Match previews

Preview: Union at Chicago

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire

When: 1:30pm EST

Where: Toyota Park, Chicago, IL, USA

TV: NBC-Sports, NBC Sports Live Extra

Referee: Armando Villarreal (5 games, 16 yellows, 1 red)

As Philadelphia Union plan for life without big central defender Jeff Parke, Chicago is trying to solve a similar riddle. Midfielder Jeff Larentowicz has been the most reliable piece of a complicated puzzle that coach Frank Klopas is struggling to solve. Saddled with a roster chock full of mediocrity and inconsistency, Klopas has yet to find the formula for success.

With Larentowicz as the fulcrum, the Fire have twisted Logan Pause, Daniel Paladini, Joel Lindpere, Chris Rolfe, and Patrick Nyarko into every shape imaginable. No design seems capable of dominating a game, but Klopas has pushed on with the same starters despite the struggles to find results.

Wait, does this sound familiar?

Subtract Jack McInerney’s six goals, and the Union start to look a lot like their Chicago counterpart. Since the beginning of April, both teams have tallied six points. Chicago has scored five and allowed five. The Union have scored seven and let in eight. While these teams are separated by five points in the standings, that distance came from Chicago’s early face plant.

Philadelphia approach

The Union midfield took a big step forward against Seattle, controlling play through Michael Farfan and getting periods of extended pressure on the opposition high up the pitch. Whether this improvement continues on the road is one of the biggest questions the team must answer tomorrow.

Philly has taken a counterattacking approach on the road this season, and that should continue against the Fire. The Union will look to exploit the edges while Chicago will work the center of the pitch through Chris Rolfe. With this in mind, one early question will be whether the Fire put out Gonzalo Segares or Hunter Jumper to man the left back position.

If John Hackworth thought Danny Cruz’s ability to get behind defenses was a secret weapon, that secret is out. Chicago can ask the steady Segares to hold a solid line and keep the Union in front of the defense, or they can ask Jumper to use his athleticism to pin Cruz deeper. A third option occurs if you consider the nature of Cruz as a player.

While pinning Danny Cruz back sounds reasonable in theory, it implies that the Union midfielder makes adjustments based on the opposing team’s tactics. This is not what Danny Cruz does. As seen in the build up to the second Seattle goal, Cruz will drop his marker once they get deep enough into the Union half. (In fairness, he is not the only midfielder guilty of this, by any means.)

In the end, the question comes down to Chicago’s confidence in its possession game. If the Fire can keep the ball, they can worry less about the Union counterattack and feel comfortable pushing defenders into the offensive scheme.

Chicago’s possession game

It’s not good. It’s just not very good.

Even with a healthy Larentowicz, even in their strongest games, the Fire have been vertical and bullish rather than cohesive and patient. Players like Sherjil MacDonald, Patrick Nyarko and Joel Lindpere combine to give Chicago more speed than skill on the wings and a lot of brawn up top. Against Columbus, the Fire dominated play throughout the match, did not allow a single shot on goal, and still completed only three more passes than their opponent.

With this in mind, Frank Klopas will be smart to recognize that the biggest danger he faces is overcommitting to the attack. If Jumper can play a conservative left back, his speed may be the best match for Cruz. But if he gets forward and the Fire lose the ball, expect Cruz to use what he’s got and bum-rush the defense with regularity. Then pray for a solid cross.

About that defense

Bakary Soumare is keeping expectations low. After all, he hasn’t played in a real game in quite some time. The trick to success will be simplicity. Paired with a skilled distributor like Okugo, Soumare can let the touch come back to him slowly and spend the early minutes playing two-touch football.

And though Chicago seems a nice, weak opponent for a rusty defender, they are most dangerous against teams that want to involve fullbacks in the attack early, with Chris Rolfe able to turn defense into attack quickly if he can pick out a pass behind an advanced defender.

