Match previews

Preview: Union vs Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
What: Regular season game
Where: PPL Park
When: 8 pm, Thursday, Oct. 2
Watch:  ESPN2, ESPN Deportes
Whistle: Christopher Penso; Linesmen: Craig Lowry, Bill Dittmar; Fourth official: Robert Sibiga

Three points out of the playoffs with four games to go. Not a bad place to be, considering where Philadelphia Union was a few months ago. For the Union to make their second half resurgence worthwhile, they need to do one thing: Beat Chicago.

To be concise: If Philly cannot beat Chicago at PPL Park, they can hardly claim to be a playoff-worthy team.

Without Mike Magee, Chicago has trouble getting behind defenses, often settle for shots from distance (vs HOU)

Without Mike Magee, Chicago has trouble getting behind defenses, often settle for shots from distance (vs HOU)

Always new names

The Fire are a team that makes no sense. Aside from the comic relief that is was Chivas, they may have the most horribly assembled roster in MLS (but nice try, Toronto). Speaking of Toronto, former TFC striker Robert Earnshaw is leading the line for Chicago these days. He is flanked by the tireless Quincy Amarikwa and a striker who absurdly once played for Liverpool named Florent Sinama-Pongolle.

If that sounds like a set of strikers assembled more for the convenience of their signature than for their ability to win games, that’s because it is. Talented but fragile Razvan Cocis has provided skill and power in the middle, though he left the Fire’s 2-0 loss to Houston with an injury. Beside Cocis, Harry Shipp is deep in the throes of the being-a-target-sucks phase of his rookie season. He will recover and gain consistency, but right now his lack of experience or any form of defensive awareness make him less than ideal in a three-man midfield. The third man in midfield is likely to be Matt Watson, an average player having an above-average season.

Jeff Larentowicz, the captain that looks like a hockey enforcer, may be restored to midfield with Bakary Soumare returning from suspension. Larentowicz put in a good shift in the back line against Houston, but his reading of play hinted at inexperience in the position. Even with Soumare back, there is a small chance head coach Frank Yallop will retain Larentowicz in the back to give the thoroughly subpar Patrick Ianni a day off.

Harry Shipp created a 1/3 of Chicago's chances vs Houston from an offset ACM position.

Harry Shipp created a 1/3 of Chicago’s chances vs Houston from an offset ACM position.

Bad team, good players

In short, Chicago is not a good team. But don’t mistake that to mean the Fire do not have good players. They do. And when those players combine well, Chicago can deliver a sucker punch with the best of them.

Those good players that can worry the Union are Razvan Cocis, Harry Shipp, and Quincy Amarikwa. Earnshaw may finish off a move, but he is an inconsistent threat at best. Cocis is a player who makes everyone around him better. He can move the ball quickly and smartly, driving a team forward by bringing wide players into the passing game and holding possession. Shipp is the future Dax McCarty of offensive midfielders. He is going to be a very good MLS player for a long time, and a vocal minority will insist he should be in each national team camp (but he probably shouldn’t).

If the Union can stay close to Shipp (which they did well last time these teams met) and body up Cocis (if he plays), they will have little to fear against Chicago. As always, however, the previous sentence is contingent on at least a modicum of set piece defense.

Ring in the changes?

Ethan White and Sebastien Le Toux will both be questionable. The former’s place is likely to be filled once more by Maurice Edu and his four yellow cards. One mistake and Edu will miss the huge home match against Columbus on the weekend. Replacing Le Toux is a tougher proposition and may require major tactical changes.

As discussed in the DC loss analysis, Le Toux’s unique style is well-suited for his unique position. Danny Cruz, Le Toux’s replacement on Saturday, interpreted the role as more of a pure winger’s role, with a sprinkle of attacking mid on top. If Le Toux is out, Jim Curtin can keep his typical shape or try to jumpstart the offense with a 4-4-2 that gives Conor Casey somebody to play with. Unfortunately, the only reasonable options as a partner are the inexperienced Pedro Ribeiro and the inexperienced and often invisible Brian Brown.

Regardless of formation, Philadelphia needs to generate one of two things on Thursday: Transition opportunities or sustained pressure. Either is fine, but neither is failure. Against DC United, the Union dominated possession but did not break with speed or hold the ball in DC’s third of the pitch.

