Match previews

Preview: Union at Chicago Fire

Photo: Earl Gardner

Who: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire
What: 2015 regular season game
Where: Toyota Park
When: 5 pm, Sunday, March 29
Watch: ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, Watch ESPN
Whistle: Dave Gantar; Linesmen: Matthew Nelson, Oscar Mitchell-Carvalho; Fourth Official: Nima Saghafi

The Chicago Fire are not a good soccer team. They have a pair of talented midfielders, a slew of replaceable players, and a goalie who, even as I write this sentence, has fallen even further behind Bill Hamid in the Future US Goalie race.

Here is an incomplete list of what Chicago does not do well:

  • Press as a team
  • Possess the ball
  • Move off the ball
  • Move at all, really
  • Attack the flanks
  • Defend the flanks
  • Defend set pieces
  • Not have Jeff Larentowicz

Here is a complete list of what Chicago does well:

  • Move the ball from defense to midfield (but only that far)
  • Beat the crap out of strikers
  • Have Harrison Shipp
Fire lineup vs San Jose

Fire lineup vs San Jose

The first thing you notice watching Chicago is this: They are not awful. But without Mike Magee or anything resembling width, the ceiling is mediocrity. Here is why.

The Fire have no shape. Or, more accurately, the Fire have no consistent shape. Against San Jose last weekend, Chicago set up in a 4-5-1 with Matt Polster and Michael Stephens supporting Joevin Jones, Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney. However, the Quakes scored early and soon Maloney was roaming around in a role that looked very Nogueira-esque to Union fans.

The problem for both Maloney and the Fire as a team was that the rest of the team was stagnant. Wherever Maloney popped up in the final third, he was unable to build the triangles needed to pull a defense out of shape and create holes. And while that is a big problem on any team, it’s even bigger for a Fire team that features one of the league’s best young offensive players in Harry Shipp.

A good Shipp comparable might be Mesut Ozil. Both players are able to exert a strong influence on a match while still seeming somewhat peripheral. Shipp moves in bursts, taking attacking positions wherever they open up. This makes the young playmaker extremely dangerous when an offense is moving and dynamic, shifting a defense around so there are spaces for Shipp to find time to pick out runners.

So the 2015 Fire are featuring Shaun Maloney, a talented player whose best work is done in the background, moving play quickly and intelligently, and Harry Shipp, a talented player whose best work is done with the final pass. Unfortunately, Frank Yallop has surrounded his stars with players who react to the game rather than pushing it forward.

The supporting cast

It may be instructive to look at how dangerous Chicago can be when their offensive players are actually moving in some sort of coordinated way. In San Jose, Maloney and Quincy Amarikwa made perfect runs to pull the entire Chicago defense to the left side of the field, allowing Shipp to zip in behind Quakes rookie Fatai Alashe and score. The move developed so quickly and created so much space that Joevin Jones, whose only other contribution on the day was to make short passes to Lovel Palmer, could not help but turn and slide the ball across to Shipp. It was a goal that hinted at how dangerous a team with Maloney and Shipp can be, but that hint was overshadowed by the team’s stale and stagnant offense the rest of the match.

A big part of the reason Chicago struggled to build any sustained pressure is that Michael Stephens and Matt Polster are the kind of midfielders you want to bring in late to take the air out of a match. But until Razvan Cocis is healthy, Polster and Stephens are the best Frank Yallop can do.

Stephens is, nominally, the shuttler in Chicago’s system. He should link defense and attack with short passes that put Shipp and Maloney in good positions. In the first three matches, however, Stephens has been a placeholder. He gets the ball, he looks up, he sees nothing, he passes. And then he doesn’t move.

This is a huge issue for Chicago because that description of Stephens is almost exactly what Matt Polster is doing, too. Both players go through the same progression: Do I see Shaun Maloney? If no, should I boot it up to Quincy Amarikwa? Just did that. OK, I’ll give it to Harry Shipp, who by this point has checked all the way back to me, has taken my jersey, put it on, and is demonstrating where he wanted me to pass the ball 10 seconds ago.

Polster and Stephens, then, are not necessarily giving the ball away that often, but their slow play forces Chicago’s skill players put in so much effort to get on the ball, that, amusingly, the Fire often look as though they are working as hard to enter the opponent’s half as most teams work to enter the final third.

And it hardly helps that in back Chicago has a fearsome foursome of players who are not meant to play any kind of possession football. Eric Gehrig and Lovel Palmer in the wide areas are either hesitant to get forward (Gehrig) or wasteful when forward (Palmer). In the center, Jeff Larentowicz and Adailton are imposing and physical and… that’s it.

Chicago's goal against San Jose was pretty, but it was the only shot in the box they put on frame.

