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Match analysis: Philadelphia Union 1–1 Chicago Fire

Photo by Paul Rudderow

Today, I have the unenviable task of analyzing the Union’s dour draw with the Chicago Fire. At home, up a man for an hour, the Union nevertheless never looked like winning. I share much of the frustration of the fanbase at what seems like more of the same listless, uncreative attacking soccer from the Union. However, there are straws that can be grasped, so I will do that.

But first, let’s talk about the bad stuff.

Going behind early

For what feels like the hundredth time, the Union gave up a soft early goal. The Fire didn’t do anything complicated, simply putting in a hopeful cross after recycling play. At first glimpse, it looks like a mistimed jump from Olivier Mbaizo that allows Przemysław Frankowski to head in, and that is the case. However, Mbaizo is put off by the late arriving, uncontested run of Ignacio Aliseda. Mbaizo’s half step toward Aliseda pulls him just far enough away from Frankowski to allow the ball to fall over his head and to the Fire player. There is much to be disappointed by in Mbaizo’s play of late, but the goal can’t be blamed on him alone. Had Aliseda been tracked by a midfielder, Mbaizo could have stayed home. Further, the crosser had too much time to line it up, something the Union have been guilty of allowing more than once of late.

Good fortune?

Cory Burke was a bright spot for the Union, creating an early scoring chance that went just wide, and generally unsettling the Fire with his movement and strength. He was, of course, in on goal when contact between him and Wyatt Omsberg brought him down in the Chicago penalty area. That incident was lucky in the sense that the contact seemed mutual and minor, and that it gave the Union a good scoring chance, but it’s not clear that going up a man does the Union any favors.

Chicago is, as Chris Gibbons pointed out, one of the most possession oriented teams in the league, whereas the Union prefer to cede possession and pounce on mistakes. The matchup, then, would seem to favor the Union, as Chicago’s tendencies line up with what the Union want. But down a man, Chicago no longer looked to hold the ball, and instead asked the Union to do what they have shown no ability to do: break down a set defense. Predictably, after scoring the free kick that resulted from the foul on Burke, it took until the 80th minute for the Union to muster another shot on goal.

Why why why?

There isn’t any mystery to that fallow period. The Union had a lot of possession, and connected passes better than they have recently, which is good, in theory. But paired with their complete inability to penetrate through the center of the field, the end result was cross after cross after cross. Crossing is inefficient, we know this. It can be effective, however, if it comes while the defending team is unbalanced and recovering. Strikers and late-arriving midfielders can find gaps and, even if the initial cross does not bear fruit, the second phase of play often leads to scoring chances. But against a bunkered defence that knows it’s all you got? Nope. Try something else.

For the Union, that something else appears to be Ilsinho. Back from a long injury layoff, Ilsinho may have recovered some of his quickness, but he hasn’t yet recaptured that old magic. And the team around him is so unused to having him available that no one seems to know how to leverage his talents. Everyone looks a step slow, which allows the defense to collapse around them and force yet another meandering recirculation of the ball, rather than a shot.

And yet? (Here are those straws.)

And yet, for all that, the Union had scoring chances, both before the sending off and as the game wound down. For the second game running, the Union had a game-winning goal saved off the line after 90 minutes by an opponent’s face. Homegrowns Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn again came on late and provided a spark, though not as bright as other recent cameos. Dániel Gazdag, who still looks like he’s finding his feet, had several good scoring opportunities as the game went on, and once he gains a bit more comfort in the team, those will start to go in. Winning the game would not have papered over the cracks, but winning breeds confidence, and confident players play better.

The underdog mindset

If the Union’s struggles were only related to MLS league play, I imagine the criticism and discontent from Union fans would be somewhat more muted. But with the looming matchup versus Club América in the Concacaf Champions League, the feelings are amplified. The Union were playing much better early in the season, so while they have always been the underdogs against the Mexican giants, Philly fans looked forward to this match with hope that the team would do us proud, and maybe pull an exciting upset. Dreaming felt like a reasonable thing to do. But as things stand now, many Union watchers are fearing that not only will the Union get beat, but will be embarrassed doing so.

How can a team with so few ideas, and a penchant for giving up cheap goals, have any hope?

While it certainly doesn’t excuse the poor play the Union have been producing, I have a theory that might give a little glimmer. Last season, literally until the Supporters’ Shield was won, the Union were doubted. While they were acknowledged to be a good team on the rise, few people outside Philly thought they were good enough to do it—or, at least, that’s the story Union fans and, I expect, the Union players told themselves. That feeling of being an underdog, of being doubted, is sports motivation gold. And ever since winning the Shield, the Union have been forced to be something else—the favorite. It has not sat well with them, either mentally or tactically.

