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Preview: Union vs Fire

Spirits are normally high when a club is looking to extend to a four-match unbeaten streak in all competitions, but after dropping two points against Kansas City -- and the club’s first shutout and winning streak in league play in the process -- that’s not the case for the Philadelphia Union (5-11-6). Even still, the Union are playing some of their best soccer of the season, with the offense continuing to create chances and the defense solidified since early season struggles.

The Union currently sit in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 20 points through 22 matches and a 3-2-5 record at home. That point total equals the performance of Real Salt Lake in their 2005 expansion season, also bettering Chivas USA’s record from their expansion season the same year. The next expansion side to surpass is Toronto FC, who had 25 points in their inaugural season of 2007. 

The Chicago Fire (6-7-8) will pay a visit to PPL Park on Saturday in a fight to stay in the playoff hunt. The Fire, who have a 3-5-2 record away from Toyota Park, have a game in hand on the Union and 26 points overall, but Carlos de los Cobos’ side is coming off a midweek scoreless draw with Toronto FC that extended their winless run to four matches. Chicago are six points shy of San Jose for the eighth and final playoff spot, while Philadelphia are in the unfavorable position of being 11 points back with eight matches left to play.

The Union are looking for their first win at home since July 17 against Toronto, although they’ve only lost once as well, going 0-1-4 in league play during the stretch. Failing to extend and protect leads has been the core issue at home, but it’s hard to point to a single match in which Philadelphia have been outplayed on their own turf this season. That bodes well going forward, but it’s time for the club to start seizing the points they deserve, and that starts this weekend.

TICKETS: UNION VS FIRE

Manager Peter Nowak’s side won’t have it easy against Chicago, who feature a bevy of dangerous attackers. An attacking core of Designated Players Freddy Ljungberg and Nery Castillo, American soccer legend Brian McBride, MLS All-Star Marco Pappa, dangerous winger Patrick Nyarko and Collins Johns certainly has the capacity to produce more than the two goals they’ve mustered over the last three matches combined, however. The combination of Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Mwanga will lead the Union attack, a pairing that has accounted for 17 of the club’s 26 goals.

Castillo’s return to full fitness should help Chicago, as the Mexican international went the full 90 on Wednesday for the first time since joining the Fire, starting the game in a wide role on the left before moving centrally with the departure of Freddie Ljungberg for the final quarter-hour. Castillo had four shots on goal, a season-high for a Fire player.

McBride may make his first and last appearance at PPL Park after announcing his retirement effective at the end of the season, providing Union fans with a chance to salute the former Fulham and USMNT captain before rooting against him. The potential wrinkle, however, is that McBride has popped up as doubtful on the injury report heading into the contest with a left quad contusion. Pappa is also listed as doubtful with tightness in his right hamstring, with John Thorrington already ruled out with a right hamstring strain and Gonzalo Segares missing the contest due to a two-match suspension for elbowing LA’s Leonardo.

WATCH: LE TOUX, MWANGA, MAPP PREVIEW SATURDAY'S MATCH

For the Union, Juan Diego González is doubtful and expected to miss the match with a left groin strain, while Eduardo Coudet is listed as questionable with a right calf strain, an injury that held him out against Kansas City. Philadelphia may receive a boost from the return of Shea Salinas, who is not listed on the injury report after missing more than two months with a stress fracture. Salinas’ playing time will likely be limited, but his mere presence should motivate his teammates.

Another sidebar storyline is the meeting of Union midfielder Justin Mapp and his former club after a midseason trade on June 26. Mapp has been steller over the past three matches in all competitions, tallying a game-winning goal and three assists. In eight seasons with the Fire, the Brandon, MS product scored 14 goals and registering 36 assists in 174 appearances.

Matchups to watch:

Danny Mwanga vs Wilman Conde

Mwanga’s chase for the rookie scoring record has slowed with the striker scoreless in the last three matches, but he set up the lone goal from Le Toux against Kansas City and is a threat to score at any time. The physically imposing 19-year-old will see a lot of centerback Wilman Conde, who controls the middle of the defense for Chicago. The two-time all-star defender and 2009 MLS Best XI selection is tough to contend with in the air and more than capable in one-on-one situations. Conde came on for Thorrington in a midfield role against Toronto, but he’s more likely to slot in along the backline again on Saturday.  

A goal on Saturday would go a long way if Mwanga hopes to score four more times this season and mount a challenge to Damani Ralph’s record of 11, but the Generation adidas member has proven his quality this season regardless. Against an elite MLS defender and defensive unit that is giving up 1.38 goals per game, the fifth-worst mark in the league, he’ll have another opportunity to continue his rapid development.

Freddie Ljungberg vs Justin Mapp

After Mapp was traded to Philadelphia in part to make room for Ljungberg, the two have performed comparably with their new clubs, each registering two assists. Mapp’s game-winner against New England gives him the statistic advantage, and his presence has been felt beyond the numbers. The 25-year-old has brought dangerous flank play along with an ability to drift into the middle of the field to create distribution angles, something Ljungberg has been known for during his illustrious career.

The former Arsenal attacker will be making his second trip to PPL Park this season after coming over to Chicago from Seattle on July 30, providing Union fans with another chance to see the 2009 MLS Best XI member. Ljungberg and Castillo interchanged positions throughout their draw against Toronto, with each player spending time both as a withdrawn striker and on the wing. With de los Cobos saying he’ll likely employ the same strategy again, it’s tough to predict where either will be at any given time, but both will need to be watched closely throughout the match. Whether or not Mapp and Ljungberg end up seeing each other head-to-head frequently, the one who makes a greater impact will put his club in a strong position to take three points.

More Analysis

Mapp Set to Face Former Club Saturday

Union Looking to Avenge Loss to Fire

Union, Fire in Need of a Win

Urgency Sets in as Fire Head to Philly

McBride to Make First, Last Appearance at PPL Park

Last Match Highlights

Philadelphia 1, Kansas City 1

Chicago 0, Toronto 0

Philadelphia Union Injury Report

DOUTBTFUL: DF Juan Diego González (L groin strain)

QUESTIONABLE: DF Toni Stahl (R ankle strain); MF Eduardo Coudet (R calf strain)

PROBABLE: DF Michael Orozco Fiscal (L hamstring strain)

Chicago Fire Injury Report

OUT: MF John Thorrington (R hamstring strain)

DOUBTFUL: MF Marco Pappa (R hamstring tightness); FW Brian McBride (L quad contusion)

Match Information

Date: Saturday, September 11, 2010

Time: 6:00pm ET

Location: PPL Park (Chester, Pa.)

Television: Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Sports en Español

Talent: Brian Dunseth (Play-by-Play), Christopher Sullivan (Color Analyst), Katie Witham (Sideline), Todd Grisham (Host)

Referee: Edvin Jurisevic. SAR (bench): Bill Dittmar; JAR (opposite): Eric Proctor; 4th: Andrew Chapin