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Preview: Union vs Chicago Fire

What: Union vs Chicago Fire

When: Sunday, 7:00PM EST

Where: PPL Park

TV: Galavision

Asked about playing his former team, Bakary Soumare said, “The guys that I played with in Chicago, there’s probably four or five left.” The defender, hoping to earn his first minutes of the season on Sunday, added: “It’s good that it’s at home.”

Largely ignored due to the heartbreaking nature of the US Open Cup semifinal loss to Kansas City, the Philadelphia Union have found their home form under John Hackworth. A 1-4-1 regular season home record under Peter Nowak has morphed into a 5-4-1 mark, with the team scoring at least two goals in every match.

So while the overall results and the team’s play under Hackworth may continue to look uneven, taking back PPL Park is a good first step on the path to the playoffs, both this year and in the future.

Managing the rosters

The Union remain on the outside of the outside of the playoff picture, looking in over the none-too-impressive shoulders of Montreal, Columbus and Chicago. So while every game is a must-win, Sunday offers Philly the chance to take direct aim at the team that they absolutely must catch if they want postseason action in 2012.

Chicago manager – and former Peter Nowak teammate – Frank Klopas has turned the 2012 season into a masterclass in acquiring and utilizing a vast array of personnel and styles. Imagine if Michael Farfan played the way he did against the Galaxy nearly every game. Now imagine Michael Farfan unexpectedly leaves the Union for an urgent personal matter and may or may not return. That, essentially, is what Klopas and the Fire have dealt with this season. They built a style around the consistently influential Sebastian Grazzini (who picked the Union apart in Chicago last year) only to lose the Argentinian to a personal matter contract issue the plot of a Dan Brown sports book.

Taking a different approach from the Union’s move-people-around-and-act-like-it-makes-sense strategy, the Fire have signed Alex Monteiro De Lima and acquired Alvaro Fernandez from Seattle for allocation money. Both players have slotted into the midfield alongside Marco Pappa, Patrick Nyarko and Chris Rolfe, offering the Fire numerous tactical options within their standard 4-2-3-1 formation.

Attacking midfield questions

Predicting the Fire midfield is, thus, nigh impossible. Klopas likes Fernandez, but he will likely hand the third attacking midfield position to whoever he thinks will offer the best chance to penetrate and get behind the Union’s back line. Marco Pappa and Chris Rolfe are likely starters, and both prefer to run at players, or at least develop attacks rather than running onto balls. If Alex starts, Rolfe will move out to the right and Chicago will try to control the middle third of the pitch, trusting that Pavel Pardo will have enough space to step forward and pull strings behind the front four.

Should Nyarko or Fernandez come into the side, the Fire will play more like a road team, dropping Pardo and Logan Pause deep and starting counterattacks through the wide midfielders. The Fire have picked up a total of one point on the road since April, so they may prefer the safety of a counterattacking style to the brash confidence of a more possession-oriented midfield.

Defensive midfield questions

It may be strange to think that a match can come down to the performance of holding midfielders, but both teams rely heavily on their experienced central players to grease the wheels of their offensive machines. Pardo and Pause play smart, efficient defense and move the ball quickly to the skill players in front of them. Pause’s place in the side was under threat when Pardo arrived, but the Fire captain responded by fashioning himself into a Brian Carroll clone. Playing the positioning game with aplomb, Pause looks to move the ball to Pardo or his attacking midfielder quickly and simply.

Philadelphia’s holding midfielders have yet to develop the chemistry of The Two Ps. Whether he is paired with Michael Lahoud or Gabriel Gomez, Brian Carroll continues to chase on defense while getting stuck trying to move the ball forward on offense. Simply put, the hardworking Carroll looks like he’s trying to cover for his partner instead of working in tandem.

The midfield’s ability to impose itself on a match has created the growing rumble of calls for Bakary Soumare to partner Carlos Valdes in defense, allowing Amobi Okugo to join Carroll in the midfield and grow a partnership that many believe should have been formed in 2011.

Union personnel: Who will be available?

Any defensive moves have to wait on the resolution of Carlos Valdes’ status. The Union captain is due to be called up by Colombia and his availability for Sunday’s match (along with Gavilan Gomez’s and Keon Daniel’s) remains a mystery.

The question marks extend to the strike force for the Union, as Jack McInerney’s red card suspension means changes will be made to the front three that were reportedly trying to score goals against Montreal. Josue Martinez or Chandler Hoffman may get their McInerney Moment: An opportunity to show that they are willing to outwork the opposition and get a dirty goal or two. Remember, Union Jack got off the mark by following plays up and putting himself in places where few Philly strikers dare to tread. Namely, the box.

Leaders in front 

No matter who leads the line, the front three need to have a kum-ba-ya moment before the match and promise to work together and support each other. Maybe the Eagles could loan the Union a couple of those quarterback playbook-armbands. Just put pictures of the other strikers in them so everyone remembers that they are on the approved passing and support list.

The key for the Union offense will be off-the-ball movement. Pardo and Pause will not make it easy to go forward, so Philadelphia will have to do hard work to move through a crowded midfield. Or they could resort to long ball tactics and we can all play a drinking game where you take one drink every time John Hackworth puts his hands on his hips and take one shot for every Hack facepalm.

In the end, there are two ways to preview this match: A team high on confidence coming off an exciting late win against a team low on confidence, fresh off a demoralizing loss that saw them lose their offensive sparkplug. Or, it’s a team that hasn’t won on the road since Call Me Maybe made the rest of life seem less annoying against a team that has reclaimed its home ground. If Chicago can push the Union early, the home team’s tenuous confidence could fail.

But if the Union can take their energy from the fans and turn their home turf into the Caudine Forks, the Fire will only leave PPL Park under the yoke.

What to look for

  • Movement from the wings – Are the wingers getting inside and providing options? This moves the defense around and allows the central striker to make runs in behind that Amobi Okugo can hit like an Angry Birds champion.
  • How quickly are the Fire getting to the final third – Montreal moved through the Union midfield faster than you can say EliPearlmanStorch. Positionally, Carroll and Lahoud/Gomez/Okugo need to be set up and prepared to force Chicago to go square.
  • Central striker – Is the Union center striker causing Chicago to drop deep? If so: Yay! If not, it’s gonna get packed in the middle.

Lineups

Union

  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Williams, Okugo, Valdes (?), Garfan
  • MID: Carroll, Gomez (?), Marfan
  • FWD: Martinez, Hoffman, Pajoy

Fire

  • GK: Sean Johnson
  • DEF: Jalil Anibaba, Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Gonzalo  Segares
  • MID: Pavel Pardo, Logan Pause, Marco Pappa, Chris Rolfe, Alvaro Fernandez
  • FWD: Dom Oduro

Injuries

Union

  • OUT: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
  • QUESTIONABLE: FW Antoine Hoppenot (nasal bone fracture)
  • PROBABLE: MF Michael Farfan (L foot contusion); DF Bakary Soumare (R knee menisectomy recovery)

Fire

  • OUT: DF Cory Gibbs (R knee meniscus repair)
  • QUESTIONABLE: DF Steven Kinney (R groin strain)

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