Philadelphia Union: Up Next, the Chicago Fire

Aug 12, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Fire forward David Accam (11) heads the ball past Philadelphia Union forward C.J. Sapong (17) during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 12, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Chicago Fire forward David Accam (11) heads the ball past Philadelphia Union forward C.J. Sapong (17) during the first half at PPL Park. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports /

Are you feeling that spark of hope? Ignited by two surprisingly good results, the Philadelphia Union are once again trying to shake off their supporter’s cynicism and encourage high expectations.

The more fatalistic of you will probably wait till late April or May to allow hope to sneak its way into your cold, calloused and/or labyrinthine hearts.  But others are already on the bandwagon.  Either way, it’s time to see what our next opponent has to offer – another win away would provide crucial validation but will test Curtin’s tactical prowess.

The Chicago Fire – The Story So Far

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Mar 11, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Fire stand for a team photo before the first half of a soccer match against the Orlando City FC at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

After a disastrous 2015 season that saw them dead last in the Supporter’s Shield race, the Fire, much like the Philadelphis Union, turned over a big portion of their team (only 9 remained) to ensure that at the very least they would collapse in a slightly different way and hopefully be, well, not last.  Unlike the Philadelphia Union, though, they don’t have much to show for it yet.

GameScoreFormationPoss.Pass%ShotsShots Conc.
Home vs NYCFC3 – 44-2-3-139.2%66%1720
Away vs Orlando1 – 13-5-2 & 4-4-135.1%71%1013
Away vs Columbus0 – 03-5-2 & 3-4-1-241.9%76%412
2015 Average1.3 – 1.74-2-3-143%72%10.315

The stats above should indicate that this is a counter-attacking team and, thus far, not a very good one.  What the stats doesn’t show is that the Fire have shown a sizeable amount of grit in these games in the face of missing DP strikers (Gilberto against Orlando and Accam against Columbus) and playing teams that are individually better and have had more time to gel.  Versus NYCFC they responded to goals three times and probably should have won given how many of their shots went just wide or just off the bar.

Chicago Fire Line-up Versus Columbus (philadelphia union)
Chicago Fire Lineup Versus Columbus /

Their leaky defense was corrected for the subsequent games by switching to a 3-5-2 (which plays more like a 5-3-1) and thus the pyrotechnics of Game 1 turning into the hard-fought draws of the next two games.  Against Orlando, that grit was on full display after falling a man down in the 32nd minute.  They held their 1-1 tie away despite Larin & Co’s best effort and thanks to Andre Blake-styled heroics from their new-to-them goalie Matt Lampson (justifying his start vs USMT call-up Sean Johnson) and thanks to a late Orlando penalty call that went unheeded (unjustly). Lastly at Columbus, they kept numbers back and were completely uninspiring on the attack, due in large part to the lack of Accam and Columbus’ ability to tamp down the midfield, resulting in a snore-fest of a game.

The Good – Triple DP Threat

While the Philadelphia Union has a striker depth that is wafer thin, the upcoming opponents boast 3 DP attackers that can make a difference on paper.  In reality, though, Accam (2 goals 1 Assist in 2 games) is the one individual catalyst that, if on the field and healthy, almost guarantees a goal for his team. See his speed below for yourself.

If you pair him with Gilberto to make his diagonal runs and open up space, you are bound to see flat-footed CBs left in a cloud of dust.  Which is why Patrick Viera’s decision to play a high line against one of the fastest attacks in the conference was one part brave and two parts hilarious – the score-line was a testament to that.

The Bad – Young backbone

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Mar 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire defender Brandon Vincent (3) in the game against New York City FC at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

In their last game against Columbus, the Fire had three young defenders that had never played together before and that debuted in the MLS in 2016 (Jonathan Campbell, Rodrigo Ramos and, of course, the Philadelphia Union-could-have-been, Brandon Vincent) plus one defensive midfielder in his second year of MLS, the Will Trap-esque Matt Polster (22).  So far all four have earned their spots, but their inexperience has reared its head already: Vincent and Polster both got beat 1v1 against NYCFC resulting in goals.  Be jealous that in a year or two they will have a formidable back line but in the meantime, we can play the Lannisters to their Stark children.

