The Philadelphia Union picked up an ugly three points against a Chicago Fire team at home on Saturday night thanks to a late goal from substitute Joaquin Torres.
The Fire, picked by many to finish last in the East, gave the Union a game effort in the first half. Despite going down a man in the 50th minute with the dismissal of Fabian Herbers, the visitors frustrated the Union and denied any clear chances with a low block.
The goal was great work from Torres to cut in from the right and get a shot on frame from distance, but upon further review, goalkeeper Chris Brady should have done better. The xG on the shot was 0.017.
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) March 12, 2023
Overall, the Fire bettered the Union on xG in the game with a final total of 0.9-1.2 Just 0.1 and change of that Fire xG came after halftime, when the Union were better defensively, but the Fire’s brute/boot force ball in the first half was effective.
“We know again we weren’t our sharpest, on these nights when we have to grind out results, it was a very big three points for the guys,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin. “We’re not clicking on all cylinders right now, but early in the season it’s important to take points.”
That was Curtin’s opening assessment in his press conference, and a reflection that three games into the campaign, the Union have played well for one out of six halves. Six points from those three games is also a reflection of the talent in the squad, and perhaps the value of a player like Torres.
The Fire racked up most of their xG on set pieces, with 0.6 of xG for center back Rafael Czichos.
The Fire came out in a 3-5-2 / 5-3-2, with two strikers in Kei Kamara, Kacper Przybylko and Xherdan Shaqiri behind them as a 10. It was a surreal tactical choice from Ezra Hendrickson with wingbacks Miguel Navarro and Arnaud Soquet extremely high, as his team was willing to stand up to the Union on the road.
The Fire eschewed having any presence in the midfield. When they did play through the middle, the double pivot of Gastón Giménez and Herbers were outnumbered. The Fire hit the ball long towards their two tall strikers, or waited for the Union to make mistakes, and countered into space with long carries. They launched crosses into the box, in open play and on set pieces, and both Kamara and Przybylko had really good efforts denied in the first half.
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) March 12, 2023
For 15 minutes, the Fire looked more likely to score, and while the Union had chances in transition, they could not sync up their entries into the final third.
The Union settled things down before the end of the half, and the injury to Andre Blake in the 30th minute took the game out of its rhythm. Mikael Uhre was able to find some runs in behind the Fire backline and earned set pieces on both runs. The Union were dangerous on their set pieces again but could not convert.
In the second half, Herbers picked up a second yellow, and while the Union had not done a lot of things right, being good enough to expose a double pivot of Herbers-Giménez was a bar they cleared.
The Fire bunkered down after that with 10 men, and from there the pressure was on the Union to break down a low block.
“It’s tricky,” Curtin said of trying to break down a team with 10 men. “Everybody is organized now, there’s not a lot of space to break people down. And we’re trying to make the perfect pass.”
Curtin echoed that sentiment minutes later in a different answer about the value of Jack McGlynn, a strong passer, in these kinds of situations:
“It’s a lot harder than everyone thinks. It takes a special play to pull them out. There’s no space for Mikael to run in behind.”
The completed passes map overall on the night shows how hard it was to make meaningful inroads near the Fire’s box:
And the unsuccessful passes map adds to the story:
The Union eventually got the win, thanks to Torres’ heroics, but three matches in, it’s clear the front three, and the entire team, isn’t clicking the way they did last year. It’s early in the season, but Curtin addressed this year’s performance and managed the expectations.
“What we did last year to score six, seven goals a game is not going to happen,” Curtin said. “It was a crazy, crazy season. I’ll have the same exact discussion with our front three, we can’t score every play. We’re almost shocked when we don’t.”
“They’re trying to do too much right now. We have to do the simple things perfectly.”
That notion of trying to play the perfect ball was Curtin’s overarching emphasis, and I think he wants his players to play faster, simpler, and quite frankly, shoot more. And probably shoot better. He singled out Julian Carranza for “pressing”, like laboring, and that matches up with the eye test. Carranza scored two big chances against Columbus but has “snatched” at his half chances against Miami and Chicago, totaling 0.7 xG in the two games.
Curtin also singled out Gazdag and said he needed to get back to the things that make him the best player in the league, which is arriving in the box late with runs and finishing chances. He chided Gazdag for looking too much to play the final ball.
I’ll add just Gazdag’s incomplete passes map here:
Gazdag did rack up 0.42 expected assists in this game, but he had just 0.06 xG. Gazdag shooting and expected goals stats through three games aren’t off his pace from 2022, but specifically against Chicago, Curtin would have liked to see more shots and less passes.
There are a lot of good 10s in the league, but Gazdag is not like Carles Gil, Hany Mukhtar, Riqui Puig, and much more like Sebastian Driussi. The Union’s system in general does not require as much creativity at the 10, and requires hard forward runs from the front three.
It’s hard to play the Union’s preferred style against 10 men and the Union put up eight shots after the 60th minute, and only one had over 0.1 xG. I’m not picking on Gazdag, or the team for a frustrating night, and Curtin was quick to say it’s not just the front three misfiring.
He alluded to the fact the timing on final third entries, on both runs and deliveries has been off. Overall, the Union just are not as sharp as they need to be, and Curtin’s sentiment of trying to focus on simple things, in my mind, is the right one. The Union’s playstyle is producing the desired methods of chance creation. There’s no talent issue with the front three.
It’s also worth remembering the Union overperformed their xG as a team last year by 10.7 goals, the second highest differential in the league behind Austin. There’s going to be more games that require grinding.
Ultimately, I think these are normal early season issues for a talented squad, and getting six points out of nine should be the first takeaway in any summation so far. It’s alright to acknowledge that it has looked and felt off, in terms of sharpness. Curtin also said that CCL didn’t cross his mind all night, and I believe him, but there’s no doubt the monumental schedule slog in the first few months of the season is a mental challenge.
The Union are doing just fine, and can take care of business again on Tuesday against Alianza at home. We’ll see where the legs and sharpness are at, and maybe an expectation adjustment is needed – not in terms of getting the three points, but that it might by ugly.