Chicago’s goal against San Jose was pretty, but it was the only shot in the box they put on frame.

Here’s the thing: That lineup, which has produced one goal all season, is going to be even worse on Sunday. Maloney, who has not been as bad as everyone says but has simply been trying to do far too much, will be on international duty.

Designated player David Accam, who provided a much-needed vertical option in the second half last Sunday, will join him. The Fire’s third DP, Kennedy Igboananike, will be available. But so will I, and both of us have had about the same impact on Chicago’s season so far.

All told, this is a Chicago side that was struggling even with their big off-season signings in the lineup. And on Sunday, those players will not be available. The Union should win this game.

Will they?

Philadelphia will need to do three things well to win on Sunday: 1) Attack down the left with speed and consistency, 2) Involve Fernando Aristeguieta early and often, and 3) Shut down Harrison Shipp. It’s really that simple.

Wenger versus Gehrig

Against San Jose, Chicago used Eric Gehrig at right back. Gehrig is a central defender by trade, and a flawed one at that. He has no top gear and, more importantly, is slow on the turn. Chicago knows this and sends Matt Polster over to help Gehrig whenever the latter is isolated on an attacker. This means Andrew Wenger’s ability to attack and then to find the right option will be crucial for the Union.

Wenger can beat Gehrig like a drum if he can get him alone. To do that, Wenger will likely have to make checking runs to the touchline, creating his own space rather than counting on a retreating defense to give it to him. Chicago’s defense does not retreat easily. Their first instinct is to step forward and “tackle” (i.e., punish) any attacker foolish enough to look for a pass whilst standing still. Chris Wondolowski was invisible for large portions of the match last Sunday because Larentowicz and Adailton were always willing to take a chance on a foul or missed tackle by going to, and through, the striker.

Wondolowski had trouble getting involved against a Fire back line that was very physical.

Wondolowski had trouble getting involved against a Fire back line that was very physical.

Simply earning fouls is not good enough for Wenger. He can be much more effective if he does the work to get free and run past Gehrig. Then it is up to Wenger to recognize that Polster is coming, and that means the middle is open, and whether it’s a second striker or Nogueira, Wenger needs to find that player in space. Head-down crosses won’t do it when Philly needs goals and three points.

Aristeguieta versus the foul machine

As noted above, the Chicago back line is going to smack Aristeguieta around. Larentowicz has some weird Jedi mind trick he uses to get an extra three fouls before the ref gives him a card that any other player would have received the first time they blatantly hacked down a striker from behind.

To make those fouls count, Philly needs to feed their Venezuelan striker early and force Chicago to risk early cards. No amount of good movement is going to keep Aristeguieta’s calves from taking a few studs on Sunday, so Philly needs to  use it to their advantage.

Shipp drifted centrally vs SJ, looking for space as Maloney wandered after the ball.

Shipp drifted centrally vs SJ, looking for space as Maloney wandered after the ball.

Shipp versus… Fabinho?

Man, talk about your bad matchups on paper. Shipp is so dangerous precisely because he can be so invisible. I know what you’re thinking: A guy that looks like he’s from Middle Earth and can become invisible? But don’t worry, I won’t make any jokes about how ironic it is that Gollum’s quest ended in the fire of Mount Doom and Harry Shipp’s quest for a title is likely already over because he plays for the Fire. Even if it does seem pretty perfect.

But much like a small, quick creature that can’t be trusted, Shipp can make you pay for losing track of him. And Fabinho’s strength is his aggression, not his discipline. Assuming Sheanon Williams’ hamstring keeps him out this week, the Union are likely to move Ray Gaddis to the right and come up with a creative way to help Fabinho with Shipp (though Frank Yallop may do Philly a favor and move Shipp central if Kocis remains sidelined).

The Union can either ask Wenger to help or, more likely, go with Maurice Edu and Michael Lahoud behind Vincent Nogueira to provide cover and a strong base to build from going forward. While playing with two holding midfielders may see too conservative against Chicago, it may have a freeing effect on Maurice Edu. Lahoud’s presence means Edu is no longer sweeping the midfield but able to join attacks as they develop. If Polster and Stephens are forced to track Edu, the Union can actually create more space for their wingers by adding a holding player to the mix.

Possible lineup

Possible lineup

Prediction: Union 2-0 Fire

It is easy to be critical of Chicago. So easy, in fact, that I have made it this far without mentioning their woeful set piece defending. With Vitoria, Edu, and Aristeguieta the Union should be able to make set plays dangerous, meaning that whether it is through Wenger, Nogueira, or dead ball deliveries, there will be plenty of ways to break down Chicago.

Defensively, it will be all about not falling asleep on a Fire offense that will likely have no flow or continuity, but can easily punish a mistake through Shipp and Amarikwa.

