Match preview: Improving place in standings, keeping home streak intact driving Union

Union look to close out season sweep of Fire at home (8 p.m.)

Chicago Fire walkout

Photo Credit: 
Greg Carroccio

Chicago Fire at Philadelphia Union

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.; Where: PPL Park, Chester, Pa.

TV: Comcast SportsNet with play-by-play announcer Tony Limarzi and color analyst Alejandro Moreno

Radio: None; Online: Streaming webcast via MLSSoccer.com/Live

Social: Follow the Union matchday feed on Twitter @TheUMatchday

Referee(s): David Gantar (main), Philippe Briere, Daniel Belleau, Robert Sibiga (fourth)

All-time (nine meetings): Union: five wins (11 goals), Fire: three wins, (nine goals), Ties: 1

All-time at PPL Park: (five meetings): Union: three wins (four goals); Fire: one win (four goals), Ties: none.

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So it’s like this.

All week reports of Saturday’s meeting with Chicago (8 p.m., purchase tickets) has conveyed the Fire as a much different team than the one the Union has already faced twice this season.

Truth is this is a new look Fire team since the acquisition of MLS All-Star midfielder-forward Mike Magee and the defensive reinforcement of former Union center back Bakary Soumare within their lineup.

Since adding both and infusing more of an offensive minded flair, Klopas' crew has enjoyed resurgence, going 5-3-2 in their last 10 MLS matches. What Klopas and Co. have done well are pair players that complement each other at virtually every position.

Think Magee with the savvy Chris Rolfe up top. Or the experience of defender Jalil Anibaba tucked in behind Dilly Duka has been strong down the Fire’s right flank. Around the personnel, Klopas hasalso employed a 4-4-2 formation that has seen success.

Read: Scouting report: Chicago Fire

Chicago enters Saturday’s match coming off a 1-1 draw against Houston, but with the return of Magee into the mix, it's been written that this match against the Union could be a "statement game."

But here’s the thing…

This 2013 season for the Union has been a statement campaign in its own right and within that story lies Chicago, a team the Union (9-6-7, 34 points) have pulled three points off of twice this season and are looking to do again Saturday. While the three points are vital and crucial to ensuring what is spearheaded for a postseason run, keeping a six game unbeaten streak at home is equally as important to the players and to Union manager John Hackworth, who stressed this season that he’d like to make PPL Park “a fortress.”

“This season we have been working hard and sticking together as a group,” said midfielder Keon Daniel, who is forced to miss Saturday’s match after MLS’ disciplinary committee found his actions in a challenge with Vancouver’s Jun Marques Davidson on June 27 worthy of a one match suspension and fines. “I think as long as we continue to do that this group will get those results.”

It was that Vancouver match that assuredly fuels confidence heading into this match with the Fire. Hackworth found life from his bench as second half substitutes Aaron Wheeler and Antoine Hoppenot combined for the game’s only goal. Hackworth recognized that even being up a man after Davidson was sent off for a retaliation of Daniel’s actions, the Whitecaps were able to keep their back line soundly in front of a Union attack that appeared one dimensional.

The second half tactics of Hackworth and Co. included attacking runs coming from a variety of angles proved the difference, but also showed a switch on the fly approach which worked to near perfection with the inclusion on the right personnel.

Watch:  Union breakdown Vancouver defense en route to game's only goal

“The Vancouver game was big for us,” Hackworth said. “Vancouver’s a very good team…they got a red card, but that actually made it more difficult for us to break them down, and I thought the way he handled it, it changed [the course] of the game. Now we go into the Chicago game, but that win doesn’t take the importance off the Chicago game at all because it’s an Eastern Conference opponent and it literally could be a six point swing for us.”

One glance at the Eastern Conference table and you can see there is no parity.

The Union has firmly managed to stay in playoff contention as they survived a tough July with only one loss. Sitting ahead of the Union are league leading Sporting Kansas City (36 points) in addition to New York and Montreal both with 35 points. Sporting and New York square off today (6:30 p.m., watch live) which depending on the outcome coupled with a good result for the Union could jump the Union to No. 2 in the East heading into a rivalry game next Saturday at PPL Park against D.C. United (8 p.m., purchase tickets)

“This game is big for us, we aren’t looking past any teams especially teams in our conference,” said Union captain Brian Carroll. “We just need to continue to take care of business and remained focused. Continuing to see games through and make sure we get positive results is what’s important to the guys in this locker room. That’s what we’re about.”

So tell...which team has more to play for?

What do you think? Leave a message in the comments below.

Contact Union writer Kerith Gabriel at kgabriel@philadelphiaunion.com