Match previews

Preview: Union at Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire
What: Regular season game
Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL, USA
When: 5 pm, Saturday, April 5
Watch: CSN, MLS Live, MLS Direct Kick, DirecTV
Referee: Chris Penso; Linesmen: Brian Poeschel, Chris Strickland; Fourth official: Allen Chapman

It’s a confusing world out there in MLS.

Nobody looks dominant, teams that look good one week can seem lost the next, Chivas is not in last place…

The Goats are sitting in fifth in the West in part because they knocked three past the rebuilt Chicago Fire defense. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado, Greg Cochrane (he whom the Union passed on for Don Anding), and Matt Watson have joined Bakary Soumare in front of Sean Johnson and, so far, the results have been decidedly mixed. The goal-shy Philadelphia Union have reason to think they can score multiple goals in a game for the first time since the 2-0 win over DC at PPL Park on Aug. 10, 2013.

Bad at the back? Or bad getting back?

Chicago’s new boys in back are protected by the crotchety yet effective Jeff Larentowicz. But the elder statesman’s range isn’t what it used to be, and he tends to stay very central, forcing attacks wide and letting the Fire’s big bodies in the middle deal with crosses. Don’t let his lack of lateral movement imply that Larentowicz doesn’t have anything left in tank. When Chicago went behind against DC last weekend, the big man got involved high up the pitch, making it hard for the home side to clear.

But Larentowicz is flanked by a lot of youth. Talented youth, no doubt. Benji Joya and Harrison Shipp are advanced for their age on the offensive side of the ball, but their tracking leaves much to be desired.

Thus, calling out the Chicago back four is problematic. After all, of the seven goals the Fire have given up, three have come off corner kicks, and poor marking is a team effort.

So bad run tracking through midfield, poor set piece defense, a weakness at left back …

The Union really should get on the scoreboard more than once this weekend, right?


The key is, in fact, the right side of the Philly setup. Last week, the Preview suggested the Union would benefit from opening up the right wing and pushing Leo Fernandes into a No. 10 position tilted ever so slightly to the right side of the formation. Hate to say “I told you so,” but when Fernandes came into the match — you guessed it — four of his five passes behind the defense came from that hole.

But wait, there’s more. That gap between the opposition left fullback and center back is also where Jack McInerney found space to play in Vincent Nogueira. And Greg Cochrane, hardly the most accomplished left back in MLS, will be playing on that side for Chicago.

The Union, possibly with Sheanon Williams rampaging up the wing once more, should focus their efforts up that right side. DC United, hardly the paradigm of organized attacking soccer, were able to penetrate up the Fire’s right flank with consistency. If Sean Franklin and Nick “Wasn’t he good once” DeLeon can do it, so can Williams, Gaddis, Maidana and Le Toux.

But don’t be direct

As improved as the Union midfield has looked in 2014, there is still a tendency to be too direct. This could be attributable to the playing styles of Jack McInerney and Sebastien Le Toux, but there also seems to be a bit of impatience in the opponent’s half.

The Union are capable of holding the ball for long periods of time, but they have yet to master the idea of moving up the field as a team. Getting deep in the opponent’s half only means you are closer to goal in a physical sense. It does not mean the ball should be pumped into the box at the first opportunity. In fairness, this year’s team is better than the 2013 version. But 30 attempted crosses is too many for a squad that still has trouble getting two players into the box. With McInerney, Nogueira and, at times, Fernandes on the pitch, runs will be made and holes will appear.

Keeping the faith?

But who will hit those holes? Jack McInerney failed to get a shot off against Montreal but, in fairness, Conor Casey and Antoine Hoppenot were hardly more impressive.

McInerney should remain up top. This is a player wholly capable of scoring double-digit goals in a season, a player who can score with his feet, head, movement and, when he feels like it,  determination and power. And he is playing with a new set of guys behind him. Do you pull a young quarterback if he isn’t hitting his passes under a new offensive coordinator? No, let him play it out. At this point, it looks like McInerney is missing his spots but getting his reads right. A player who gets chances deep in the box will finish them. Give the young man time.