The stars will rarely align (or be called up at the right time) so well for Philadelphia. This is three points they should take authoritatively even without Cristian Maidana available.

Time to find that identity.


  1. when I think about how this game should go I think about dr. nick riviera shouting “kill him!” to drederick tatum

  2. pragmatist says:

    I’m not going to knock the Starting XI, but if Ayuk can make the bench and play when we had almost a full squad, why wouldn’t he suit up this time?
    Especially since Casey is not likely to suit up with the Sports Hernia. I would imagine they will give him at least another week off and give his spot to Ayuk or Catic.

  3. “Punish a mistake,” … well– a mistake is something this team makes pretty regularly- so I think we can preclude the Fire will score at least once. Here’s to us being able to score at least once as well- nothing says mediocrity like the draw.
    Come on JC. Give me reason to believe. Conjure 3.

  4. The Black Hand says:

    That is one non-threatening XI!!! Lahoud and Edu both lack creativity. Noguiera WILL fall back…which will clog the defensive mid. This will leave a giant hole (between our forwards and THREE D mids), that Chicago will benefit from.
    Looks like the Union will be going will be taking Rt 1, again…and that fucking sucks!!!
    Fabinho is the icing on the cake.
    “Depth is for suckers!!!”
    -Union Brass

    • We are the two grumpy old men, Statler and Waldorf, sitting above The Muppets Show back in the early 80s.
      As I tell my kids often, I don’t want to be this way… stop making me be the SOB- that’s Son ofa Bitch not Son of Ben.
      I want to sing, ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music.’ Really. I do.
      I just can’t and more importantly- will not portend false hope. I am the Philly Fan. I am Jack’s aching football heart.
      This club is like eating 89% Dark Chocolate – the bitter overrides the sweet.

    • This is MLS. No one has the kind of depth that people on this forum seem to expect. With the way the cap works in this league, if half your starters go down, so does your team. It’s just the state of the league.
      I know everyone talked about how deep Seattle is last year at the open cup, but even that’s not really true. They have a deep attack with serviceable MLS strikers like Barret to fall back on, but their defense is very thin. They lost a few defenders, and even with an offseason to address the issue, they still aren’t starting two center backs at center back. And those are the supporter’s shield winners!
      And it seems like the same people that are railing against how thin the Union are at outside back are the ones that were freaking out that we gave up Riberio over Fabinho in the expansion draft. If we hadn’t protected Fabi, we’d have a million strikers and nothing to protect when Williams went down.
      Yeah, Fabinho isn’t great–that’s why he’s not a starter–but outside backs in this league are poor in general, and I don’t think you’re going to be able to do much better than him for a backup fullback in MLS. And Fabi is valuable because he can provide mediocre cover at two very this positions for the Union–left back and left wing.
      Half the complaints here seem like people expect to be watching La Liga. Maybe someday, but MLS just isn’t there yet.

      • I just want it to look the same as the other clubs at the top of MLS… and it doesn’t. When I want Votebol calculus I know where to go, Shakespearian footy I know where to go, quantum futbol….
        My argument never waivers. I was hopeful this club would break away from the Philly same old same old and it did and it hasn’t. The chance was there. The Union. Hoped for top end MLS. Got mid table MLS. What is the contrapuntal?

      • Well yeah, anyone bothering to post here would like to see the U at the top of MLS, but my point is that I don’t think depth is the reason that the team isn’t there. The level of depth now is about as good as it’s ever been and is pretty comparable to the rest of the league.
        Look around the league and see how many BACKUP left backs you can find that are significantly better than Fabinho. Not too many.

      • Likely right. The man minutes lost to injury/fouls have been a certain challenge.
        As for all the other stuff… I will continue to go to the gym to chisel the chest, grow out the beard and darn the white robe in order to be the cynic philosopher I love to be.
        It is up to the club to change the narrative.

  5. I’m just glad the game is on a Sunday! Anyone else going to watch Argentina v El Salvador this Saturday at FedEx field?

  6. After reading that, we may not have it that bad. I’m feeling sympathy pains for Chicago fans. Yikes that’s a mess.

  7. I actually am not to disappointed with this line-up, 4-3-3………….Lahoud makes sense. I still don’t think Nogs is an OMID…..but its kind of all we got right now……..Fred probably can’t run a full 90. The only thing that concerns me is that this is the fourth match……and our fourth different formation. That doesn’t send a good message to anyone…………injuries or not.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Fourth different starting line-up, same formation as RSL and FCD: flat back four, two DCMs, two high-ish FMs with an ACM, and a lone striker. The way I would express your point is ” 360 minutes plus stoppages, four different ACMs: Nobody, Maidana, Pfeffer, and (presumably) Nogueira.”

