Match previews

Preview: Union at Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Who: Philadelphia Union at Chicago Fire
What: Regular season game
Where: Toyota Park
When: Saturday, Sept. 3 at 8:30 pm
Watch: TCN, MLS Live, Direct Kick
Whistle: Baldomero Toledo; Linesmen: Eric Boria, Logan Brown; Fourth Official: Marcos DeOliveira

Chicago Fire are at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and coming off a 6-2 defeat to Patrick Mullins’ and the rest of DC United’s suddenly potent strike force. The good thing for neutral fans is that Chicago Fire have continued to evolve over the course of the season. Unfortunately, and a bit oddly, the Fire have emulated natural evolution and don’t seem to have a clear final goal. Instead, they vacillate between a strong, tight defensive unit and lightning quick counterattacks, with occasional periods of midfield possession in between. It’s not pretty, and it’s not yet effective. But it’s also clearly still a work very much in the early stages.

The biggest piece of news concerning this weekend’s match has nothing to do with Andre Blake or Alejandro Bedoya, important as they are. Fire winger/striker David Accam was also called up for international duty and his absence is such a monstrous loss for Chicago that it is hard to overstate. It also might be a blessing in disguise for the Fire.

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Keep Accam and Carry On?

Accam is at the tippy-top of what he can do in MLS right now. He thinks he deserves to be the focal point of an offense and right now — both through strong play and by default — he is. But the Fire rejected a significant bid for him from France in the transfer window that just closed, and if he keeps performing at a high level to close out the season, clubs with a hankering for speed will come calling again.

By the time they do, the Fire will be ready. Michael de Leeuw and David Arshakyan have arrived from abroad to play up top and shot machine Luis Solignac is rotating up front and on the wing (where he basically tries to play up front). The missing link is a creative player who can connect a solid but still-jelling defense with an attack that finally puts bodies in the box and moves off the ball (even John Goossens is starting to show his potential!). Of course, irony of ironies, a creative passer is exactly what the Fire sent off to Montreal before the season began. It would perhaps be too cruel if Harry Shipp had ascended to new heights with the Impact, so perhaps his down year has been a favor to his former team.

Fast up front, flimsy in back?

In lieu of a creator, the Fire have gone Full Early Curtin. The defense is bend-don’t-break and the attack is lightning quick and direct. Unlike the Union Curtin inherited, though, Chicago have done very well getting bodies into the box of late. The typical Fire attack involves David Accam creating his own space in transition, driving at the right side of the opposition (Union fans know this too well), and getting off a shot that rebounds into the center. The next most typical attack simply uses Accam to quickly advance the ball then brings 3-4 more players forward to attack the box and hammer shots through the defense.

As noted earlier: It’s not very pretty. But Accam is effective enough that former Union man Veljko Paunovic cannot give up on what works, even if it probably doesn’t fit his longer-term on-field model.

Paunovic coached the Serbian team that won the under-20 World Cup. His star was creative midfielder Andrija Zivkovic, who moved to Benfica in July as a 20 year old, and will move to your favorite Premier League Club as a 22-year old for a lot more money. Notably, Zivkovic was creative from a wide role. Though he scored twice (because he’s very, very good), what made Zivkovic so dangerous was that he drove at the defense then picked out the right pass into the box. The Fire, notably, have nobody who can reliably create from wider areas. Accam can do it when he picks his head up, but will he? Everybody else that Paunovic has used wide — Arturo Alvarez, John Goossens, Solignac — tends to either drift out of play or try to sneak inside.

A developing strike pair

Things should improve as de Leeuw and Arshakyan develop chemistry. Arshakyan is a big striker (6’4”) who was brought in to hang around the box, connect with his wingers, and pile shots onto the goal. De Leeuw, in contrast, has looked more comfortable playing underneath the back four so he can escape central defenders and sneak through the defense. He is undoubtedly an impressive interpreter of space, but it remains to be seen if he can provide the creativity or goal return the Fire need. Below, watch de Leeuw find his bearings after a half-clearance and slide through the defense to create havoc and an opening for Arturo Alvarez.

