Since the start of July, only five MLS teams are averaging at least two points per game. The Union are one of those teams.
Chicago Fire FC, with 1.86 points per game, is right behind that group.
The turnaround for the midwestern side has been stunning, with star signing Xherdan Shaqiri leading the way. The playmaker known affectionately as The Cube is the most talented player in the Fire squad, but he doesn’t need to dominate the ball to influence games. Instead, he’s smart enough to put himself in spaces that simplify the game for his teammates.
Shaqiri helps empty one side of the pitch for Chris Mueller, an incredibly dangerous 1v1 player. He offers simple outlets for his holding midfielders and striker so they don’t try to do too much. And, perhaps most important, he gives an immediate outlet out of the back.
Chicago needs to be able to get into transitions in a hurry, because they want to expand the field in attack to give their skill players opportunities to go against a single opponent. Jam them up before they get that space and mistakes happen.
The last time these teams met, the Fire won the space battle, getting expansive and making the Union chase. Philly became impatient going forward and didn’t put themselves in situations to instigate a suffocating press on the Fire’s weaker on-ball players.
Now, coming off a disappointing performance in Cincinnati, Jim Curtin will want his team to focus on rediscovering their confidence and attacking the opponent with vigor. And after relying on veterans to establish that aggressive tempo early in the season, the Union head man likely feels comfortable deploying either his typical 4-4-2 diamond or a modified shape that brings Jack McGlynn’s line-breaking ability into the midfield.
Against Chicago’s 4-2-3-1 shape, Philly struggled to find the in-behind runs through the channels that have served them so well much of this season. The Fire can attack fullbacks with wingers, rotate their holding midfield across and ensure they have an extra body defending those curling striker runs Mikael Uhre uses to terrorize defenses. McGlynn could help find new solutions in those situations by picking out tight angles into the center or giving Philly an extra body in buildup to draw Chicago forward and create that key space in behind.
However, it’s important to remember that the Union don’t need to change anything to win: They just need to execute. When you put together a resume like this team has in 2022, going away from what works can be reactionary. If the Union can turn any team over in the attacking half, they can only be stopped by their own finishing. The rest defending in back and Jose Martinez’s ability to snuff out transitions when opponents can’t commit extra bodies forward have been so consistent that the Union know they are in any game that they play on something close to their terms.
But the Fire are hot, and they’re bringing Kacper Przybylko back to Philadelphia. This won’t be an easy win — it’ll be a battle.
The Union and Chicago Fire FC will get to work at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, August 13. Catch the game live on PHL17 and PhiladelphiaUnion.com.