Match previews

Match preview: Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union (10th place, 33 points, 8-12-9) vs. Chicago Fire (3rd place, 48 points, 14-9-6)
What: 2017 regular season
Where: Talen Energy Stadium, Chester, Pa.
When: Saturday, September 23 at 7:00 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live
Whistle: Robert Sibiga; Adam Wienckowski, Kevin Klinger; Ted Unkel; Jonathan Weiner

If nothing else, Philadelphia’s opponent this Saturday offers hope.

It’s not the hope of victory, as Chicago Fire are one of the league’s premiere sides. With 48 points in 29 games, only Toronto FC and New York City FC have had more success in MLS this season. After a surprising summer swoon, the Fire lost six of seven matches stretching from mid Jul. through Aug., Chicago has responded with a three game unbeaten streak. Victories over D.C. United and Montreal sandwich a draw with the Red Bulls.

While the Union are enjoying their own three game unbeaten streak, also including a draw with the Red Bulls last weekend, Philadelphia hasn’t won since Aug. 5 against FC Dallas.

Philadelphia and Chicago stand at vastly different places. As the last five weeks of the season wind down, the Fire are looking to secure a first round bye in the playoffs and make a legitimate run at the MLS Cup. The Union have nothing more than pride for which to play.

The hope Chicago offers is that of a brighter tomorrow, a reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in MLS. Last season, the visitors finished the season in the same place the Union currently sit. More than that, Chicago mirrors Philadelphia in a more significant way. They are the third and fourth largest media markets in the United States. Before 2017, the Fire floundered for years. Now, they are among the class of MLS. The Union can only hope for a similar reverse of fortune.

Scouting report: Chicago Fire

Reheating 

Projected Fire lineup

On Jul. 1 the Golden Boot race seemed all but over. Chicago striker Nemanja Nikolic scored another two goals in a dominating 4-0 win over Vancouver. He stood with 16 goals in his first 18 MLS games.

Chicago were hopeful the Hungarian international would spark an anemic attack that scored just 42 goals in 2016. Nikolic netted 41 times in the past two seasons for Polish champions Legia Warsaw. The Fire couldn’t have expected his blistering start.

But then the slog that is the MLS summer caught up with the first year forward. Nikolic went nine consecutive matches without finding the net. Unsurprisingly, his goal drought corresponded to Chicago’s own midseason struggles.

As if they are somehow connected, Chicago’s success and Nikolic’s offensive prowess, Chicago started winning and Nikolic started scoring again as the calendar flipped to September. The 29-year-old has netted in his last two contests, and his 18 goals have him one tally behind New York City FC’s David Villa for the league lead.

The lesson is simple: as Nikolic goes so goes the Fire.

Auf wiedersehen

The city of Philadelphia might be saying goodbye before it ever has a chance to say hello to Chicago midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The World Cup-winning German will likely miss the weekend’s contest with a calf injury.

After the lessons of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, there is no guarantee Philly fans will ever have the chance to see Schweinsteiger in person. And that’s a shame. Unlike Gerrard and Lampard, the former Bayern Munich midfielder has actually played well.

Yet he may not even be Chicago’s most important midfielder. Their offseason acquisition of Dax McCarty has been vital to the Fire’s success. He doesn’t fill a stat sheet, but he offers control. He does the little things so well, and you take him for granted until he is no longer there. Just ask the Red Bulls.

  • Injury report: OUT: M John Goossens (right ankle surgery), GK Jorge Bava (left elbow surgery), M Daniel Johnson (left MCL injury), D Christian Dean (fifth metatarsal fracture), D Patrick Doody (left hamstring injury), M Juninho (left knee injury); QUESTIONABLE: M Bastian Schweinsteiger (calf injury)
  • Suspensions: None.

Scouting report: Philadelphia Union

Upside down 

Projected Union lineup

For 28 games, Union head coach Jim Curtin rolled out the same 4-2-3-1 over and over and over again. Was it because the formation was not only effective, but best utilized the player’s abilities?

No.

The Union sat 8-12-8 and were all but eliminated from the postseason. Philadelphia consistently deployed a formation that relies heavily on the No. 10. For those who’ve paid attention, a No. 10 is something the Union do not have. Ilsinho and Roland Alberg were not the answer, but they were penciled into the starting lineup almost automatically. The Union’s two most talented central players formed the base of the midfield triangle, yet neither Haris Medunjanin nor Alejandro Bedoya are true defensive players who can shield a backline.

The 29th game started just like the first 28. Then a miracle happened. Curtin turned everything upside down. Midfielder Warren Creavalle replaced Ilsinho at the half. Curtin inverted the triangle.

As Medunjanin and Bedoya shifted upfield, Creavalle dropped below. It was only for a half, but Curtin hinted in his weekly press conference this formation could become a familiar sight.

Creavalle is exactly what the position calls for at the base of the midfield: a purely defensive player who knows his role and has the speed to range from sideline to sideline diffusing danger as he goes. Bedoya and Medunjanin can now help an attack that has stagnated without sacrificing defense.

It’s too late, but it’s a positive Curtin is finally experimenting with his lineup. It was almost laughable how reliant the team was on their invisible No. 10s. The inverted triangle looks to be the Union’s most cohesive and thus effective midfield combination. Worse case scenario? Philadelphia fails in a new, engaging way.

  • Injury report: OUT: M Fabian Herbers (sports hernia surgery), D Ken Tribbett (left Achilles strain), M Brian Carroll (lumbar disc herniation); QUESTIONABLE: M Maurice Edu (left ankle/left tibia surgery recovery)
  • Suspension: None.

Sophomore seasons

The key matchup this week is simple. It’s not just a tactical battle that intrigues, but a comparison of what could have been. When the Union selected 3rd in the 2016 MLS Superdraft, the consensus belief was that they should select left back Brandon Vincent from Stanford. Instead they took right back Keegan Rosenberry, and Vincent went 4th to Chicago. After their rookie seasons, it was Rosenberry who looked to be the wiser selection, earning national praise. This year, the opposite is true. Vincent has excelled while Rosenberry was glued to the bench. On Saturday, the two will go head to head for the first time.

Player to watch: David Accam

Nikolic may get the attention, but it is allows left winger David Accam to shine outside of the spotlight. He’s been absolutely dynamic, setting a career high in goals with 14. The Ghanaian international is the best left winger in MLS, and it really isn’t close.

Prediction: Philadelphia Union 2-3 Chicago Fire

Maybe this is too many goals. The whole reason Creavalle comes into the match is to stabilize the midfield. And he will. The Union will look much better in attack starting the game with the inverted triangle. Unfortunately, the Fire are just a really good team. Rosenberry is going to have a tough day vs. Accam.

8 Comments

  1. If Edu is fit, would he slide into Warren’s spot?

  2. Harris looked lost in the second half. Hopefully he can adjust to being further up the field.

    • I would feel lost, too, if I were a good player on a bad team who is just waiting for someone not named Bedoya to make a smart run. Only CJ checks to the ball, everyone else is running away, looking for that back-shoulder lob.

  3. Why would I watch this game when Warren C is playing.

  4. about 1 win a month. but its not the coach. okay.

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