      • Agree and Nogs is a good player, but not a #10. Anyway you cut it on this team there are at least 2 guys on the pitch that want to play holding mid.
        Any thoughts on putting Wenger at left back? Think its what he played in college. Push fabhino up to left mid or Ayuk and get some creative ability in offensive end of the field?
        I know that Wenger can “burn all the backs in the league” with his speed, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the ball once he does that. Then you have Gaddis and Wenger as backs with speed on both sides.

      • I understand the thought process of putting Wenger at a flank back….not sure how it would look……especially just to make life easier for Fabs….which I really don’t like being on the pitch at all……..

      • pragmatist says:

        I know Wenger has played LB, and he has ability there, but you need stability for development. My fear is that he plays well enough at LB to convince the staff that maybe he should be moved there. And suddenly we’re staring at another Wheeler situation.
        We’ll weather the current injury situation, and then we can move on with Gaddis/Williams.

      • yeah, I was thinking the same too…..

      • Yeah…and maybe Wenger should be there permanently. Move Gaddis over to his natural side. Have great speed on both flanks and be set til 2020 or so.
        Then – much as I do like Sheanon – see if you can get an attacking winger or creative player for him.

      • OSC……respectfully disagree. 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3/4-5-1 are different tactical formations. Four levels as opposed to three…..players roles are different. The 4-2-3-1 can easily tacticly shift to a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1…..but they are not the same

      • I read above differently…….flat back 4, two DCMs, an ACM, two wing forwards, and a target striker…….4-3-3/4-5-1 hybrid……they ran a 4-2-3-1 against RSL……with the “two highish mids”, as you put it, having a more middle third role and defending in the second bank of four or five. To me, in doesn’t look like the case in the above formation presented……

      • hey OSC… the New Soccer Coach!

  8. I would send Edu forward and let VN play where he likes to play. Edu has a good shot and seems to enjoy going forward.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I agree. Edu is already forward half the time anyway.

    • pragmatist says:

      It’s a good thought. Edu seems like he would be more comfortable with an “all-or-nothing” approach. Either as CB or ACM. But the CDM seems like the least comfortable approach for him, as it is where he gets caught out of position the most.
      It would be interesting to see him higher up the pitch by design.
      Plus, having his big body in there with Nando, and possibly Casey/Catic/Sapong (future thinking here) would be somewhat imposing on the opposition’s CB’s.

  9. In my opinion MLS needs to pressure teams like Philadelphia and Chicago who are in major markets to step it up with regards to financial competitiveness. MLS has these new TV deals and is trying to be a major world player. This game is being featured on ESPN. These two teams could be a major embarrassment to the league with their weak ownership. Who is going to want to watch the Union or Chicago and why would they even be featured on national TV if they continue to have ownership that is fundamentally cheap!

    • On the contrary, I think MLS is quite content to have a few reliable patsies for the big teams to beat on, as long as they get enough support to create a kind of full stadium. Philly and Chicago are the West Ham and Aston Villa of MLS.

      • Please. sir. remove the knife. from my side.
        you are so right. I am so bummed.

      • If we as a fan base are content to be relegated to reliable patsy status by MLS and this ownership, then we are a joke as a fan base and a big part of the problem and not part of the solution. On the contrary, this is Philadelphia and this fan base will not just sit by while MLS or this ownership is content for this to be a 2nd rate outpost. Our extraordinary charge to have an MLS franchise here says that we will not be anyone’s “reliable patsy” and there is a warm place is soccer hell for anyone OK with it 🙂

      • See, now you’re talking. It’s going to be up to the fan base to effect a culture change with the club. Don’t expect the league office to step in with any ‘pressure’ on the club, at least until the fans stop showing up.
        And, after the first two games at PPL Park, a warm place in soccer hell doesn’t sound so bad.

      • Actually I have been imploring the SoB’s to take a leadership role in rallying the base to challenge this organization to truly represent this market. If they can’t or won’t then this base needs to challenge MLS to work with us. If that means assisting in finding an ownership to force the current ownership out great. Or if the Union fail to represent this top market the way they should then engage MLS in bringing in a replacement for the Union. This market deserves to be a big player in MLS not some weak sob sister wanna be who can’t make moves without waiting for the outcome of someone elses agenda..aka Valdes. We need financially competitive ownership!

      • I agree. And, I don’t think it’s in the interest of the business to be the MLS version of the Washington Generals.

        This team will make more money the more competitive it is. Better quality and bigger names at PPL would interest more fans. There are a lot of soccer fans here and many don’t think following the Union is worth their time investment. You need to win those people And you won’t do it by playing for the 6th playoff slot.

        That team will make more money and everyone wins.

  10. UnionTillICry says:

    The Philadelphia Union are not a good soccer team. FYP.

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