The Philadelphia Union host the Chicago Fire in the third week of the MLS season on Saturday night, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET at Subaru Park.
The match will be streamed on Apple TV’s MLS Season Pass behind the paywall — Jenn Hildreth and Lori Lindsey will have the call.
The Union are looking to rebound in the league after a frustrating trip to Miami last Saturday that was followed up by a utilitarian draw with a rotated side at Alianza in the Concacaf Champions League. The second leg looms in Philadelphia on Tuesday night.
The Fire had a bye in week one, and opened their MLS campaign by coming back to earn a 1-1 draw against New York City FC at home in week two.
On paper, the Union at home against the Fire is probably the easiest fixture in their entire league schedule, but the Union have not hit their stride yet, with one strong half out of six in their first three competitive matches in 2023.
Accordingly, the Union are -225 to win, according to BetMGM, with a draw at +360 and a Fire win at +525. 538 has the Union at 69% to win, a draw at 20% and Chicago at 11% to win. The betting markets are exactly synced up with the models here, and worth noting that both were in the right neighborhood in their assessment of the Miami game.
The Union are the largest favorite in the league this week, along with Portland hosting St. Louis.
The Fire finished 12th in the East last season, and sold teenage sensation Jhon Duran to Aston Villa for $12 million. Goalkeeping starlet Gaga Slonina also departed to Chelsea, and the Fire didn’t make any notable offseason acquisitions until late in the calendar.
They signed Greek striker Giorgios Koutsias as a U22 Initiative deal and also snatched Kei Kamara from Montreal. The No. 9 position remains unsettled, and Koutsias is still unavailable.
No MLS analyst picked the Fire higher than 13th, and nine picked them to finish last. It’s a reflection of running back a rather underwhelming group of talent from last season.
Former Liverpool and Bayern star Xherdan Shaqiri did a lot of the underwhelming, not necessarily by being bad, but by being just fine, which largely reflects the Fire’s recent disappointing DP record. He’s still in Chicago after the 2022 World Cup, and I believe he wants to succeed in MLS and is still a talented player.
He just does not have the workrate to be a team’s primary creative engine like the best 10s in the league. He can compensate by flashing more of his ball striking brilliance on goals from distance, dead ball assists and crosses, but the talent around him makes all of that difficult.
I thought the Fire did well last week to battle back for a point against NYCFC, and put in an energized second half shift at home. The goal Fabian Herbers scored was pretty lucky at 0.06 xG, with an even lower post-shot xG of 0.01, but the Fire put pressure on New York’s backline.
FIRST GOAL OF THE '23 SEASON GOES TO FABI pic.twitter.com/Fd6kkpzgww
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) March 5, 2023
Overall, the xG was 1.6 to 0.7 in favor of the New York, and in open play, the Fire created 0.4 xG. Even with a strong second half, the Fire lacked the ability to unlock New York, and needed to brute force the ball into the box. That approach worked better with Kamara up top instead of Kacper Przybylko.
The Fire suffered key injuries to Jairo Torres and Federico Navarro, their holding midfielders, and both players will be out for a couple of weeks.
Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson can turn to Mauiricio Pineda and Gastón Giménez to start, two seasoned MLS veterans. Pineda is a solid destroyer, and Giménez is a deep-lying playmaker with less defensive mobility.
The best player, in my opinion, in the Fire attack is Chris Mueller, a good but not great MLS winger who offers pace, dribbling, and smart runs in the final third. He had 23 carries, including three progressive carries, against New York, and 10 progressive receptions.
Keys for the Union
The Fire are pretty unremarkable in all areas of the pitch. The Union need to force mistakes in the Fire’s buildup and be sharper than they were in Miami in getting the ball into the final third. The Fire routinely played into New York’s midfielders in the first half, and will likely not survive the same against the Union’s more transitional approach.
The gameplan is pretty much the Union’s standard template, and there’s not too much extra to add. The Union are at home and need a result against a pedestrian team for morale.
To me, that means the Union need to bring their best intensity, and I’m not expecting that to be a problem. If I had to circle one player to turn in a big game, I’d like to see Mikael Uhre be dangerous in the box and work off Julian Carranza and Daniel Gazdag for more synchronized attacking sequences. All three players need to finish, as I expect the Union to produce more than enough chances.
Ideally, the Union can take care of business and rest some players before Tuesday. I’m still expecting a relatively full-strength starting XI from Curtin.
If the Fire bunker early and dig in for a road point, it could be a good exercise for the Union. I still would expect them to break through, and the Union bench could again be key.
It’s hard to see the Fire remaining competitive for 90 minutes against a motivated Union squad. Even with the loss in Miami, the Union are limiting opponents’ quality chances and generating their own through possession regains in dangerous areas.
I think if the Union can get themselves into third gear, they should coast to a 3-0 win. A Shaqiri golazo or Kamara set piece could change the equation, but I’m still backing the hosts to get three points.