Philadelphia Union (2-5-1) notched their first road win of the season last week in Houston, and now the club will look for their first winning streak of the season against Chicago (2-3-4) on Saturday night (8:00pm, 6abc, MyNetwork TV). The club is riding a wave of momentum from two results earned by stoppage time goals from striker Danny Mwanga. The Union have cut out the mistakes that plagued them early in the season, enabling their strong form in the run of play to translate into points.
With the opening of PPL Park on the horizon at the end of the month, Philadelphia has two more road games before Major League Soccer’s two-week World Cup break. Having played a league-low eight matches this season, taking points in the next two games would set the club up well for the rest of the season, especially considering the Union will play 13 out of their last 20 league matches at home.
Chicago didn’t win a game in the month of May, going 0-3-1 in league play, most recently coming off a 1-1 tie with Dallas. The club has struggled to find any type of consistency, including at Toyota Park where they have just one win in four league matches. The talent is there, with offensive threats Brian McBride, Patrick Nyarko, Justin Mapp, Collins John and Marco Pappa, as well as one of the better defenders in the league, Wilman Conde. Head Coach Carlos de los Cobos has been tinkering with the lineup trying to find the right combination especially in the attack, but the constant changes may have had the reverse effect of preventing Chicago from finding a rhythm.
Saturday’s tilt will be special for manager Peter Nowak, who returns to Chicago as a Fire legend, having led the organization to an MLS cup title in 1998, the club’s expansion season. Nowak downplayed the significance of his return in interviews this week, instead focusing on the present, but there’s no doubt he’ll be treated like royalty on Saturday.
Let’s take a position by position look at both sides heading into a key early-season Eastern Conference matchup.
Goalkeeper - Philadelphia Union
After taking plenty of criticism in the beginning of the season, Chris Seitz has responded with his two best performances in the past two games. The turnaround hasn’t come as a surprise to the Union’s technical staff, as they expected growing pains during Seitz’s first season as a starter.
Seitz seems to be playing with a new level of confidence, and the result has been two nearly flawless games in a row. None of the three goals given up in the last two matches can be blamed on the young ‘keeper. His denial of Danny Cruz last week to momentarily preserve the lead demonstrated his impressive shot-stopping ability. Consistency is critical at the goalkeeper position, so Seitz will be keen to prove that early season struggles were merely a speed bump on the road to becoming a strength for the Union.
Goalkeeper – Chicago Fire
The release of Jon Busch before the season surprised many, with de los Cobos opting to go with rookie Andrew Dykstra. Dykstra has responded with a 1.44 GAA, saving two-thirds of the shots he’s faced in 2010. The 24-year old is still raw, but has shown enough potential to back up de los Cobos’ confidence. There wasn’t much Dykstra could do about David Ferreira’s goal last week, the lone tally against the Chicago netminder. If Chicago’s defense can contain Sebastien Le Toux, Alejandro Moreno and super-sub Mwanga, Dykstra is talented enough to hold up his end of the bargain.
Defense – Philadelphia Union
Aside from the two goals given up off set pieces against Houston, a team that excels on free kicks around the penalty area, this unit has played very well the last two games. The backline has been organized and, most importantly, has stopped beating itself. Talent has never been the question, and Philadelphia’s defense is still searching for its first shutout, but momentum is undoubtedly heading in the right direction.
McBride will present another challenge in the air for the Union, and it’ll mainly be up to Danny Califf and Michael Orozco Fiscal to combat the former U.S. international. Cristian Arrieta will also have his hands full dealing with the speedy Nyarko, who has proved dangerous this season with five assists. Nyarko started up top alongside McBride in the club’s last game, but de los Cobos could also elect to drop Nyarko back and start John. Regardless, the Union’s defense will be busy as they look to help Philadelphia steal another three points on the road.
Defense – Chicago Fire
Chicago’s defense is led by Conde, who is one of the league’s best when in form. Conde has been more inconsistent than usual this season, and last week was no exception. A mishap by the Colombian led to Dallas’ goal, but Conde is still a force in the middle. Joining him centrally is C.J. Brown, the only player left on Chicago’s roster who played with Nowak. Brown’s experience is invaluable for Chicago’s backline, which is unseasoned out wide with 23-year-old rookie Krzysztof Krol on the left and Dasan Robinson on the right filling in for an injured Tim Ward.
Aside from a 4-1 loss to Toronto, Chicago’s defense hasn’t given up more than two goals all season, but they also haven’t been nearly as stingy as they’ve been over the past few seasons.
