Match previews

Preview: Union vs Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

What: Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
Where: PPL Park
When: Saturday, Aug. 3 at 8 pm.
Watch: CSN, Direct Kick, MLS Live
Referee: Dave Gantar; Linesmen: Phil Briere, Daniel Belleau; Fourth official: Robert Sibiga

Twice this season, the Philadelphia Union have barely squeaked by the Chicago Fire. Both wins can be summed up succinctly as, “Philly wasn’t great, but the Fire were certainly bad.”

When Zac MacMath has to pull out his best match of the season or Jack McInerney has to score an absurd goal off a vertical restart, you know you did not bring your A-game.

Chicago was truly bad to start the season. It was fair to ask which club legend would be axed first, Frank Klopas or Ben Olsen in DC. But while DC United has shown little improvement, Chicago has more points than the Union since the teams last met.

The Mageecian

I wish there was a level of analysis that broke down the Fire’s resurgence into something other than praise for Mike Magee. Six goals scored in the ten games before Magee joined. 19 goals since. DC United needs to find out where Magee trained in the offseason and send all of their strikers there immediately. Offensive consistency left Chicago on the Marco Pappa flight, but suddenly it has returned with aplomb. The Fire have not been shut out since Magee arrived and they have scored fewer than two goals in only four of ten games. In other words, the Union cannot prepare for this Chicago Fire team the way they prepared in May.

The Mageecian is the kind of player Jack McInerney should hope to be when he’s Marco DiVaio’s age. Playing simple, Magee will lull opponents into expectations of slow play. His ability to read the game, however, puts him one mental step ahead when a big moment – a cross, a deflected pass, a loose ball in the box – arrives. His work rate gets him there ahead of his opponent. Indeed, what makes Magee so effective is that he never tries to do more than he should or go it alone. He is content to make the right pass, drift out wide to open space for others, or chase back to tackle and play late runner in the counterattack. He shifts his game plan to accommodate his current position on the pitch, and that puts him in the clouds compared to the way most players see the game.

Union fans have running debates about Michael Farfan and Keon Daniel. Can they play centrally? Are they better out wide? These arguments point to the trouble soccer players can have adjusting to different points of view on the field. Not only does each midfield position require a slightly different approach to the game, each also offers a new set of angles and a different way that other players want to interact. Magee switches between the mental mindset of a central striker and a wide player seamlessly, and he can put himself into attacking midfield positions and do the same thing. He may never have the skill set to pull off the passes of a David Beckham or the slick runs of Thierry Henry, but he understands the goals of each position and can operate in any of them at any time during a match. In short, he is always dangerous.

Chicago’s athletic defense

In back, the Fire are breathtakingly athletic. Austin Berry and old friend Bakary Soumare can dominate in the air while Jalil Anibaba is back on the right where he is growing from a shutdown defender into the player everyone wants Kofi Sarkodie to be. All this sits in front of one of the better young American goalies anywhere in the game right now. In a year or two, Chicago may lay claim to the best defense in MLS. Right now, they are good. But as sure as Antoine Hoppenot is the first sub off John Hackworth’s bench, the Chicago Fire defense is going to make mistakes.

It is harsh to lay too much blame at the feet of the Fire back five. Playing behind Joel Lindpere and Patrick Nyarko, two adherents of the Danny Cruz school of wanderlust defense, they deal with more open crosses than most. Add to the mix that Jeff Larentowicz has trended toward the big tackle and away from positional soundness as his years catch up to him, and you have very little defensive help from the midfield.

Midfield issues

As go the wingers, so go the Union. Philly is simply not going to penetrate through the middle, and the players who might take up advanced central spaces to distribute deep are on the bench arguing about who is deeper in John Hackworth’s dog house (it’s Torres, but nice try Kleberson).

Sebastien Le Toux, for instance, is torn between two tendencies. One is his nose for space, which tells him to stay wide and look to be an outlet. The other is his itchy legs, which tell him to chase whenever the ball comes onto his side of the pitch. When he listens to the first, Le Toux is a terror. When he caves to the second, he tends to drift in and out of games, popping up with a good play here and there, but never pinning back the opposing defender or providing a real outlet for Brian Carroll.

On the other side, Danny Cruz is seriously making the Cruz Control joke too easy. He points the car forward and off he goes. But you can’t knock a style just because it’s simple. At times, Cruz is also effective at stretching a defense, forcing a scramble, and penetrating into the final third. I could go on, or you could just listen to Alejandro Moreno on Union broadcasts when he sums up The Danny Cruz Conundrum by saying that the winger just has to make better decisions in the final third. I would add that he occasionally must venture into the defensive third as well, but Moreno’s point is well made.

Another consistent issue for the Union to address is the positioning of their central midfielders. Chris Rolfe has burned the Union in the past, and he will again if space is granted for him to drop in and create. Brian Carroll’s return to form has stemmed from a renewed aggressiveness in the middle. The first third of the season saw Carroll cautious, giving away five yards or more to an opposing midfielder. Lately, the captain is trusting his positioning and attacking the ball carrier from good angles that force early and errant play.

The return of Conor Casey should be a huge shot in the arm to an offense that sputtered despite the man advantage in Vancouver. The truly disappointing aspect of the Vancouver match was that the Union did not adjust their tactics following the dismissal. The disappointment is doubled by the fact that Martin Rennie anticipated the Union’s inability to change and trolled the entire game of soccer by playing a 4-2-3 for large portions of the match.

Philadelphia has good, athletic players who can get up and down the field quickly. So why can’t the team establish itself in the final third? Certainly, it isn’t the preferred style for this group of players (though the short passing Hackworth advocated when he was sworn in would point to a desire to do more work in the final third). But after having reached the opponent’s box, the Union send the ball back to central defense with alarming regularity. Against a Chicago team that tracks back like Danny Briere, Philly can once more try to hold the ball deep and create better opportunities.

Prediction: Union 2-1 Chicago

At home, the Union are simply too strong for the Fire. Casey and McInerney offer movement and guile that the Fire back four can’t handle, and even though Magee produces with clockwork efficiency, it won’t be enough for Chicago to get one over on a Union team that seems to have their number.

Union v Fire predicted lineup


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Just read on the MLS website that Keon was suspended for the incident in Vancouver.

    • He probably deserves it. Though, if healthy, I don’t think Hack will deviate from the starting lineup shown above for the rest of the year.

  2. Confirmed – list of suspensions here:

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