Teams know the Union are good now (or should be), and so play accordingly, forcing the Union to be the protagonists. The Union, in turn, have often looked like a team that expected to win without doing the requisite work. Or, if we’re being more generous, they looked cautious, as if playing not to lose rather than to win. Perhaps now, with their sheen of invincibility well and truly dulled, the Union can rediscover that underdog spirit.

It might not come against Toronto in a few days, but perhaps away to New England, and certainly away in Mexico, the Union will come up against teams that expect to beat them, and who will play the game on their own terms. If the Union can find that Philly vs the World fire, maybe the results will surprise us, in the best possible way.


  1. Sean Hamel says:

    Not for one second did it feel like we were up a man.

  2. It is not the first time that we were up for more than 45 minutes and lacked ideas how to break down the hunkered down defense. Overall great points, Jeremy. Let’s hope for the best and that things will improve.

  3. In Tanner We Trust says:

    Your point about being an underdog is true. We’ve yet to see a Gazdag masterclass on the counterattack, but I think we can rediscover how to do it as a team, if Gazdag can build some chemistry. We almost have a better chance in leg 1, because America will likely throw everything at us and try to run us into the ground. Maybe we see a less emphatic version of leg 1 in Atlanta. Blake keeps us in it and we somehow snag a goal? If we come back to Philly with 1-1, all the pressure is on them in the 2nd leg. But any scenario where CA wins the 1st leg, it’s probably over. Hard to beat the best team in North America bunkered down and daring us to be create in attack. Must escape Mexico with a result.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      Yes, that seems right. Eke a result in Mexico City and all things are possible. If not? Well, then there’s league play to focus on, I guess.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    After much thought, here is my Match Analysis.
    It sucks.

  5. Atomic Spartan says:

    The U have shown 0 capability vs any form of organized defense. Curiously, also no sign of attempting to change scheme when presented with opponents specializing in such defense. Chicago actually exhibited more tactical flexibility than the Union.
    Our only hope vs CA is that the season thus far has been the most elaborate case of rope a dope since Ike hid Patton in WW2, and that Ernst and JC have been hiding a secret weapon all along.
    Not very f’ing likely. But I’ll be in the stands anyway. Drinks at the Cliffs afterparty anyone?

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Cynicism Corner received a federal subsidy and is prepared to reopen its doors once all the T’s are crossed and the i’s dotted.
      Negadelphian my ass…. it is unacceptable and they deserve the sentiment. Hopefully the full weight of doubt does not come to bare and they get this figured out.
      I’ve argued personally from the beginning… I don’t even particularly care which happens more often… winning or losing.
      Just Play Well.

    • Peanut Gallery says:

      I actually pondered whether this might be “the most elaborate rope-a-dope” scheme of all time… If so, and it worked, I’d laugh and be angry at the same time.

  6. Short Story and Solution to Spark the team.

    Short story The Union did not replace Aaronson plain and simple. We have been great at stockpiling defensive mids. Please stop.

    The longer version is The midfield we have seen in the last several weeks is a tentative low energy U group . its predictable , slow , little or no flank speed unwilling to go forward unwilling to attack and ineffective.

    In the the interim Its time to sit Bedoya and bring in Sullivan. Move Flach to Matinez spot Put Gazdag on the opposite side of Sullivan and Fontana at the top of the diamond. I seriously don’t care if they scrap the diamond completely and bring in Paxton as another wide attacking midfielder and just leave Kacper alone up top. Id rather see us being aggresive and losing than what we have seen in the last 5 or so weeks.

    Come on Curtin you have got mothing to lose. They still have to pay you if you try something completely out of your conservative box.

  7. Short Story and Possible Solution to Spark the team.

    Short story The Union did not replace Aaronson plain and simple

    Its time to sit Bedoya and bring in Sullivan. Move Flach to Martinez position at the back of the diamond . (send Martinez to anger management training ). Put Gazdag on the opposite side of Sullivan outside of the diamond. Fontana should move to the top of the diamond. He was never given a full chance to get comfortable there this season. I seriously don’t care if they scrap the diamond completely and bring in Paxton as another attacking midfielder and use 1 forward..
    Leave Kascper alone up top to roam the top.

    Come on Curtin you have got nothing to lose. They still have to pay you if you try something completely out of your conservative box and it does not work.

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