Soumare will have to be careful that he doesn’t make the same mistakes Okugo has made in the early season — namely, getting pulled wide to defend a cross when nobody is in the box. Once the central defenders leave the middle of the pitch, the box becomes a roadster derby finish line, with midfielders on both teams racing in at top speed. The ability to defend is much more difficult when a player is running full sprint toward his own goal. With Raymon Gaddis and Gabriel Farfan possessing more than adequate recovery speed, the Union’s central defenders must claim and maintain their territory and leave the rest of the pitch to others.

Gamebreaker

Chris Rolfe needs to be contained. Teams that have controlled Chicago have done so by playing tight on Rolfe and forcing the Fire to find alternate routes to goal. They don’t have any.

Rolfe is the real deal as an offensive midfielder, but he needs more space to operate than most because he prefers to attack on the dribble and pass once he is closed down. Keeping Rolfe’s back to goal will severely inhibit Chicago’s offensive threats by preventing Lindpere and Nyarko from going through the gears and latching onto through balls. Is anybody worried about what Nyarko will do when he receives a square pass around the halfway line?

Responsibility for covering Rolfe should fall on Brian Carroll. If the captain can nullify Rolfe alone, Keon Daniel can continue to relearn that his role is further up the pitch, pressuring Chicago’s deeper midfielders and forcing play wide. Daniel needs, just¬†needs,¬†to be high up the pitch, because otherwise Pause and Paladini will key on Michael Farfan and bracket him before he can get his head up. Having Daniel as an early short option opens space and allows Farfan to take control of a game the way he did against Seattle.

Conclusion

The Union don’t need three points on the road, but they do need one. In a week, the Fire come to PPL Park, and that will be a game the Union need to take control of early and close out fast.

This week is all about learning how to keep a new defense organized, open space for Michael Farfan to rediscover his form, and steal road points by playing with purpose for ninety minutes. If the Union get lost and start chasing the ball, they will open themselves up to Chicago’s direct attack. And if that happens, it will be interesting to see which of the attacking midfielders that John Hackworth keeps pinned to the bench like butterflies in a forgotten collection get a chance to make a difference.

Lineups

Union

  • GK: MacMath
  • DEF: Gaddis, Okugo, Soumare, Garfan
  • MID: Cruz, Carroll, Daniel, Marfan
  • FWD: McInerney, Casey

Fire

  • GK: Sean Johnson
  • DEF: Wells Thompson, Jalil Anibaba, Austin Berry, Hunter Jumper
  • MID: Patrick Nyarko, Dan Paladini, Logan Pause, Joel Lindpere
  • FWD: Chris Rolfe, Sherjil MacDonald

9 Comments

  1. Kenso Josh says:

    I’d like a prediction on this column. I’m feeling a win (I felt a draw last week). I’m feeling a 3-1 Union. What about that, Adam? What’s your call?

  2. For some reason, I feel like we have a better chance to beat Chicago on the road than at home. Either way, 4 points is a minimum from these two games if we want to be in the playoff hunt.

    Any further news about Cruz’s availability/injury? I just saw the tweet from the guy from the Inquirer.

  3. Here are my outside the box predictions:
    – Daniel plays to far deep and fails to provide an outlet to the forwards. When we are in the final third, he will prove to be unreliable and not dangerous.
    – Carrol will fail to provide any offense whatsoever and will be beaten by faster players running at him.
    – Cruz will be the most out of breath by the end of the game but will unfortunately have nothing to show for it.
    – This side of the field will be targeted, with Cruz not providing help on defense and Gaddis being ran at all game. We will give up a goal from an uncontested cross from this side of the field.
    – Despite a lack of possession or coherent link up play Casey and Jack will be able to carve out chances and play of their strengths like they’ve been playing together for years.
    Don’t ask me how I came up with these things. I don’t know either!

  4. With three games in a week, is this a spot where we might see somebody out of the ordinary starting, like Le Toux or Kleberson or – heaven forbid – Torres?

  5. The Black Handjob says:

    MacMath blew this game. If Konopka is in the Union win 1 to -4

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