Set pieces on both ends of the pitch

Set piece defense has been a recurring issue for the Union, but it was their set piece offense that let them down Saturday. Nine corner kicks and not one considered a key pass by OPTA? That means Philadelphia generated no threatening shots out of nine unmarked crosses.

A major reason the Union signed Rais Mbolhi was to bring a veteran presence in to organize the back four (AKA, trying to rediscover those ‘Dragon Days). That presence should manifest itself in better marking in the box, but it won’t do much for Philly failing to attack offensive corners.

A flexible 4-4-2 with two creators interchanging behind Casey.

A flexible 4-4-2 with two creators interchanging behind Casey.

Exploit the biggest advantage

Even with Le Toux at less than full speed, Philadelphia’s should be able to dominate wide areas against Chicago. The Fire fullbacks don’t have the speed to stay close to opposition and allow crosses (see Houston’s first goal last weekend) with the expectation that the big boys in the middle will handle anything less than a perfect ball in. This is the same system DC United uses, though the conference leaders do it more effectively, with Perry Kitchen offering the fullbacks his support if they get beat, allowing them to get tighter than they otherwise would.

Against DC, the Union struggled to involve Andrew Wenger against what was effectively a Chris Korb/Sean Franklin double team. Luckily, Chicago does not have the personnel to pull off such a ploy, so the home team should be able to use Wenger as an outlet. This will be especially important against a Fire team that, should Larentowicz return to the midfield, is difficult to attack up the gut.

Prediction: Union 2-0

I have zero basis for this prediction, unless you count ‘Chicago is not good’ as a valid argument that Philly will suddenly find their goalscoring boots. The truth is that the Union need to return to a simple counterattacking system and ride it through the end of the season. The team has enough talent that pairing their creative leanings with discipline is the best approach to four games in which every goal will do a lot to determine where Philly, KC, and Columbus will finish the season.


  1. A “statement game.” At least 2 goals to regain confidence. Start fast.

  2. Six points in the next two games and the narrative will change again. Fickle Futbol Fans. Me included.

  3. I like your lineup. I hopeCurtin has the foresight to use it. I’m pretty sure we will just be putting CruZ in to start.

  4. I always enjoy these previews.
    I’d love to see this team full of midfielders actually use them and play a 4-5-1 some time. Brian Brown needs more minutes, period. Danny Cruz is such a waste up top – 2 goals in 22 matches, over a thousand minutes – with little else to show for his presence. Stop trying to make Ribeiro a striker, he is too slow – slower than Casey, who is still good for a few sprints every match, unless he is fatigued from the previous match, which he will be if he plays tomorrow night. Ribeiro has no top gear, even when completely rested. In short, Philadelphia is not a good team. But don’t mistake that to mean they do not have good players. They do. They just don’t use all of them to the best of their abilities and they don’t rotate their squad appropriately.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    Must win. Period.

  6. Our fullbacks need to have a great game for us to win…..especially Williams I say we win 2-1

  7. DarthLos117 says:

    Partner Valdes with Okugo and move Edu back into DM.
    Have we all forgotten how well they played together? How effective the duo was at CB?
    Let get Nogs, Chaco and Edu back together.

  8. I agree with the 4-4-2 approach because we need more bodies in the box then just Casey. Plus, Cruz being more of a true winger and staying wide is better suited as a RM in a 4-4-2 then a goal danger in a 4-2-3-1 if Le Toux can’t go.

    Casey made Jack better because they complimented each other – Casey’s game is physical and he likes to drop into the hole in open play while Jack’s was drifting into open space in the box and making diagonal runs over the top. Let’s not forget, Wenger can play up top as well and when he does, he plays off the back should of the defense and looks to get in over the top using his speed. This could keep the Fire’s backline pinned and give Casey a hole to drop into to receive the ball. Also, Brown’s speed is better paired with Casey’s brute then Ribeiro, who is more of a second striker and likes to drop in the hole as Casey does. Plus neither Casey or Ribeiro is really a speed threat and the backline of the Fire is not very fast. Brown has struggled with the more physical play in the MLS but may be able to leave that to Casey and find space to work.

    I would like to see either Brown or Wenger up top with Casey in a 4-4-2 with Cruz (or Wenger if Brown up top) on the right and Maidana on the left with license to drift centrally. Then Ribeiro coming on for Casey after about 60-70mins.

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