel shake up could be costly against the speed and ability of the Union’s wingers.
Contract Motivation: It appears as if the Union are facing a second major shake up in the last three years. Whoever the mystery man is that takes over for Stewart, he will certainly want to bring in his own players even if he is going to build on the franchise’s current philosophy. While the likes of Dockal and Blake are likely safe, the Union are sitting on some expensive assets that aren’t exactly producing. Alejandro Bedoya is certainly not reflecting his $1.2 million salary; David Accam’s $1.25 million salary will only go up next year, a figure unjustifiable by a contribution of just one goal and no assists on the season; and CJ Sapong’s inconsistency certainly is a head scratcher when looking at his $525k cost. All three of those players will need to be at their best, especially in this cup run, if they are to avoid being deemed surplus in January.
Weaknesses: The Union missing out on the post season is as much of a potential reality as them squeaking by in the sixth and final playoff spot. All of the aforementioned uncertainty coupled with a rollercoaster-esque bounce between victories and losses have ensured that viewers never know which Philadelphia side will show up. Let’s see where they might struggle on Wednesday.
Dax is Back: In Chicago’s last Open Cup match, a 4-0 victory over Louisville, Dax McCarty was taken off in the 70th minute with what was later categorized as a hamstring strain, keeping him until now. The Fire have gone on to lose all three of their league matches since his injury and have been noticeably weaker in midfield, conceding possession in those encounters, falling behind in their pass count and completion ratio, and missing many of the intangibles that Dax brings to the team. A source with knowledge of the situation has indicated that Dax is fully fit and will start in the semifinal on Wednesday. He could be the answer to the Dockal conundrum.
Stuck in Two Minds: While some in Chicago were critical of Veljko Paunovic’s decision to utilize Bastian Schweinsteiger and Aleksandar Katai as substitutes against RSL at the weekend, the Union and Jim Curtin went one better and started many of their key players against Portland. Aside from the mental effects of a 3-0 loss to a makeshift Portland side, travel fatigue and accumulated minutes will certainly factor into the match for a Philly side which features five key pieces above the age of thirty-one. Being in the mix for a playoff spot could be a negative when it comes to the US Open Cup.
Go at Fabinho: Although Fabinho took a significant pay cut to stay with Philadelphia this season, the Union’s front office will be wondering whether they made the correct decision in keeping him on. While he still has the technical ability and flair present in most Brasilian products, his speed, fitness, and decision making have been highly questionable throughout the season. Directly responsible for giving away a penalty at the weekend for Portland’s first goal on the night and also gave away the foul that led to Portland’s headed goal in the dying moments of the match. If he features on Wednesday, Katai should try to isolate him as much as possible to force mistakes from the veteran.
Prediction: MLS losing streaks mean nothing when it comes to the Open Cup. The Chicago Fire community has been through a lot this season and everyone from the supporters, the players, the front office and the training staff, to the men and women selling concessions deserve to see the Windy City host the final. Chicago 3-2 Philadelphia. The goal scorers don’t matter in this one, only getting through does.