Chicago Fire will enter Talen Energy Stadium a point below Philadelphia Union in the Eastern Conference standings. But, strangely, half of Chicago’s 14 points this season have come on the road.
One reason for this oddity is that the Fire have struggled to nail down a consistent system this season. Injuries to key contributors at the end of 2017 -- Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic -- and early in 2018 -- Matt Polster and, now, Dax McCarty -- have forced Veljko Paunovic to shuffle his cards often throughout the first third of the MLS season.
The losses of Polster and McCarty have been particularly painful, and the Fire’s back line has struggled to cope with their losses. Chicago has allowed over 1.50 expected goals in every road match, and over 2.0 expected goals in three of four. Additionally, the Fire are generating two fewer shots per match than they did a year ago, indicating their attack has struggled without the industry of the injured de Leeuw and the trickery of winger David Accam, who, of course, now represents the Union.
The key to Chicago’s road success, then, is a bit of a mystery. How can a team that does not generate many shots, and does not generate particularly good shots at that, knock off New York Red Bulls and Orlando City SC -- both playoff teams -- on the road?
The answer is not a fun one for analysts: It’s probably luck.
Below, you can see the shot charts for New York (L) and Orlando City (R) against the Fire. That’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of good looks at goal.
In contrast, Chicago has scored with some stupendously crazy goals (and one penalty). First there was Aleksander Katai’s show-stopping volley against Red Bulls.
Then, against Orlando, there was Katai’s long free-kick and Alan Gordon’s unlikely strike.
So how does Jim Curtin and the Philadelphia Union prepare for a team that has put out 12 different lineups and moved their best player between center back and central midfield?
Focus on the stability… if you can identify it
Bastian Schweinsteiger went all 90 minutes against Orlando City, and the Fire are in the middle of an intense run of matches until the World Cup break. He may play… or he may not. Beyond that, he may play in midfield, or in the back line.
That second question likely depends on the result of an as-yet-unresolved appeal to the league concerning Mo Adams’ red card against Orlando. Strangely, MLS has yet to provide clarity on Adams’ status, which, consequently, makes it difficult to prepare for Schweinsteiger. Regardless of where he plays, Schweinsteiger will need to be closed down quickly because his ability to spread the pitch is key for a Fire team that has few other avenues for progressing the ball.
The second constant for Chicago is striker Nemanja Nikolic. The Serbian is extremely difficult to control specifically because his main skill is his movement in the box. He has a tendency to sit on the blind side of defenders and veer across the formation with a timed run to knock home throughballs and crosses. Nikolic, however, has only one goal in five starts in May, and he was pulled after an ineffective opening half against Orlando.
So, once again, even Chicago’s most reliable goalscorer is a bit of a question mark heading into Wednesday given the Fire’s busy upcoming schedule.
The Fire are going to let Philly play in front of them, which means fans can expect a much different match than the one in New York last weekend. The Union will be able to rotate the ball and pass around their opponents, but the key will be moving the ball fast enough to create seams in the Fire’s defensive structure.
Above, you can see how easily the Fire’s fullbacks become separated from the center backs when the ball moves across the pitch. On the near side, Brandon Vincent closes his man down but both center backs remain close and central, leaving both vertical and horizontal space for somebody with a skillset like Alejandro Bedoya to exploit.
Second, you can see two Columbus Crew players open in the far half-space, with the far-side fullback caught between the half-space and the wing. If the Crew could get the ball to that far half-space, they can easily play through the lines to the corner for a dangerous, low near-post cross. As the Union head into a pair of difficult fixtures against Atlanta and Toronto, this midweek match against Chicago represents a bit of a bogey game.
The Fire have been unpredictable this year, but they have managed to score unlikely goals. Meanwhile, the Union have consistently created shots -- over 18 per match at home -- but have yet to finish with any consistency. Three points at home will mark a four game points streak headed into the gigantic thunderdome where Atlanta FC sets up shop. The Union need to bring their finishing boots at home before they hit the road.