The Union mounted a fierce second half comeback from two goals down to earn a 2-2 draw at Chicago on Saturday night.
Daniel Gazdag grabbed the first goal from the penalty spot and assisted the second by redirecting a cross from Quinn Sullivan to Julían Carranza, who made no mistake at close range.
Overall, road points are good points in MLS, especially so when two goals down. The Union looked tired, mentally and physically, for a lot of the game, and despite a good effort, gave up two sloppy goals and looked like they were headed toward catastrophe in league play.
There’s still a lot of work left to do in the standings, but the Union have a long season ahead of them and a crucial CCL run that will continue to take its toll. Given that context, it was both understandable and frustrating that Jim Curtin went with minimal rotation for his starting lineup from a grueling effort in Mexico on Wednesday night, swapping Kai Wagner, who was hurt, for Nathan Harriel at left back. It was reported during and after the match that Leon Flach picked up an injury in training, and was left out of the squad entirely.
It was frustrating because the workload is really beginning to pile up for the Union’s key contributors, and the Union have theoretically enough squad depth to remain competitive with changes. The Union, at their best, require intensity around the field, and it’s hard to ask the same players to play this style in this many matches.
It was understandable because the Union entered the day in 10th, below the Fire, a team they should not be below in the standings, and they were also coming off a massive emotional boost with the win on Wednesday. It was almost a reward for the group, who played so well on Wednesday, to see if they could keep it going. In this sense, the decision generally reflects Curtin’s sensibilities.
I know the fans are clamoring for more of Andrés Perea and Joaquín Torres. While we know their skillsets and capabilities in MLS from time at other clubs, we don’t yet understand what the early adjustment period looks like behind closed doors, and particularly for two players who didn’t have to do as much defending as they would have to do for the Union, their sparse playing time is also perhaps understandable.
As for the game itself, the Fire rolled out the 4-2-3-1 that has served them well on their now five-match unbeaten streak, looking to use the pace and skill of wingers Chris Mueller and Maren Haile-Selassie to create chances in the box for striker Kei Kamara. This was different from the Fire’s trip to Philadelphia when they used a back three, and it inherently conceded a numerical advantage when the Union got running in transition with Mikael Uhre, Julian Carranza and Dániel Gazdag.
The early stages were the way the Union liked to play, and they were hunting those transition moments and getting some threatening runs in behind. Uhre had a solid chance and the Union often had runners in behind.
The Fire eventually methodically slowed the game down, and at one point through the first half, had up to 75% possession, content to make the Union chase the ball. The Fire were trying to pick on the Union’s left side with right back Arnaud Souquet, and then work the ball back toward the middle.
In the 20th minute, the Union got caught pressing high on their left side and the Fire escaped the pressure with a long switch and immediately started attacking down the Union’s right. Bedoya was caught out trying to squeeze the field, and Olivier Mbaizo was left in a one on two. The ensuing cross should not have gotten across the box, and Harriel absolutely should not have been beaten at the back post by Maren Haile-Selassie. I think Harriel was expecting Jakob Glesnes or Andre Blake to make a play, and I think they both thought they other would. The specter of Kei Kamara also has value.
From there, the Fire immediately retreated without the ball and dared the Union to play through them for the rest of the half. The legs looked lost for the Union, and the buildup was problematic in particular because of the right-footedness of Harriel at left back. The Union tried to push Harriel up the field, out of the early buildup, and let Jose Martínez drift into the left back spot, moving Jack McGlynn centrally. The results were not great. Uhre had a great half chance in the box created by a great pass from Glesnes, but his shot was blocked well by the Fire defense.
At halftime, the xG was 1.24 to 0.68 for the Fire, which was fair. The Union were honestly fine before the goal, but conceding early has been a bad habit for the team in league play. The Union are better when McGlynn can get the ball closer to goal, and having him and Martínez, and also Gazdag have to drop deeper to advance the ball past the Fire’s first line meant the next link between lines wasn’t smooth.
All of this shows up in the passing network, which is a bit dramatic, but shows what happens when a right-footer plays left back, and how it unbalances McGlynn (vertically) and Martínez (horizontally).
The second half is um, a little sillier to analyze. The Union conceded a truly horrendous own goal when Glesnes cleared into Harriel’s back and into the net, and it seemed like the sky was falling down. And when the game was desperately calling out for subs, the Union flopped their way into a few challenges in the box, the second of which from Uhre in the 62nd minute earned a penalty.
After halving the deficit, Curtin brought on Matt Real at left back, moving Harriel to right back and taking Mbaizo off, and put in Sullivan for Uhre. Immediately, the Union took advantage of space down the left-hand side with a fantastic run from Sullivan and he delivered an inch perfect cross that led to Carranza’s equalizer.
— PhilaUnion (@PhilaUnion) April 16, 2023
The Fire finally subbed on DP Xherdan Shaqiri to create from the center, and Greek winger Giorgios Koutsias. The game was stretched, frantic, and exciting, and the Union looked incredibly dangerous with a renewed intensity. The Fire were dangerous when Shaqiri had time on the ball, and he created a handful of chances in space, including one for Koutsias that chipped over Blake onto the bar.
The Union looked much more fluid going forward, and Sullivan had a chance that he sent just wide as a result from a great early cutback from Alejandro Bedoya, one of his specialties. The final xG finished 2.3 to 2 for the Union, emblematic of a strong second half aided by a fortunate penalty kick. The changes for the Union made a big difference – Sullivan was dynamic and Real was more natural on the left hand side. Harriel was also better on the right, and able to deliver some crosses and generally free up Bedoya’s width.
While the Union scored two goals for their second straight game, there is still an issue in synchronicity between the front three. The Union are generally getting transition opportunities in good game states, but too often between Carranza, Uhre, and Gazdag, the final ball is never played, or a shot is taken when a pass could be. An infuriating compilation of clips could be put together of these moments.
The responsibility falls on all three to be less selfish, but I think it falls on Uhre the most currently. He’s making hard runs and stretching defenses, but being too chaotic or too predictable when it comes time to finish plays, with a few shots blocked, and a few teammates missed. His pass to Carranza against Atlas was the type of play the Union need more of from their front three, and the Union need goals for the vibes, because the body language gets worse every time they botch a sequence.
Ultimately, I didn’t like Curtin’s lineup decision for the game, but I understand it and the Union were let down by sloppy defending on their first goal. He pushed the right buttons, as usual, to chase the result and the Union really could have come away with three points. I know Union fans are getting restless with the league form, but I think there must be patience as the club is two rounds away from a historic accomplishment.
It’s April of a long, long season, and everything that makes the Union click is still there. It was on display Wednesday night, and it flashed for 30 minutes in Chicago despite a squad running on tired legs. Curtin and this group of players have earned the trust that their best level will be there when it matters.