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All of this — the lack of a creative winger, the new and untested strike partners, the unsettling way Solignac bolsters the offense while further exposing the defense — speaks to the extended transition period in which the Fire find themselves. Whiffs on hopeful signings like Kennedy “Finishing is for chumps” Igboananike combined with a longer-than-expected period of growing pains for a heap of new defenders has forced Chicago to grow in fits and starts, and without a real sense of on-field identity.

All that said, the most impressive thing about the Fire this season is that the team as a whole seems to be adopting a long view. Losses pile up, Paunovic tries new shapes and new back line combinations, but the result is consistently more goals against than goals for. But though there is a clear sense that many players are over thinking their roles now, it will be very interesting to see how a young midfield and a young striker combine with de Leeuw and (hopefully) another creative force in 2017.

For now, we are left with a team that is all bread and no meat.

Fire defense makes a lot of small errors

The Fire back four are impressively quick for their size and impressively large for their speed. But they sure make a lot of small mistakes. Below, you can see the very talented Jonathan Campbell get stuck outside Cyle Larin after Eric Gehrig steps to the ball. It’s a small error that becomes a goal because Larin isn’t like almost every college striker ever, and Campbell isn’t quite quick enough to slide over when Gehrig steps. Later in the same match, though, Campbell shows off his strength by forcing Larin wide as the best young striker in MLS tries to bully him backwards (as he often can when he puts his head down).

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The inconsistency in back isn’t helped by timid play in midfield. Matt Polster, Razvan Cocic, and Khaly Thiam are all fine players with an underdeveloped (Cocis) or still-developing sense of positioning. Polster is wonderfully quick to close a ball down but finds himself caught out of the center far too often. Thiam can form a near-perfect partner for Polster when he slides back to protect the defense, but too often he drops deep or steps to the ball instead of reading the shape of the attack, and the opposition have noticed.

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The Fire have given up chances more than once this year when Polster and Thiam follow runners deep instead of handing them off. This leaves space for cutbacks, and cutbacks lead to goals when six players are deep in the box.

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What about the Union?

Philly, of course, will be missing two of their own extremely key players.

Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya are both on international duty this weekend, meaning John McCarthy will start in goal and Tranquillo Barnetta is likely to slide back into a deeper role. If Accam was playing, the loss of Bedoya could be devastating. Bedoya’s biggest contribution to the Union has been his transition defense, which involves the seemingly simple yet incredibly difficult task of being in the right place at the right time following turnovers. That description makes it sound like luck or fate, but it’s positioning.

Warren Creavalle’s aggressive ball hawking has pushed Bedoya into a slightly more conservative role than many might have imagined. But the US international has responded well, and is learning when to get forward. Without him in the lineup, the Union will need to figure out how to protect the back four in transition so that Solignac’s rockets and de Leeuw’s movement don’t occur in the Union box. If the Fire are asked to possess in the final third, they will settle for bad shots. With Accam, they rarely have to possess; they won’t have him Saturday.

If Barnetta drops deeper, it is imperative that the Union continue with Fabian Herbers on the wing. Herbers has been far from perfect, but he’s also been more defensively consistent than Ilsinho. Furthermore, Herbers gives Philly an option that likes to probe behind a defense. Without Sapong looking to go over the top, that offensive dimension is desperately needed to stretch a team out, particularly on the road.

Other lineup questions

It’s hard to predict Chicago’s lineup with striking options limited. Arshakyan is traveling with Armenia, meaning some combination of de Leeuw and Solignac will start up top. Behind them, Thiam is suspended for his ludicrous red card against DC United, which means Polster and Cocis will hold the center. The rest is up in the air, as Paunovic could opt for a 3-5-2 shape to push wingbacks high and control the Union’s attacking fullbacks. The limitation to this approach is how mediocre rookie Brandon Vincent looks in the wingback role.