The Ugly – Everything Else

Their two new European central defenders (João Meira and Johan Kappelhof) so far have not shown to be particularly great acquisitions.  Specifically, Meira seems error-prone: he high-kicked his fellow defender’s head open against NYCFC, letting a ball loose in the box that was promptly slotted in and in the next game almost headed in an own goal.

With this lack of composure by the elders and timidness among the youngsters, it is no wonder the coach Veljko Paunović (ring a bell?) decided to put 5 in the back on defensive positions for the foreseeable future. Another almost non-existent aspect to the Chicago Fire game is through-balls or any kind of inspired passing.  Due to this and the timid attacking fullbacks (for the time being, they show promise) the tactic of choice has been to lob balls over Accam and Gilberto and hope for the best.  For the Fire to be anywhere near effective they will need the likes of Arturo Alvarez (AM), Kenney Igboananike (RW/FW) and John Goossens (M) to do more through the center.  So far they have 1 goal, 2 assists and 3.3 key passes over three games, but they will have to increase that output. Were they in too much of a hurry to ship Harry Shipp to Montreal?

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Tactical Match-up

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Mar 19, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports /

The choices Curtin has to make will depend in large part on two things: Will Accam and Gilberto be healthy and will Paunović stick to the 3-5-2 or go on the offensive? If they are both healthy and if they don’t see our newfangled Union attack as enough of a threat we might see a 4-2-3-1 again. Their 3-5-2/5-3-2 has had good success with possession teams that like to go up the sides and cross it in (Columbus) and the Philadelphia Union’s goals have come mostly from such crosses into the box and from counters.  Curtin might be tempted to press their young and new back line at times but will most likely fall back fast so that Accam and Gilberto don’t have space to run. But hoping for quick transitions or trying to use our wingers won’t be enough given the Fire’s success against such tactics, the Philadelphia Union will have to show that they have another trick up their sleeve by providing numbers and balls through the middle.  That likely means using Barnetta if he’s healthy at the 10 and opting for an offensive 3-5-2 or risk a 4-3-3. The latter requires holding a high-line which as noted above, is dangerous if we have a hard-charging Accam running rampant.  Another option is to try to lure the Fire out into the attack like NYCFC did, but they might have learned their lessons from that game. Their coach likes to tinker mid-game and likes to build from the back (read: is very cautious) so it should be a tough nut to crack.

Individual Match-ups

Vincent vs Rosenberry – The Battle of the Babes! Two recent draft picks already in their respective starting line-ups, some Philadelphia Union Supporters thought that we should have picked up Vincent and time will tell if Yaro/Rosenberry was the better option.  Unfortunately, Rosenberry will have to deal with comparisons for a while, this is his opportunity to silence remaining doubters (there shouldn’t be many) via a direct tet-a-tet match-up.

Accam vs Rosenberry/Tribbett – Gulp.  Tribbett has proven to be slow on the dash and Rosenberry gets fooled by the cut-in. Guess what Accam likes to do?

Sapong vs Meira/Lampson – Sapong should press these two, Meira has shown to be error prone, while Lampson’s distribution hasn’t been thoroughly tested.

Ilsinho vs Vincent – Curtin should keep Ilsinho on the right, the young draftee Vincent has proven that he can be muscled out 1v1 so our most capable dribbler should make mince meat out of him. Hopefully.

Carrol/Creavalle vs Alvarez/Goossens – The El Salvadorian and Dutch midfielders haven’t shown too much bite in the last two games, but that’s because previous teams have had excellent defensive midfielders to tamp down any action.

Next: Philadelphia Union: Man of the Match CJ Sapong

Final Thoughts

Fire supporters believe that the Philadelphia Union game will be their chance to finally showcase their improvement from last year with a win.  There are a lot of similarities in the teams: both are rebuilding after a bad year, both have significant injuries, both had first game losses after which they rebounded and both have young coaches, still tinkering with their new line-ups that include a young defensive line. The Philadelphia Union have to validate the hope they are instilling in their supporters by dispatching this doppelganger.  There can be only one.