Midfield – Philadelphia Union
Nowak decided to insert Shea Salinas in the starting lineup against Houston and the move worked to perfection. Salinas was awarded MLS’ Goal of the Week, an honor well deserved for the speedy midfielder’s world-class effort. Salinas figures to draw another start, especially since bringing Roger Torres off the bench early in the second half worked well for the Union, preventing the dynamic youngster from tiring.
Kyle Nakazawa has earned his place in the starting XI, bringing more of an attacking mindset than previous starter Andrew Jacobson. Nakazawa is especially dangerous on free kicks, routinely sending balls into difficult positions for opposing defenses. As he gets more and more comfortable in the run of play, the former UCLA star is showing why he was one of college soccer’s most productive players.
With Stefani Miglioranzi continuing to provide a calming and sturdy presence as a holding midfield, the rest of the midfield is freed up to push into the attacking third. Fred has demonstrated his ability to dribble out of trouble and create chances for others, but the Brazilian could look for his shot more so defenders are left guessing as to what the playmaker will do next.
Midfield – Chicago
It’s difficult to fully predict how the midfield will look on Saturday given the personnel movement over the last few games, but Logan Pause and Baggio Husidic should feature in the center of the pitch. The wildcard is Pappa, who was benched against Dallas after eight consecutive starts to begin the season. Don’t be surprised to see Pappa back in the starting lineup, as the midfielder is one of Chicago’s most dangerous attacking players. It's not like Pappa hasn't been effective this season, registering two goals and four assists, so perhaps Chicago is just trying to keep him fresh for the long run.
Justin Mapp is back after missing a month with shin and hamstring injuries and the midfielder has looked strong despite playing out of position. Accustomed to lining up on the left flank, Mapp played centrally against Dallas. His curling cross to McBride resulted in the equalizing goal, and he should’ve had another assist if not for an egregious miss by Mike Banner on a wide open net.
Attack – Philadelphia Union
It took a while for Philadelphia to duplicate the offensive success they had in the club’s Home Opener, but the last two games have proven that this team can create plenty chances and score in clutch situations.
Le Toux has gotten off to a scorching start in his first year as a featured striker. With five goals in just six games, the Frenchman trails only Edson Buddle and Dwayne De Rosario in goals per game (minimum of two games played). Not bad for a player left unprotected in the expansion draft.
Moreno still has yet to score this season, but he continued to set up the rest of the offense against Houston. His pass down the right flank to Le Toux while falling down set up the go-ahead goal. Moreno began looking for his shot more against Houston, but he’s perfectly content occupying opposing defenders' attention and letting his teammates take the glory. While Califf is the club’s captain, Moreno certainly acts like one on the field with his selflessness and willingness to put his body on the line match in and match out.
It seems as though Nowak has found the perfect role for Mwanga as a second half substitute. Instead of inserting the rookie into a midfield position against Houston, Nowak pushed the versatile Le Toux back and put Mwanga in a more familiar role. The dynamic worked to perfection, with Mwanga setting up Le Toux for the equalizer and Le Toux setting up Mwanga for the game-winner.
Le Toux and Mwanga have accounted for 70% of the club’s goals so far this season, and both are cementing themselves as fan favorites.
Attack – Chicago Fire
McBride is always dangerous and must be watched closely at all times. With two of the Fire’s last three goals, the soon-to-be 38 year old still has plenty left in the tank and is a load if service from the midfield is sharp.
Nyarko has evolved into a dangerous attacking threat in his second season with meaningful minutes. While the Ghanaian hasn’t score this season, he’s already more than doubled his career high in assists. Nyarko’s speed can cause problems and Arrieta would be wise not to give him much space.
The Fire offense has yet to break out for more than two goals this season, and they clearly are upset with the way their offense and team as a whole have underperformed. They’ll be hungry to break out of their slump at home, adding to the intensity of the matchup.
Last Match Highlights
Philaelphia 3, Houston 2
Chicago 1, Dallas 1
Philadelphia Union Injury Report
Chicago Fire Injury Report
OUT: FW Calen Carr (R quad strain); MF John Thorrington (L quad strain); DF Tim Ward (L calf strain)
Date: Saturday, June 5, 2010
Time: 8:30pm ET (8:00pm ET pre-game show)
Location: Toyota Park, Bridgeview, IL
Television: 6abc, MyNetworkTV
Talent: JP Dellacamera (Play-by-Play), Kyle Martino (Color Analyst)