What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
More of the same. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire Soccer Club drew at home against the Columbus Crew. The 2-2 score line earned each side a point, but Columbus was the happier of the two when the final whistle blew. A 90th minute equalizer by the visitors, in a match that the hosts absolutely needed to win, was a gut punch to Chicago. Statistical domination and more attractive soccer were offered by Chicago before head coach Veljko Paunovic made defensive minded changes in the final fifteen minutes of the match, causing his charges to sit back, bunker, and eventually lose the lead. The result and the manner in which it came were the last thing that the organization needed after a media round table with President and GM Nelson Rodriguez seemed to indicate that the club’s current standing was the fault of the players rather than the technical staff.
That stance was doubled down on by stating that the club is “open for business” in trading players away to help salvage an underwhelming season. Mo Adams was the first player shipped out, making his Atlanta United debut in their 5-0 thrashing of Houston Wednesday evening. Aleksandar Katai was one piece that Nelson alluded to moving within the league while the Fire have also fielded offers for Nemanja Nikolic. With all of those moving parts and expiring contracts, the side looks to be in flux once again, making for yet another rebuild in the offseason. For now, Chicago is just six points adrift of the playoff line and mathematically still very much alive in the race for a postseason berth. Next up, the Philadelphia Union away (6:30 CT on ESPN+).
Jim Curtin and the Union enter the encounter amidst a slump in form having won just one of their last five matches. Philadelphia still sits atop the Eastern Conference standings, albeit by a narrow one-point lead, and has two potential season-defining away matches against Montreal and DC after they host Chicago. An additional points cushion could be the reward for beating Chicago as Atlanta and DC play one another chasing the top spot with just one of the two being able to keep pace this weekend. Once again, the Fire will face a side on a completely different trajectory as a club, something which may weigh heavy on the outcome of the match. Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide (All Competitions): L-D-W-L-D
Previous Result: A 4-0 away loss to Real Salt Lake.
Formation: 4-4-2; Blake; Fabinho, Trusty, Elliot, Gaddis; Medunjanin, Aaronson, Bedoya, Fabian; Picault, Przybylko
Strengths: When fans and pundits were drawing up their fantasy lineups and predicting outcomes for the season, no one saw Philadelphia as a contender in the East. Not even Union fans would have placed them there. Despite that, Philly not only sit first in the conference, they have more goals than every team in MLS except LAFC. This season is already a success for Curtin and his charges but let’s see where they might thrive on Saturday.
Midfield Dominance: Looking at Curtin’s tactical set up, you might think that it is early 2000s MLS were it not for the modern logo on the jerseys. A 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield is a throwback to the days of RSL and LA Galaxy dominance in the league and has rarely been seen since, but the Union are making it work. Ideally, the four in the center of the park are Marco Fabian as the traditional ten, Alejandro Bedoya as a box to box eight working on the righthand side, Jamiro Monteiro on the left flank with the responsibility of getting wide, and Haris Medunjanin as the destroyer in the six role. Local youth product Brenden Aaronson and veteran Ilsinho have filled in throughout the diamond amidst injuries and suspensions as well.
The addition of Fabian as a DP has done far more than improved Philly’s marketability. Although he has spent time on the injury table and his stats seem a bit light (three goals and no assists on the season), when he is fit, he is a game changer for the Union. He attracts so much attention from the opposition that he creates space for Monteiro and Bedoya to work beside him and gives the striker freedom to overload the center backs. Similarly, Monteiro’s four goals and seven assists highlight the success of the Union’s Dutch connections through Earnie Stewart. The TAM signing has quietly electrified this Philly side. Medunjanin and Bedoya are having career years in terms of successful defensive interventions and pass completion rates respectively, Ilsinho’s six goals and four assists—mostly from the bench—have chipped in tremendously, and the inclusion of Aaronson has rounded out Philly’s ability to properly utilize all of the acquisition mechanisms available to them. The midfield battles may be a bit one-sided come Saturday.
