Match previews

Preview: Union at Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire
What: Regular season game
Where: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, Ill., USA
When: 8:30 pm, Saturday, July 19
Watch: CSN
Whistle: Geoff Gamble; Linesmen: Daniel Belleau, Peter Balciunas; Fourth Official: Kevin Terry Jr.

After a cathartic 3-1 win over New York on Wednesday, the Philadelphia Union can say for the first time since they rolled into Columbus in Week Three that they are facing a team with a worse home record than their own.

Big victories beget small victories, I guess.

Chicago Fire are yet another Eastern Conference team that is nearly impossible to get a read on. They have the worst home record in the league, but mostly because they can’t stop turning wins into draws. Usually, a team with two productive strikers, a breakout young midfielder, and a stable central defensive pairing would be an odds-on favorite to make the playoffs. But this Fire team have soldiered on with some fairly obvious flaws all season, and until they fix those issues they will remain a skeleton of a good team and not the fully formed thing (sound familiar?)

Sharp up top

Much like the 2013 Philadelphia Union, Chicago is benefiting from having an established goalscorer paired with a younger lightning bolt up top. Quincy Amarikwa broke out in the early half of the season with five goals by May 11. Meanwhile, Mike Magee sputtered early on but picked up the slack when Amarikwa went cold during late May and June.

Magee went anywhere to find space vs Kansas City

Magee went anywhere to find space vs Kansas City

As good as Amarikwa has been this season, the Fire will rise and fall with Magee’s form. Simply put: The team is built around the MVP’s ability to sniff out space in a defense and follow up the plays he starts. Magee counts on the idea that if he can get matched up on the opposition’s midfield in the build-up to a play, he can beat them down the field once he starts the transition. He’s usually right.

In many ways, the Magee-Amarikwa partnership is similar to the Thierry Henry-Bradley Wright Phillips pairing that has been so successful this year for New York. One player roams while the other stays higher to press the back line. However, the Chicago duo has less defined roles, which means the Union defense will have to communicate as well — if not better — as they did on Wednesday.

There was a moment just after New York scored on Wednesday that highlights the weak point of the Union’s back line that Chicago will seek to exploit with their mobile forwards. Thierry Henry discovered that if he cut his run in front of Mo Edu and behind Ethan White, he could drag Edu out of place and leave White alone in the middle. The Union center backs, while individually strong, relied upon their athleticism and individual skill to keep up with the Red Bulls most of the evening, and struggled when New York put pressure on them to communicate and work together (see: Every time Tim Cahill made a run into the box). Once Henry exposed this on the run leading up to Wright-Phillips’ goal, the Red Bulls came back to it moments later when Wright-Phillips rolled off of Edu, collected a through ball between the centerbacks, and failed to convert past a brilliantly onrushing Zac MacMath, who came out large and in charge.

Unless Carlos Valdes (who better be in top form when/if he arrives given the amount of hype he’s getting) suddenly appears in the first eleven, Chicago is likely to see the same back line the Union showed New York. The Fire will run Amarikwa through the channel between White and Sheanon Williams, opening up space for Magee to isolate Edu and for Harrison Shipp to dictate play without a Sheanomenon in his grill.

Shipping lanes

Harry Shipp is good. But the difference between Harry Shipp in a wide open game and Harry Shipp against an organized defense is a big one for the Chicago offense.

Consider this: Half of Shipp’s goals and half of his assists have come against a not-so-stellar defensive team called Red Bulls. He notched two more goals against Seattle in a 10v10 game that afforded him all the space a talented middie needs to succeed. In short, Shipp with time and space is as devastating a midfielder as MLS can offer. But he is not yet Diego Valeri or Federico Higuain; the game has to shape to him since he has not learned to shape it himself.

So it should be a simple task to contain Shipp, right? Not so fast. One of the unforced errors that has haunted Philadelphia this season is a lack of concentration tracking runners up the wings, with the most recent incident coming in the lead up to the own-goal in the 2-1 loss against Dallas. Paired with the Union’s worrying penchant for dropping deeper as a match winds on, this could provide Shipp with all the tools he needs to put his stamp on the match.

And it bears repeating: He is very, very good; he will take his chances.

Lonely Larentowicz

Shipp’s emergence as a player more comfortable on the left has presented Chicago with one unexpected problem: Who pairs with Big Jeff Larentowicz in the center of the park? Since Chris Rolfe was dealt to DC United, Benji Joya, Matt Watson, and even Logan Pause have taken turns trying to play the energy role in the middle. None have done it particularly well (though Watson was strong against New England last weekend), and the result has left a lumbering redhead pulled out of position and exposing his center backs.

Head coach Frank Yallop is attempting to rectify this issue by bringing in veteran Romanian midfielder Razvan Cocis. At this writing, it seems as though Cocis will not be available by the time these teams meet Saturday. But just in case he is, expect the Romanian to sit at the top of a diamond midfield that will give Larentowicz the more stable defensive midfield role in which he excels.

