Match previews

Preview: Union vs Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
What: 2016 regular season game
Where: Talen Energy Stadium
When: Wednesday, June 22 at 7 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Jaime Herrera; Matthew Nelson and Jeff Muschik; Mark Kadlecik

Veljko Paunovic returns to Chester on Wednesday, and he brings a Chicago Fire side that will be looking to break a season-long winless streak on the road by handing the Union their first home loss.

The Fire are a team deep in the throes of a transition. They finally realized that Gilberto was a money pit, but still find themselves with the limited David Accam and the wasteful Kennedy Igboananike up top. This helps explain how the Fire have yet to score more than one goal in a match since an opening day 4-3 defeat at the hands of NYCFC.

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But the flipside is that only two teams in MLS (Colorado and Toronto) have given up fewer goals than the Fire’s sixteen. Paunovic is clearly building from the back, and the Union will need to be patient and incisive to grab three points on Wednesday.

No O

With Gilberto gone, Accam and Igboananike are the Chicago Fire offense. They have combined for seven of the team’s eleven goals, and they are both strikers in the classical sense of not being very good at defending.

The Fire cannot press as a team because they cannot press from the front, so instead they organize well behind the ball and feed it upfield quickly after winning it (as I wrote, and Jim Curtin said, Fabian Herbers did too much chasing on Saturday, but he still looked like he had a better plan than Igboananike does when he defends). Thus, Paunovic sits his defense quite deep and plays with two holding midfielders and more of a bustler than a true creator. Below, you can see David Accam play the kind of defense that would leave Jim Curtin’s face as red as his hair.

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As a result, the most effective way to attack the Fire is off turnovers in midfield, and these happen fairly often when Chicago tries to work the ball out of the back. If you look at the defensive chart for Colorado’s midfield last weekend, you do not see interceptions and tackles, because those would require Chicago to be moving the ball through the center of the park. Instead, you see recoveries.

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On his conference call this week, Veljko Paunovic spoke about connecting the lines: Defense to midfield, midfield to attack. His belief is his team can create more individual matchups for their quick strikers by making the opposition collapse then looking for the angled runs of Accam and Igboananike into the corners. Currently, the Fire tend to go directly from the back into the corners. When it doesn’t work, it leaves the midfield wholly uninvolved in the offense and the entire team heavily reliant on Accam to break down defenders to create chances. Above, you can see the most effective offense the Fire have right now. It’s quick, it’s dangerous, but it’s very direct (and it simply begs for a Cristian Maidana trade).

Fire CBs passing vs COL

Fire CBs passing vs COL

Big D

Like the Union, Chicago is leaning heavily on youth and new faces in back. Though formerly usurped starter Sean Johnson is back in net, he sits behind new recruit Johan Kappelhof and rookie Jonathan Campbell. Brandon Vincent’s flashes of potential runs the left while Rodrigo Ramos is growing into the starting role on the right. It’s a back four without a ton of speed playing behind wide players who do not offer consistent protection, and as a result it tends to stay deep and compact to protect the box.

Colorado was just the latest team to find space on the wings against Chicago but struggle to threaten the Fire goal from wide areas. Campbell and Kappelhof are strong in the air and hold a strong line in the center (it is relatively surprising given their size that, as a team, Chicago has yet to score a headed goal).

Wild card

Khaly Thiam, a 22-year old Senegalese holding midfielder, put in the best shift of the day last weekend for the Fire. Acquired on loan in early May, he has been slowly integrating into the team and looks like the closest thing Chicago has to a calm distributor. With Matt Polster out with a concussion, Thiam may continue alongside Joao Meira in a deep role on Wednesday, with Nick LaBrocca or Razvan Cocis sliding up to replace the injured Arturo Alvarez and Joey Calistri at the attacking midfield spot.

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The Union should be aware of Thiam’s passing ability, as he was the only player able to consistently connect forward passes out of midfield on Saturday (I’m serious, nobody else could unlock Michael Azira and Sam Cronin). Above, you can see Thiam connect with Accam, but a complete lack of movement following up the play. In fact, Thiam is the first to offer the type of support that would allow Chicago to establish an extended offensive possession (Accam’s scared-moth dribbling sequence doesn’t help).

The most dangerous ball for Philly to watch is the angled pass out of a deep position toward the sideline for Accam. The goal is to get the striker matched up on a central defender and let him run toward the goalmouth as the rest of the squad lines up around the back post for a dinked cross or rebound. The Union match up well with the Fire’s speed-based attack, however, particularly if Joshua Yaro returns to the fold on Wednesday.