Bring back the banged up boys?

Sheanon Williams and Austin Berry are nearing a return. But their replacements have been far better than anyone had a right to expect (well, anyone except Ray Gaddis and Aaron Wheeler themselves). So what to do?

One novel option may be to start Williams on the left and look to see if his drop off in performance moving right to left is less than Gaddis’ was last season. Williams has been so strong on the right in recent years that moving him around seems borderline criminal. But it may end up benefiting the team as a whole.

Aaron Wheeler may suffer for the same reason Jack McInerney should remain in the first 11. The Union have to balance their short-term success with their long-term goals. If Hackworth and company believe Okugo-Berry is the pairing of the future, there is little reason to keep Wheeler in the starting lineup. Reestablish the partnership and use Wheeler in Open Cup matches.

But if the coaching staff believes Wheeler can really be an every day center back? Well, he’s a work in progress… but so far there has been a lot of progress in a short time.

Also, Maurice Edu’s 18-minute cameo for the USMNT should mean he is still plenty fresh for this weekend. But factoring in travel and the fact that the Union have a young midfielder ready to grab time on the pitch, and John Hackworth may elect to make Edu the first man of the bench.

Prediction: Union 2-0 Chicago

Philly is creating chances, Chicago is giving up plenty of chances. This is a game the Union can, and should, put to bed early. No doubt the Fire will grow into a better team as their young and new players learn to play together, but right now this match-up favors a Philly side with better organization and a better understanding of how to play with each other.


Union vs Chicago predicted lineup


  1. Any word on Maidanas injury? I hope Mo is able to play some decent minutes, missing those two could def change the look of things

  2. I dig the idea if Williams on the left. He likes to bomb down the wing and cut in; from the left he’ll be on his dominant foot. And I think Gaddis finds some clever crosses from the right. And, that throw-in can happen on either side.

  3. I would hope that edu can fly back and play with 2 days of recovery. It’s not like he played enough to be tired that way.
    All else equal we need to Change something this game. And not just Shaenon and Berry in. The problem is this is a road game so hack will most like play back.

  4. I repeat what I have said on several threads: I would REAAAAALY like to see Jack and Conor starting together. I also think it is worth considering having Fernandes in the starting XI, but if so, I would subtitute him for Maidana. And giving Maidana a chance to show some stuff while having Leo be first sub ain’t a bad idea either.

  5. scottymac says:


    Great job putting this together. As a frequent reader of the site, I’ve noticed you consistently overestimate (overpredict?) the Union, both in terms of results and predicted goals. So even though the Union actually perform at about 1 goal per game over their last 20 or so, you predict scoring closer to the 1.5-2 range. You are pretty spot on with the opposition though. Just optimistic? Statistically, a 1-1 draw seems the right call.

  6. I love Okugo, but he’s still out of position. Wheeler/Berry at CB, and move Amobi to his natural CDM spot. Having him share duties with Edu gives us upgrades skill, speed and composure. The Wheeler experiment has been a success. See it out, and move Amobi where he belongs.
    I love BC and he’s a great leader, but we have an upgrade at his position that can slide right in.

    • I’m curious, why is Amobi “out of position” yet the “Wheeler experiment” is a success? And why after Okugo has played solidly for a year and a half would you end it in favor of a forward with 200 minutes in the role? All to get BC off the field? Why not revert to the NER lineup with Edu alone in front of the back 4 and Fernandes on instead?

  7. The Black Hand says:

    Jack traded for Wenger??? Rumor??

    • Torvald Coolguy says:

      It’s all over Twitter. I think it’s not the worst idea for a few reasons.

      1) Wenger’s play style is a better fit than Jack for the lone striker position.
      2) Jack might not resign at the end of the year.
      3) Casey and Wenger are more similar to each other, so if we want a consistent look from our #9, then it’s not a bad idea.

  8. Torvald Coolguy says:

    I’m a Union fan stuck out in Illinois, but I’m going to this game. So stoked for it!

  9. JediLos117 says:

    ———–Le Toux———–
    Union win 2-0.

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