The Philadelphia Union resume MLS play on Saturday with a trip to Soldier Field to face the Chicago Fire. Kickoff is set for 8:39 p.m. ET and the match will be broadcast on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV behind the paywall with Tony Husband and Ross Smith on the call.
The Union are 2-4-1 in the league, good for seven points and 10th place in the East. The Fire have been solid to start the campaign in Ezra Hendrickson’s second season with a 2-1-3 record, good for nine points and sixth in the East.
The Fire’s lone loss came to the Union just over a month ago, a 1-0 win for the hosts at Subaru Park. Fabian Herbers got a red card in the second half, and Joaquin Torres bailed out a lackluster offensive showing with a shot from distance late that probably should have been saved by goalkeeper Chris Brady.
Most importantly, the Union are coming off a 2-2 draw in Guadalajara on Wednesday night against Atlas of Liga MX, securing a 3-2 edge over the two legs of the Concacaf Champions League Quarterfinal, setting up a blockbuster semifinal tie with LAFC on April 26 and May 2.
The thick fixture list continues for the Union, and it’s okay to admit that the later stages of CCL trump any April MLS action and it’s not particularly close. While there’s some time before that first fixture against LAFC, the Union are coming off a mammoth effort in an early season-defining performance. When Saturday rolls around, the Union will be playing their 11th in 40 days dating back to March 4. The job was done in Mexico late on Wednesday night, and it’s time to recover.
The Union’s last MLS game is further proof of the current mindset, as the Union rolled out an effective 5-3-2 with five of their usual starters against Cincinnati on the road in a scrappy 1-0 loss.
I don’t know exactly how many players Curtin will rotate at Chicago, but it will probably be closer to five than one or two. Kai Wagner needs rest and his hamstring was clearly not right by the end of the first half in Mexico. Damion Lowe is dealing with a hamstring injury from training, so the center backs may stay the same, but everyone else is an option to rotate in my opinion. And whoever is on the bench can be an option to chase a result in the second half.
Given that context, the Union’s contest on Saturday is all about effort, motivation and desire. The two teams have already met, the Fire are not very good but playing disciplined soccer, and the Union are coming off an emotional high on Wednesday night. The less than full strength XI could either be up to try and continue the breakthrough the team experienced in attack on Wednesday, or be willing to slog for a gritty road point and/or experiment tactically. For another team, it would be understandable if a full effort wouldn’t be there, but generally, the squad competition is too fierce and Jim Curtin’s culture too strong for no-shows to happen.
As such, the Union are +145 (40%) to win according to Bet MGM, with the Fire at +175 (36% and a draw at +230 (24%). 538 has the probabilities at 36% for the Union to win, 37% for the Fire to win and 27% for a draw. That’s a minor discrepancy between the two, with 538 favoring the Fire and the markets favoring the Union. My best guess is money coming in on the Union from bettors who think they are overall a much more talented club than the Fire coming off a massive win and not thinking about how hard road games are.
As for the Fire, again, their solidity is reflected in the fifth best xG allowed across the league at 6.8 in seven matches. The attack has been pedestrian at 7.4 xG, squarely in the middle of the pack. The Fire have been unbeaten (2-0-2) in their four matches without Xherdan Shaqiri, but he’s been training with the team this week and the Chicago weather looks great for Saturday, so his thigh might be feeling good enough that we could be graced with his presence.
On top of the better defensive workrate without the Swiss Designated Player, the Fire have been the latest MLS team to receive the Kei Kamara boost. The 38-year-old has three goals in almost three 90s including both goals in the last match, a 2-1 win over Minnesota. He remains an elite threat in the box by MLS standards and offers a ready-made identity for a team that was struggling with striker output before.
Wingers Chris Mueller and Maren Haile-Selassie are both solid, and 19-year-old Brian Gutiérrez has been effective at the 10 in Shaqiri’s normal spot. Shaqiri is still a strong creator with the ball at his feet in the final third, but Gutiérrez offers enough ball progression and shot creating actions and markedly more defense:
Hendrickson said after the win against Minnesota: ‘‘We feel like when Shaq is on the pitch, we are a better team.’’ I’m not going to disagree, but suggest that for a team that needs to scrap, work without the ball, and launch crosses into the box, Shaqiri’s best role could be as a super sub, or on the wing instead of in the middle. Heck, I’d think about using him like Julian Gressel or Graham Zusi as a crossing specialist at fullback. It’s not shocking to me that the Fire have been better without him so far (in just four games).
On the Union’s side, the key development over the past few weeks has been the ascension of Jack McGlynn and the relative stagnance of Leon Flach. I say relative because Flach is still an extremely useful player who is a key cog in the Union’s system. The second goal against Atlas was reflective of his offensive value.
But there’s no mistaking the Union’s struggles in the attacking third unlocking defenses this season, and it was no more apparent than in the game against Sporting Kansas City two weeks ago, when the visitors targeted Flach as a pressure point in the buildup. Peter Vermes said after the game something to the effect of the Union’s intensity being their hallmark, but that if you can match it, you can force a slog and make it hard for them to create chances.
When the Union are a known quantity across the league, there’s no better change-up to the formula than a 19-year old with the ability to craft killer final balls from deep-lying positions frequently.
Here’s Jack McGlynn’s passing stats (small sample, against MLS competition) against a very good passing midfielder from Europe. Take a guess.
Two very good passers. The second one is Kevin De Bruyne. Jack McGlynn’s current Transfrmarkt valuation is 3 million euros, which is going to skyrocket if he keeps this up. I jokingly started a De Bruyne of the Delaware nickname after I saw this assist, but I’m not backing down:
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) April 13, 2023
The other key development for the Union they showed against Atlas was the elite movement of Julían Carranza, and finally, better synchronization between the front three. It was frustrating for a lot of the game, with Mikael Uhre in particular being a tad selfish, but he set up Carranza perfectly on the final goal. The Union were not going to be as wasteful in transition as they were to start the season with their talent.
Keys for the Union
The Fire will want to limit transition for the Union, and try to take the game to the visitors from the start and test their legs. The Fire deviated from their usual 4-2-3-1 in Philadelphia with a three-man backline, and turned the game into an ugly affair by smashing balls at the Union backline.
Hendrickson could try this move again, and Curtin, who rolled out a three-center-back approach in Cincinnati, could counter with a defensive set-up. I’m not sure he needs to, given how good his center backs are in 1-on-1 situations, but the key in either formation will be to mark Kamara in the box.
Given the uncertainty of the rotation, the test for the Union honestly is in their intensity and attention to detail. The Fire don’t have match breaking talent, but they are hard to break down, and willing to cross into frenzied boxes until the dam breaks.
Whatever lineup the Union roll out, they will have a bevy of talent on the bench to call on to morph the game. I’m not expecting the Union to control the game at their tempo for 60 or 70 minutes, but I believe that after changes, they should be able to stretch the game to their advantage and get a goal.
This is likely going to be a dull game that could use some goals to force a team to go for it. Even if the Fire scored early, it would take the Union until the closing stages to chase the game.
The Fire will be hungry to show that their early season form isn’t a mirage against a team recently cemented as one of the most competitive on the continent. I think that will result in a lot of early pressure and perhaps a set piece goal. Maybe the Union can claw it back late with a little bit of magic from McGlynn and Carranza in a 1-1 draw.