Match previews

Preview: Union vs Chicago Fire

Who: Philadelphia Union vs Chicago Fire
What: Second MLS regular season meeting in 2013
Where: PPL Park, Philadelphia, PA, USA
When: 7:30pm EST
Watch: TCN, Direct Kick, MLS Live

Referee: Dave Gantar; Asst. 1: Eric Boria; Asst. 2 Kevin Klinger; Fourth: Kevin Terry Jr

With nearly a quarter of the regular season gone, the Philadelphia Union are firmly entrenched in the middle third of the Eastern Conference. The most basic of stats say they are lucky to be there: 14 goals scored and 18 goals against make it appear the Union are punching above their weight in the standings. Only Chivas USA and DC United have allowed significantly more goals per 90 minutes than the Union, and those teams are nowhere near Philly in the standings.

Chicago and Philadelphia have almost identical goals against averages, giving up about 1.6 per game. The Fire’s defensive issues won’t go away as long as standout German Arne Friedrich is out. Accepting that truth allows coach Frank Klopas to focus on a more pressing issue: Where will the offense come from?

Opposition report

Klopas has indicated he will once again unleash dynamic sprite Patrick Nyarko on the Union defense. Nyarko proved his doubters right last Saturday, pairing a sky high work ethic with equally high shots. Even if Jeff Parke returns to the first eleven, the back line will need a new approach to handling speedy attackers; Eddie Johnson and Nyarko have stretched the defense to its limit the past few weeks.

The Fire will look at the Union’s performance against the Galaxy and seek to pressure the left side of the back line. Bakary Soumare and Ray Gaddis pulled inside as the match went on and Fire winger Joel Lindpere may sneak to the right in an attempt to exploit Philly’s most glaring weakness.

One thing Chicago is certain to do is sit one of their big defenders right in front of Zac MacMath on set pieces. After throwing everything they had at the young Union goalie last Saturday, the ol’ put-a-big-dude-in-his-face strategy Los Angeles used to grab an early goal must have had the Fire technical staff executing powerful face palms.

With a single road goal this season (off a long throw-in, no less), Chicago will be in all-out counterattacking mode Saturday. Teams that can’t score away from home tend to pack at least nine behind the ball and break out through a creative player. Chris Rolfe will be the artiste on duty this weekend, and he will seek the same holes that Landon Donovan found between Brian Carroll and the Union center backs in the latter half of Wednesday’s blowout.

Union update


Big, big questions in the back for Philadelphia.

Playing a high line against a sprinter like Nyarko is dangerous, but the Union need to find a way to collapse the hole behind Brian Carroll. A simple solution would be to push either Okugo or Parke into an almost stopper-like position, one defender tracking the opposing striker while the other holds a line with the outside backs.

Regardless of the tactical changes implemented, the biggest defensive adjustment will come from the vocal chords. Letting Gaddis wander into the middle is the soccer equivalent of letting Russell Crowe star in a musical. Keon Daniel and Bakary Soumare were both silent on the third Galaxy goal; it is the type of defensive breakdown that should not be happening this deep into a season.


With Kleberson in the lineup, the Union took on a more traditional diamond midfield shape. Given space, the Brazilian was able to pick out runners and propel the Union’s counterattack with improved incision. And though ball retention remains an issue, giving the big money loanee the bulk of the offensive responsibility turned Brian Carroll into a more confident and aggressive player for the first half of Wednesday’s match.

Ideally, Kleberson, the wingers, and the strikers will be able to move the ball around the opposition half and look for McInerney’s runs into the box. This would take pressure off of the shaky defense and likely lead to more free kick opportunities for a team that has become quite proficient at scoring off indirect free kicks (who would have guessed!)

By inserting Kleberson, John Hackworth finally made an adjustment to a midfield that underwhelmed over the first quarter of the season. And with Keon Daniel turning in another middling performance midweek, it’s likely that Hackworth will return Michael Farfan to the wing on Saturday.

Throughout his career, Farfan has been most dangerous on the right. Considering that Danny Cruz has a proven ability to cross unpredictably with both feet, moving the only midfielder with goals on the season to the left could benefit both wide players. Cruz would be able to cut in onto his right and Farfan would be able to attack the end line with a measure of precision foreign to his more direct teammate.

Key matchups: Attacking mids vs Larentowicz

Big Red is back, y’all.

Extremely positionally intelligent, the Los Angeles midfielders prefer filling passing lanes to filling the grass with bodies. Jeff Larentowicz has no such reservations. Should Kleberson remain the hub of the Union attack, Larentowicz will remain close by. Hell, the guy can bruise a man by standing two feet away. It will be a real welcome-to-MLS matchup for the Brazilian creator, as he will have to take some hard fouls or up his tempo of play considerably.

Key matchups: Zac MacMath vs Zac MacMath

If the Union goalie is learning on the job, it appears he is going to get every lesson in the book before he graduates. MacMath shows all the athleticism of a star goalie but all the thought speed of a Wonder Years aside.

As a goalie, it’s pretty safe to assume you have every right to punch Omar Gonzalez in the back of the head if he is standing in front of your leap. I’m not saying aim for the head, but if it’s there don’t wait behind it like you’re in line for the restroom.

The play of a goalie often seems to trickle down to his central defenders, and Jeff Parke’s deep defending during moments of high pressure was mirrored by Okugo and Soumare on Wednesday. The field players act like they have to prevent any shot on goal instead of attacking the ball when it comes in to a dangerous spot in the final third. When MacMath is rattled, the Union can look like the Eagles playing prevent defense when they should be in the bump and run.

