What Are They All About? Philadelphia Union
Too little, too late. This past Wednesday the Chicago Fire Soccer Club lost on the road against the Portland Timbers. A valiant effort despite Aleksandar Katai’s ejection was mustered by the visitors, but the quality of the hosts proved to be too much as the match ended 3-2. Nemanja Nikolic and CJ Sapong notched their ninth and tenth goals on the season respectively, tallies that may have higher had the correct pieces been put around them. Nicolas Gaitan and Bastian Schweinsteiger were both rested in the midweek encounter, weakening the familiarity of the back line as well as stifling the creative potential of Chicago moving forward. The personnel choices were likely made with an eye on Saturday’s upcoming match against the Philadelphia Union at SeatGeek Stadium (7:00 CT on ESPN+), a match that will be decisive for the Fire’s slim playoff hopes.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, could increase their lead atop the East with a victory. Jim Curtin and his charges have won three of their last four matches and the Union are well on their way to securing a favorable bye week in the playoffs. These two sides met just four weeks ago, a 2-0 result for Philly, and Curtin will look to that match as a blueprint for how to get at the hosts. Excellent holdup play from Kacper Przybylko, midfield marshalling from Marco Fabian, and Fafa Picault’s ability to stretch the width of the field left Chicago on the wrong end of virtually all of the statistical categories on the evening. A repeat performance would ensure that the Union head into their final seven matches—a particularly difficult stretch—on a high. With matches against Atlanta, DC, both of the New York sides, and league leaders LAFC, Philly will see this matchup as a unique opportunity. Can the hosts prevent another walk over? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
Philadelphia Form Guide (All Competitions): W-W-L-W-L
Previous Result: A 2-1 home victory over Houston.
Formation: 4-4-2; Blake; Gaddis, Elliott, Collin, Wagner; Medunjanin, Bedoya, Creavalle, Fabian; Wooten, Przybylko
Strengths: Last time out, we examined Marco Fabian’s contributions, highlighted Philly’s midfield dominance, and discussed the success that signing Kacper Przybylko has brought to the Union. Each of those strengths remain but let’s take a look where else Curtin and his men might succeed on Saturday.
Peak Performances: Year after year MLS pundits discuss the importance of peaking at the right moment of the season. Too early and you may sputter out before the playoffs. Too late and you could be faced with a more difficult playoff run. For the Union, it seems as if they are hitting their stride at the moment both in terms of results as well as in performance quality. One reason for this success is the simultaneous return to full fitness of Marco Fabian and Jamiro Monteiro. Having played less than three-hundred minutes together prior to this weekend due to various injuries, the duo has a unique chemistry that has had a direct impact on the Union’s season.
Since our last preview, Fabian has scored three goals and notched an assist, coming good on the potential he has always had to succeed in the league. Monteiro has four goals and eight assists in just fourteen starts for the Union, an exceptional maiden voyage in MLS despite injuries. With both of them fit and available for Saturday, Chicago’s midfield will certainly need to solidify its defensive shape. Of the nearly eighty passes that the duo strung together in their last match, they misplaced just nine pass attempts, a statistic that also led to dominating possession numbers against Houston. That will be a worrying sign for a Chicago side that has only succeed in matches where they have the bulk of the ball.
Oh Captain, My Captain: Without stepping too far into the realm of political commentary, Alejandro Bedoya’s calls to end gun violence in the wake of his goal against DC two weeks ago have revealed a lot about the club and have united the team in a unique way. The outpouring of support from his teammates and the post-match presser from Curtin have shown that beyond the joys of succeeding on the field, this Philly franchise is a family. When compared to a Fire locker room that is constantly on the verge of falling apart at the seams, the Union will have a unique edge in high pressure matches.
Road Warriors: Philly will take solace from the fact that they have the best away record in the East. A total of eighteen points on the road this season—five wins and three draws—has significantly boosted the Union’s hopes for success. Philly, along with the likes of LAFC and Portland, has dispelled the notion that the MLS away landscape is impossible to conquer. Moreover, road results against the likes of DC, TFC, and Minnesota, mean that the Union will not be afraid of visiting the tenth place Fire.
Weaknesses: Prior to this fixture in July we discussed injuries, the extra motivation felt by CJ Sapong, and the tendency to struggle when not allowed to play free flowing soccer as weaknesses for this Union side. We addressed the injuries above, but the latter two facets remain. This is especially true with regards to the inability to circumvent a high press low block approach when it is carried out to perfection. Let’s expand on that and see where else the Union might struggle.
Allez Allez: Although the Fire beat Montreal on Saturday, they’ll want to take a good look at the way the Impact played against the Union two weeks ago. Chicago’s Northern neighbors put four past Jim Curtin’s charges as the Union were stifled and left without attacking ideas. Montreal’s success largely came on the counter in terms of their offensive prowess, but Remi Garde’s choice of a mobile midfield duo—Shamit Shome and Saphir Taider—saw the Union’s creative players under constant pressure when in possession, a move which allowed for playing in transition.
Similarly, a flat back four (one in which the fullbacks were not asked to overlap) was set up in an extremely low block. The result was an inability for the Union to ever get going. Frustration crept in and Curtin’s decision to take right back Matt Real off in the 56th minute and switch formations to a 3-5-2 with two target men up top spoke volumes as to Montreal’s success. If Michael Azira and Brandt Bronico start as the midfield two for Chicago on Saturday, they may just replicate the Impact’s result over Philly.
We Have No One Else: Another glaring weak spot for Philly in recent matches has been the right back position. Raymon Gaddis has had a particularly bad season by his own standards and struggled into the lead up of the last encounter between these two sides. He was embarrassed on multiple occasions by RSL’s wingers prior to Chicago’s visit and has continued that form. Orji Okwonkwo and Lassi Lappalainen regularly blew past him for Montreal and although Houston lost, Manotas and Elis have him trouble on numerous occasions. The problem for Curtin is that he simply doesn’t have anyone better in that particular position and Gaddis will likely feature again at the weekend. If Frankowski can turn potential into production, Philly might be in trouble on their right flank.
Prediction: The standings don’t lie. Philly is one of the best teams in the league. Chicago’s performances are average at best. Union 4-2 Fire. Bedoya, Przybylko, Monteiro, Picault for the visitors. CJ Sapong and Nemanja Nikolic for the hosts.