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Preview: Union at Fire

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

What: Union at Chicago Fire
Where: Toyota Park, Chicago, IL
When: 8:30PM EST
Referee: Abbey Okulaja (116 games; FC/gm: 26.6; Y/gm: 3.2; R: 19; pens: 26), AR1 (bench): Kermit Quisenberry; AR2 (opposite): Peter Manikowski; 4th: Edvin Jurisevic

When the Union and Fire met in August, Philadelphia put in what may be their most stereotypical performance of the year. Behind Chandler Hoffman’s pressing runs, the Union went up a goal. Then, behind soft midfield defense and poor set piece marking, the Union gave two back before halftime.

Since losing to New England and beating New York to open June, Chicago has gone about the business of becoming a successful middle-of-the-pack club. Anyone in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference? Maximum points. The Fire have walked away with all the goodies from their last seven matches against teams outside of the playoff picture in the east. Indeed,

Frank Klopas has built a system around the talent at his disposal, and that talent has rewarded him with the third best points per game in MLS.

Oh, that’s how it’s done

Sherjil MacDonald has only netted twice in ten games since joining the Fire as a Designated Player. But as he showed against the Union in August, he is a handful for any defensive pairing. MacDonald burned Bakary Soumare to set up Chris Rolfe’s first goal and generally dragged the defense around at will.

I know what you’re thinking: The Union play with a single striker and a supporting midfielder… what’s different?

The simple answer is that MacDonald is a big, hold up player while the Union use sprinters like Jack McInerney to get in behind the defense. Of course, being simple doesn’t make this the right answer.

Rolfe, Alvaro Fernandez, and Alex do a great job of playing MacDonald early and giving him off the ball runs in support. Rolfe is not content to receive a back pass from his striker; instead, he looks to exploit the space MacDonald leaves behind when he steps wide or checks back. Those runs into leftover space pull the opposing midfield apart and allow Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause to sneak upfield and run the offense from more advanced positions.

Philadelphia has never mastered the midfield run for a combination of reasons. For one, Michael Farfan has been the only consistent distributor in 2012. Instead of sneaking in behind, he comes back to get on the ball in deep positions. To free Farfan up, the Union need a second midfielder to spread the ball around so Farfan can operate further up the pitch.

The obvious answer is Freddy Adu. But putting Adu and Farfan in the middle of the pitch would require the Union to drop one of their two holding midfielders to the bench, something that John Hackworth has been loathe to do.

Oku on the go

Against Columbus, Hackworth showed that he understands the need to get all his high performers on the pitch together. His solution was to move Gabe Farfan in the midfield and put Ray Gaddis and Sheanon Williams at the fullback positions.

The other option is to move Amobi Okugo into the midfield—he’s going to end up there eventually—and push one of the other three into the center of the defense. Williams has played there before, but Gabe Farfan might actually be the best choice.

Garfan has been strong coming up the wing, but his rough style of play and good skill on the ball make him a candidate for the middle of the park. And before you dismiss this idea for height or strength reasons, pause and ask yourself whether the benefits of moving Okugo into the midfield don’t outweigh the potential issues of having Gabriel Farfan at center back.

Are the Union winning games now? No. Are they moving the ball effectively in midfield? No. Does Michael Farfan, ostensibly the support for the striker, currently come back to the defensive half to pick up the ball? Yes. Are other teams scoring off set pieces now? Yes. Is Okugo playing 35 yard balls to strikers’ feet from the back because there is nowhere else to go with the ball? Yes. Would 20 yard balls from midfield be easier? Yes.

So why not give it a try?

Quickly moving forward

Chicago’s midfield was incredibly well-organized when these teams met in August. That’s what a few vets and the space created by Rolfe’s driving runs will do. Whoever the Union play up front needs find gaps and check back to hold play up while others run behind. The checking back has been less of an issue than the running behind this season, but making that combination happen with speed will be key to breaking through an organized defense.

Finding space between the lines is the only way to move Chicago’s structured back six (the holding middies in front of the defenders) around enough to open gaps for the final pass.

Did anyone new earn time?

Roger Torres set up McInerney’s tying goal against Columbus, so he will look for more minutes against Chicago. Torres seeks the ball out better than the rest of the Union’s midfielders, but he offers so little defensively that Hackworth may continue to use him only in desperate situations.

Chandler Hoffman may earn minutes simply by process of elimination. Josue Martinez was not very effective against the Crew and Antoine Hoppenot continues to be a more effective substitute than starter. Partnering with Jack McInerney may give Hoffman the space he needs to poach in the box.

Ray Gaddis simply has to be on the field. A string of above-average performances have shown that the first year defender deserves minutes during this late, developmental phase of the season.



  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Gaddis, Garfan, Valdes, Williams
  • MID: Carroll, Okugo, Marfan, Cruz
  • FWD: McInerney, Hoffman


  • GK: Sean Johnson
  • DEF: Jalil Anibaba, Arne Friedrich, Austin Berry, Dan Gargan
  • MID: Logan Pause, Dan Paladini, Alvaro Fernandez, Alex
  • FWD: Chris Rolfe, Sherjil MacDonald



  • OUT: DF Bakary Soumare (R knee menisectomy recovery)
  • DOUBTFUL: FW Krystian Witkowski (concussion symptoms)
  • QUESTIONABLE: MF Michael Farfan (R foot contusion/L knee contusion); MF Danny Cruz (L big toe sesamoid stress fracture/R calf strain); MF Freddy Adu (L quad strain)
  • PROBABLE: DF Gabriel Farfan (R ankle contusion); MF Keon Daniel (R knee contusion)


  • OUT: DF Cory Gibbs (R knee meniscus repair);
  • QUESTIONABLE: MF Pavel Pardo (L calf tightness)



  • Gonzalo Segares

Suspended next yellow


  • Gabriel Gomez
  • Sheanon Williams


  • Gonzalo Segares
  • Pavel Pardo



  1. The Union injury report is not encouraging.

  2. Philly Cheese says:

    If Marfan is questionable for game, for sure this would be great opportunity to see Okugo be a distributor in midfield. The few times when he has pressed forward from CB, he puts pressure on defenses and opens opportunities for passes. Would really like to see Okugo distribute to fellow UCLA teammate Hoffman and Jack Mac. If Cruz foot is bad, keep him off the pitch. May also be time to see if Jordan has future if he is playing well in Reserves.

  3. I would really like to see Pfeffer and McGaulin play.

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