What’s missing

The swagger. McInerney has it, but too often it feels like he is the only one. Early in the year the team was making the mistakes of a young team with little tactical guidance. They would screw up, move on, trash talk, and bounce back. Remember Okugo doing his Will-Smith-just-met-aliens impression over the diving heap of Deshorn Brown?

One quality that Gabriel Farfan always brought to the field was an oddly calm anger. Expressionless as he drove his cleat through some unsuspecting upper thigh, Garfan played the game on the edge of a knife. Michael Farfan has shown the same swagger at times, but ever since he became the team’s utility infielder there has been more weight than chip on his shoulder.

Perhaps it is the confluence of a low key captain, a low confidence goalie, and a creeping fear that Jack McInerney might just be the full extent of the team’s offense. Perhaps it is the confusing way the team plays a consistent formation with consistent starters yet never seems any more cohesive than the game before. Perhaps it is a new, thought-out approach that is supposed to make the team seem more mature and cerebral.

What it has been so far is boring. And slightly numbing. The team that was forged from and named for a sense of unity exhibits very little on the pitch. The emotion of youth has given way to a weirdly adolescent angst. The locker room may be tight, and teammates might answer the bell for each other, but the pride that came with being a first year team, the pride that came with being an underdog in the playoffs, and the pride that shined through after the tumultuous opening to season three gave way to a year of lowered expectations is not gone, but it has dimmed.

The fans have always stood behind their players, and despite the blind dart toss that appears to motivate many front office decisions Philadelphia is still a great place to play soccer, and PPL Park is still loud and proud.

Win, lose or draw on Saturday, the Union need to put in work as a unit for 90 minutes. Then the fans can remind them why they play the game.

Prediction: 1-1

Yeah, same as the last prediction. So what?

A leaky defense gives up one to Nyarko, who should have scored last week. Luckily, Chicago lacks experience in the back and the Union have enough good movement up top (and enough good dead ball service) to pull one back.

Check out PSP’s preview of the game in The Guardian.



  1. JediLos117 says:

    Union offensive explosion! This ones gonna be fun!
    Im super stoked for this one!

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Stat of the Week (which Adam’s prediction would uphold): The Union have never beaten a team both at home and on the road in the same season. If they win at home, they lose or tie on the road and if they win on the road, they lose or tie at home. We missed our opportunity to change this stat in New England, but we have at least three more opportunities this season (Saturday against Chicago, then at home against DC and on the road in New England).

  3. Jeremy Lane says:

    Tow things, Adam:
    (1) Putting Cruz in front of Gaddis would be like hanging a sign that said, “Please attack down this flank, the winger ain’t helping out on D.”
    (2) I think you’re being hard on Zac. He made a mistake on LA’s first goal, yes, but then he performed really well the rest of the game, making several really important and high-degree-of-difficulty saves. That one against Donovan alone required some guts and confidence, not to mention skill, so it seems a touch harsh to say he’s playing without confidence.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Jer – Zac diving at nothing on that Donovan goal was what led to the low confidence thinking too. He was nowhere close and wanted no part of it.

  4. “And with Keon Daniel turning in another middling performance midweek” This has to be the kindest analysis of his play I’ve seen. He was dreadful (pardon the pun). There were points in the game when Gaddis had the ball deep in the corner and Keon was literally shadowing him. Not giving him an outlet pass, just trying to occupy the same exact piece of real estate Gaddis was standing on.

    Jack had no swagger whatsoever in the LA game. He was pouting the whole game. I know the kid’s only 20, but he’s got some growing up to do. So Keon missed your signal for an open pass. Boo hoo. Keep running. Get back onside and do your job. He was absolutely maddening to watch.

    I’m a huge fan of Gaddis, but he can’t play left anymore. He’s just terrible on that side. He looked fantastic playing the right while Sheanon was suspended, I think it’s time to see what Sheanon can do on the left and let Gaddis go back to his natural position on the right. Sheanon hasn’t been all that great this year on the right, he’s been getting a pass because of his track record, but if not for Gaddis’ poor play, we would be screaming about his effort on the right. He can’t be that much worse on the left as he’s been on the right, and I think Ray-Ray has a lot to offer on the right.

    • Southside Johnny says:

      Pouting? Really? The kid had to be totally pissed. Forwards who work their asses off to get open and come back to help the useless midfield expect to be rewarded with the ball once in a while. Jack gets paid to score goals. You can’t score without the friggin ball. He has carried this team on his back and is obviously glad to do the work to do that. When some bozo with half the work rate who gets paid to get the ball to him repeatedly doesn’t see him or decides to give the ball away instead, I think he’s entitled to an attitude toward that player, don’t you?

      • Sure, he’s entitled to have an attitude toward that player. He’s a competitor who wants to win. How does walking around or just standing there with his arms at his sides accomplish the goal of winning? If you get overlooked for a pass, you have to keep working. Jack can’t be the recipient of every ball, otherwise it becomes 1 v 11, which is very, very easy to defend against.

  5. Great One says:

    I’m really really really afraid we will see Marfan, Carroll, Cruz and Daniel tomorrow.

  6. George H says:

    “One quality that Gabriel Farfan always brought to the field was an oddly calm anger. Expressionless as he drove his cleat through some unsuspecting upper thigh, Garfan played the game on the edge of a knife.”

    That’s a great description for Garfan’s playing style.

    Hard to believe that we’ll see Daniel starting on Sat after back-to-back 90’s, but I still wouldn’t take that bet. Carroll’s got a big ask in front of him as well at his age, but there’s really no option to give him a rest (aside from getting Parke back with Soumare and pushing Okugo into midfield).

    If I’m Roger Torres and I don’t see the field on Sat night after the team has played 3 matches in 8 days, I’m demanding a trade immediately. I’m not his biggest fan, but my God, what’s he gotta do to see the pitch during this stretch?

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