Overall, the outcome of this match is likely decided by two things: First, which team adjusts better to missing their key players? If Philly can still create chances without sacrificing too much defensive cover, they will be fine. Second, can the Fire control the Union on the flanks? If so, Chicago’s deep, strong center could frustrate Philly on the road.

After a six-point week, the Union can continue to put pressure on the top of the East with a road win Saturday. And from a broader perspective, a win on the weekend would give breathing room and make the next four matches much easier to handle. The Union next play three teams within three points of them in the table, along with an increasingly desperate Portland side.

In other words, last week was great. But there’s still a lot to be done.

23 Comments

  1. Lucky Striker says:

    “the most impressive thing about the Fire this season is that the team as a whole seems to be adopting a long view.”

    Or:

    that they get to play Philly in Bridgevew-where the Union almost always struggle to get results no matter how badly they outplay them- twice.

  2. Matthew Schwartz says:

    Moneyline on the Union is +250…what am I missing here…

    • What does that mean, seriously? Sports betting is Greek to me.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        That means that the Union are big underdogs according to Vegas.

      • Which has no bearing on reality, only a bearing on how they think they can get an equal amount of money bet on both sides so they can collect on service fees and not risk losing anything.

      • Matthew Schwartz says:

        Which goes back to my question…what am I missing? Are they expecting big money on the Fire for some reason? Seems like an odd line unless they really think we struggle that badly on the road (possible).

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        or they notice that when Barnetta plays 8, we are nowhere nearly as good as when he plays 10.

      • I know nothing about gambling, so I don’t know how it works with betting&soccer&ties, but the Union won a single road game without Bedoya this season, and they’ll be missing both him and Blake. Additionally, Chicago hasn’t actually lost a home game since mid-April.

  3. Kennedy “Finishing is for chumps” Igboananike makes Dominic Oduro look like Pippo Inzaghi.

  4. Do not be surprised if Carroll comes right back into the starting lineup.
    .
    Even against a struggling offensive team like the Fire a midfield base of Barnetta-Creavalle is too much of a risk to get caught out on the counter-attack.

    • I expect to see the Carroll-Creavalle combo, with Barnetta staying at the 10.

      • You may be right, but I’m really hoping that your crystal ball isn’t working today.
        .
        It will be very discouraging if C and C are in the midfield together at the start of Saturday’s match.

    • My guess is that Carroll stays on the bench at the start, and subs in if the Union are leading. I think a Creavalle-Barnetta defensive midfield can handle the Fire.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      to me, that means JC has to have one of his subs committed to replace BC if BC cannot go 90.
      .
      Now, if BC says he can go ninety barring injury, probably he can.
      .
      But it would be a big gamble.
      .
      But getting three points on Saturday would be highly useful given that in the finishing schedule is Toronto away, Montreal, Portland away, and a home and away series with Red Bulls. And Orlando will be no pushover, as Jason Kreis proved to Patrick Viera quite recently.
      .
      So, the gamble might be worth the risk.

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I would be somewhat surprised to see both of the plantar fasciitis brothers in the game day 18.

  6. No score prediction?

  7. I would gladly take a point right now & send the team to Navy Pier instead. A trap game. Adding the Calm to defensive shape sacrifices midfield possession and buildup. Could Davies start?

    • No chance he’s 90 minute fit. I’m not even 100% sure he’s 30 minute fit yet. He stays a sub. Herbers started up top in the 4-3 alberg hat trick game. Maybe we see that again.

  8. el Pachyderm says:

    “Depth to sonar….One Point please, Wassilly.”
    – The Hunt for Red October

  9. I think were going to see a Pontius Alberg Herbers Barnetta-Carroll midfield. Curtin did mention that the coaches have noticed Alberg putting in the defensive effort. This is his shot at giving Alberg a reward without upsetting the lineup to much.

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