Union notes

Jim Curtin said that Yaro has been given the all-clear and is available for selection Wednesday. This may mean a breather for Ken Tribbett, though Richie Marquez’s iffy play on Saturday could also earn him a temporary respite from the first eleven (though Curtin has said many times that he prefers a consistent central defensive pairing).

Curtin also seemed happy with how Tranquillo Barnetta handled Vincent Nogueira’s role in the second half on Saturday, dropping deeper and trying to bring the ball out of midfield instead of flitting behind the opposition holding mids. Roland Alberg’s run of good form and Warren Creavalle’s minor injury in training should conspire to see Barnetta alongside Brian Carroll on Wednesday, giving Union coaches a chance to more fully assess the best role for Barnetta until Nogueira can be replaced.

Finally, Curtin was uncertain if CJ Sapong would be available by Wednesday, meaning Fabian Herbers is likely to go again up top. The Union head coach said it as well as I ever could: Herbers is a different type of striker than Sapong, and asking him to bang with the big boys in back is likely bad for the team and for the player himself. Instead, the Union need to show that they can operate successfully with a striker who plays as more of a connector than a back-to-goal hold-up man.

Lineup graphic courtesy of the incredibly awesome Seth Finck

Lineup graphic courtesy of the incredibly awesome Seth Finck 

This means more interchanging between Herbers, Pontius, and Le Toux. Pontius could use the positional flexibility, as he fell into the WengerZone on Saturday and didn’t vary his movement enough. Le Toux, on the other hand, will have to balance his innate desire to play against the back line with the team’s defensive needs, which require him to retreat to the right channel. Given Ilsinho’s strong influence on possession Saturday, and the need to keep Le Toux healthy as games pile up, it would not be out of the realm of possibility to see Ilsinho get sixty minutes with the Frenchman mopping up on Wednesday.

Prediction: Union 2-0 Fire

Playing at home against a team that should have trouble putting pressure on the Union’s attacking fullbacks portends a strong showing from the Eastern Conference leaders. The key to the match will be balancing swift attacks off of Chicago’s midfield turnovers with a willingness to hold possession and be patient when the numbers aren’t there. This balance falls primarily on Tranquillo Barnetta’s shoulders: The Swiss midfielder likes to get forward with the ball, but he can also be quite good at checking in with support. That latter aspect of his game will need to be fully on display to ensure Philly controls the pace of play and doesn’t give the Fire too many chances to look over the top to their speed merchants.

Since the Copa break, the Union have sandwiched two awful halves between a strong half and a so-so forty-five. Beating a team like Chicago is all about doing the fundamentals better: Don’t over pursue, don’t be afraid to cycle the ball, and seek out what will likely be big gaps in front of the deep defense. Simple, modern soccer principles should see the more organized team come out on top.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    My guess is that if Curtin decides to give Marquez a break, Anderson would come in for him. I seem to recall that he wants to keep left center and right center as separate positions with separate depth charts.

    • I recall the same.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      He does seem to follow your indicated pattern.
      My skepticism of Anderson playing is that of the Union’s back six, or eight, he is the most vulnerable to speed, and Speed is Chicago’s primary offensive asset, especially with Gilberto out of the picture (I’ve missed that development apparently). Yaro is our best chance to match Accam, or at least keep him in sight for any length of time. He blew by Marquez in preseseason I clearly recall.

  2. pragmatist says:

    Trap game. I hope Saturday was a wake-up call.
    I could understand a draw in a very boring game. CHI simply doesn’t allow goals. We shouldn’t be happy with a draw, but it would be understandable.
    A loss, on the other hand…well, time to open up the ticket booth on the Cliff, based on everyone’s reaction to Saturday.

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    “Veljko Paunovic returns to Chester on Wednesday, and he brings a Chicago Fire side that will be looking to break a season-long winless streak on the road by handing the Union their first home loss.”
    So seeing as how we gave Lampard and Pirlo their first goals of the season (and in MLS I think) just last week… am assuming this will also be Chicago’s first win on the road. The Union have a knack for these types of things.
    That being said the Union are the better team, and are at home. This MUST be 3 points.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    After laying the Very Large EGG in Dallas, Curtin and the players had themselves ready in Columbus some months ago. There is a least some precedent on which to base hope.
    I wouldn’t hire three shifts of labor to man the ticket booths to the Cliff just yet.
    And two things from the past are popping into my mind, one from previous seasons and one from earlier this year, more recent first. In the Blizzard Tsunami Gale game, Ilsinho gave the fire defense some trouble. And David Accam has often been subbed off after an hour or so under previous coaches.

  5. Let’s start a new unbeaten streak with a win, the last run was great. The heart of our midfield was lost 48 hours before we played that 7th inning stretch nonsense; one pathetic half is not too concerning. Let’s score a few and boss Chicago like we really should

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