The Polish Prince: When the Union went out on a limb and signed free agent striker Kacper Przybylko in September of last year, onlookers scratched their heads. The Polish international had spent several seasons dealing with reoccurring foot injuries, missing the whole of the 2017 season with 2 Bundesliga side FC Kaiserslautern. Moreover, his 2016 numbers, two goals and two assists, were nothing to write home about. Curtin saw something that no one else did and Przybylko currently sits on nine goals and an assist this season. He’s added an aerial threat to this Union side while also being a clinical finisher both inside and outside of the eighteen. His hold up play has also offered another dimension to a Union side that had previously relied on speedy forwards in transition for many of their tallies. Multiple avenues of attack is the last thing a discombobulated Fire side needed.
Falling Apart at the Seams: Without focusing too much on the Fire themselves, it must be said that their current woes will only play into the hands of the Union. When the equalizer crossed the line on Wednesday, an iconic image was on full display for the several hundred fans at SeatGeek stadium. Aleksandar Katai and Francisco Calvo had a verbal altercation as the Serb seemed to be faulting the Costa Rican for the Crew’s goal. It was a manifestation of a locker room that lacks cohesion and belief as they enter a pivotal point of the season. The air around the club is thick with tension and we doubt Chicago earns its first road win in over a year this weekend.
Weaknesses: The MLS season is long, trying, full of ups and downs, and every team hits rough patches. The Union are in one of those now. Just one win in their last five matches has seen a large lead atop the East shrink significantly and an overwhelming defeat at the hands of RSL showed chinks in Curtin’s midfield armor. Let’s see where the Fire might succeed on Saturday.
Missing Pieces and Heavy Legs: As the Union enter this encounter, they will be missing up to six players due to injury. Included in that six are Monteiro and Ilsinho, mentioned above as indispensable pieces for this Philly side. With minutes mounting and temperatures rising, the midfield engine that has been responsible for the Union’s success may just be slowing down at the right time for Chicago. The loss against RSL typified this trend as the Union were out possessed, out shot, and looked on the back foot from the opening whistle. Their pass completion percentage dropped below 75% for the first time this season and they were unable to penetrate into the final third, completing just four open play passes in that area of the field.
Stride for Stride: It would be too easy to blame Philly’s previous result on schedule congestion and injuries. Credit must also be given to Mike Petke and an RSL side that prepared a game plan which the Fire might consider mimicking. Kyle Beckerman and Everton Luiz combined for twenty-four successful defensive interventions in midfield in that match with Beckerman setting the tone with an early yellow card. If Philly was going to get anything from that match they were going to have to fight for every inch of ground and they were simply out-muscled in the center of the park.
Similarly, any overlapping runs and overloads offered by Philly’s fullbacks, Fabinho and Ray Gaddis, were negated by Petke giving Saucedo and Savarino complete freedom on the wings of his 4-2-3-1. Gaddis had a miserable performance, being out-paced and outperformed by his counterparts, and Fabinho really showed his age in the encounter. The Fire may come to rue trading Mo Adams prior to this encounter as the match is set up perfectly for his attributes. However, should Chicago clog midfield and push Frankowski higher up the pitch than they have recently, they may just get something from this match.
Let Me See That Sapong: When the Union technical staff sat down to evaluate the roster this past offseason, they deemed CJ Sapong surplus to their demands. Acquired by Chicago for $300k in 2019 GAM and 2020 TAM as well as the potential for $100k in additional GAM should the Fire acquire it throughout this season, Sapong came relatively cheaply for his pedigree. A career year in 2017 saw the forward notch sixteen goals and five assists for the Union but a 2018 slump was enough to dissuade Philly as to his utility. With nine goals and two assists at this point of the season, Sapong is having the last laugh and will have extra motivation come Saturday..
Prediction: There is a sense of inevitability about this one. Chicago 1-3 Philadelphia. Przybylko, Fabian, and Bedoya for the hosts. CJ Sapong gets one against his former side for Chicago.