Vincent Nogueira's passing range was on full display against NY

Vincent Nogueira’s passing range was on full display against NY

Bearer of bad news

Someone has to say it: The Red Bulls midfield was horrific on Wednesday. Credit to the Union for taking full advantage, but wowee… Vincent Nogueira just cannot expect to find that much space on a week-to-week basis.

With Thierry Henry practicing his annoyed-face whenever New York lost the ball, and Tim Cahill playing defense like a tired puppy, Philly faced little midfield pressure. Only live action Dexter’s Laboratory star Dax McCarty found the energy to pester Philly midfielders, and the result was the kind of possession soccer paired with attacking intent that should characterize the Union at their peak.

So while we should applaud the effort, it is difficult to predict how Philadelphia will adapt against a side that equipped themselves very well against the fading New England Revolution.

A big question for the Union may be on the left, where Andrew Wenger capably filled in for Danny Cruz on Wednesday, providing his trademarked brand of hard work and lack of polish. The one area that Wenger is unquestionably an improvement over Cruz is below the eighteen yard box. The former No. 1 pick does not always make the right decisions, but he has the patience to at least consider his options. Taylor Twellman may have been right in saying that this deliberative style is what keeps Wenger from being a MLS striker (though shooting technique is on the short list too), but it could be a skill that helps Wenger develop into a very useful wide player.

Andrew Wenger held deep possession vs NY

Andrew Wenger held deep possession vs NY

Additionally, Wenger is a more conscientious defensive player than Cruz, though his awareness is clearly a work in progress. Wenger’s main advantage over Cruz, however, may simply be that his skillset is less redundant compared to the rest of the Union lineup right now; Sebastien Le Toux is already providing a vertical threat through the middle and on the right.

Furthermore, moving Sheanon Williams to the right back role pushed Ray Gaddis to the left. Gaddis is much less comfortable on his left foot compared to his right, and he benefited on Wednesday from having Wenger as an outlet. Cruz’s penchant for taking off upfield is less suited to a pairing with the conservative Gaddis than it was for Fabinho, who has never seen an aerial pass he didn’t like.

Carroll came back strong… for a while

But while an argument could be made either way for Wenger or Cruz, a more pressing question is whether Brian Carroll did enough to retain his starting spot this weekend. Amobi Okugo has been his reliable physical self defensively but has been something of a spectator in the possession game the past few matches. In his absence, Carroll played just about the most Brian Carroll game possible: He nipped ankles, covered Nogueira, and took a shot from 35 yards out that looked like it was hit with a putter. You rarely noticed him, and that’s a good thing.

But with Edu entrenched in the back line, it is hard to argue that Okugo and Nogueira represent the most talented midfield the Union can put on the pitch. And, in all likelihood, they would be the midfield next year’s head coach (Curtin or some fancy European) would look to from match one. Does Okugo get restored next to Nogueira so he and the Frenchman can try to replicate their dominant performance against Kansas City earlier this season? Is Nogueira pushed forward in Cristian Maidana’s absence so Okugo and Carroll are sitting? Or does Jim Curtin continue to ride the highest scoring Fred in soccer (that’s a burn, Brazil fans)?

One complicating factor is that while Carroll was good, he faded considerably late in the match. White and Edu sitting deeper didn’t help, but too often Carroll found himself a step slow to close down play, allowing New York to open up the middle of the field and play more directly through Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Against Colorado and New York, the Union played two banks of four with Maidana or Le Toux closing passing lanes behind Casey.

Against Colorado and New York, the Union played two banks of four with Maidana or Le Toux closing passing lanes behind Casey.

End on a high note

Regardless of how Curtin sets the team up against Chicago, it must be noted: The Union have been significantly more organized under his watch. It is true that this organization has tended to break down late in games, but the fact that a defensive system is both evident, and evidently understood, by the players is a massive step forward for this team.

Against both Colorado and New York, the Union tended to sit with Conor Casey ten yards or so in front of the midfield stripe. Importantly, Sebastien Le Toux and Cristian Maidana have done very well switching between central and wider roles defensively, with each communicating to the other as they slot into a coherent shape. Then… the Union wait. Occasionally, teams pass the ball wide and the Union turn on a hot and heavy press, but more often than not they simply wait for play to come to them.

Obviously, this compact defense allows the opposition to run off time if they want to. But teams know the Union are beatable and want to push for three points. This has allowed Philly to play a pure counterattacking game and, for the better part of the last three contests, succeed.

Problems have accrued when the Union turn their counterattacking game into a prevent defense, sitting so deep that the gaps between midfield, defense, and strikers makes a quick-strike offense difficult to execute (it takes a long time for a fullback to overlap when he starts from the top of his eighteen yard box). This is fixable. The important thing is that you can watch the first fifteen minutes of a Union game, draw out on a napkin what their defensive shape should look like, and see the team search for that shape whenever they lose the ball. This well-executed organization is like water in the desert for tacticsheads (coughKevinKinkeadcoughcough), .

Prediction: Fire 2-2 Union

Philly’s offense is good enough to punch holes in a Fire defense that has trouble dealing with speed in the channels (8 goals given up on crosses?? With Soumare and Hurtado in the box!?) If Le Toux or Williams can get behind Chicago, the Union should be able to convert before halftime.

However, Quincy Amarikwa poses the same questions that stumped the Union when Tesho Akindele asked them in Dallas. And with Magee sneaking around between the lines, Philadelphia will have to be much better about communication and tracking runners than they have been recently. Edu and White will need to take another step forward as a partnership if the Union want to come close to a clean sheet.

Finally, let’s close with a moment of silence for Matt Miazga’s confidence. At the very least, Conor Casey put it to rest quickly and humanely, with a hesitation move for a goal followed by 70 minutes of aerial dominance. Union ticket printers: If Miazga’s wide-eyed look of helplessness were to make it onto the tickets for the next Union-Red Bulls match, it would be a souvenir I would very much appreciate.


Projected lineup

Projected lineup


  1. John Ling says:

    Your bench lacks a backup goalie – hope nothing happens to MacMath.

    • I vote Wheeler off the island. Has not impressed of late.

      • John Ling says:

        I actually think Wheeler has done OK in his limited minutes. And Wheeler gives you something nobody else on the bench does: height.
        I’d lose either one of Berry / Fabinho or one of Carroll / Lahoud.
        They don’t really need two defenders on the bench. If there’s an injury on the backline somewhere that forces a replacement, Williams is flexible enough that he can slot anywhere. And that says the choice probably should be Fabinho so that there’s coverage for Williams himself.
        As for Carroll and Lahoud – let’s face it, both of them aren’t getting into the game. Much like the defender pairing, only one of them – at most – will ever get used. Lahoud is more flexible, in that he can also play fullback in a pinch. I’m not a Carroll hater like some people. (I do think they should trade him, though, as he’s excessively redundant at this point and takes up a lot of salary cap space.)
        The better move (in my opinion, of course) is to ditch Fabinho and Carroll from the bench. Add Blake, then add another midfielder not named Corben Bone. That said, I just looked at the roster and… there aren’t many choices. Pfeffer is away on the U20 squad. I assume HCI needs Pedro and McLaughlin. So that leaves your choices down to: Leo Fernandes and Antoine Hoppenot. I’d take Fernandes. Between Williams and Berry you can cover the back line; if Williams is the one to need an injury sub, you can use Lahoud (or Le Toux) at RB. Lahoud also gives you d-mid coverage if you need to kill the game later.
        The only other issue I would have with the lineup is I’m not sure Fred and Casey can both go 90. That puts a serious limitation on your potential moves. I’d start Wheeler or Brown up top and have Casey on my bench. If the game is well in hand, the big guy gets a game off. If I’m chasing, he can come on somewhere between halftime and 60.

      • With Casey’s recent tear, I’m not pulling him out of the starting lineup unless he says he can’t go. Brown is an unknown right now and I don’t think you get nearly the same production out of Wheeler. Pull him after 60 minutes if needed, but I’m starting him. I wish we could see Ribeiro as the substitution option for Fred. I’d probably drop one of Lahoud or Berry to allow Blake a spot on the bench.

  2. Will be cheering on the Union from Toyota Park. Expecting to see Brown’s debut.

  3. “Union ticket printers: If Miazga’s wide-eyed look of helplessness were to make it onto the tickets for the next Union-Red Bulls match, it would be a souvenir I would very much appreciate.”
    Okay, I lol’d.
    In all seriousness, there’s a possibility Berry gets a start alongside White. Then what do you do with Edu/Okugo/Noggy? Noggy isn’t an attacking middy, pretty sure he’s said so. How can you get those three on the field? If you can’t, who sits? This could be a situation I don’t want to have to deal with. Especially if/when Valdes comes back. In what sort of formation can these three guys work?
    I agree with this wholeheartedly in terms of Wenger on the wing. He’s definitely not as pacey as Cruz but his touch is infinitely better. Bring Cruz on post-60th to run at the tired defenders and draw some attention. Although I don’t think Wenger’s performance has been very good, he has more intelligence in the final third. Whether or not he can execute those smart thoughts is a different story. Not to mention he’s a bigger dude who can, if need be, throw his size around (clearly evident last match). Let’s just not talk about his finishing, okay?
    And finally, what’s the latest on Chaco? I heard hamstring?

    • Barring injuries in other parts of the lineup, I don’t see Edu moving from CB at this point. And I think Berry is at best 3rd on the depth chart, if not 4th. I don’t think he’s starting any time soon.

  4. Berry ‘ s healthy. If you’re not playing him against the team that traded him 6 months ago, when are you? If White starts, sub Berry. I prefer the reverse. Neither Casey nor Fred can last long so soon. Sub Wheeler & Brown and pray for good health.

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