Who. Chicago Fire, 7th in the Eastern Conference, two points ahead of the Union with one game in hand. The Fire are 4-4-2 with a 0 goal differential at home this season.
When. 8:30 PM EST on Wednesday, June 11.
Where. Toyota Park, Chicago, IL
Watch. PHL17, ESPN+ outside the Philly area.
The Union can leapfrog Chicago — and potentially sixth-place Montreal, who face a difficult matchup at a NYCFC side that has yet to lose at home on Wednesday — or fall five points back of the sixth spot. While there is still plenty of season to go, these games against teams around them in the standings are where they must set themselves apart.
After falling to Philly at the end of May, Chicago went undefeated through June before Vancouver’s counterattack turned them into Wile. E. Coyote. A Nemanja Nikolic goal — his eighth after a Golden Boot campaign in 2017 — and Tony Tchani’s Jean Claude van Damme impression kept the match close, but the Whitecaps were the better team overall. Head coach Veljko Paunovic pulled three of his stars, Alex Katai, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Dax McCarty to save them for Wednesday, so the Union should get the full brunt of the Fire’s not-insignificant spending power.
The Union roughed up the Fire 3-1. Ilsinho opened the scoring by ghosting on Schweinsteiger and Brandon Vincent, and Borek Dockal ran the show with a goal and two assists.
Missing key guys through injury, Paunovic went with a sweeper/man-marking system against the Union that made the match feel the way it feels to see someone driving around in a rebuilt classic car. It’s impressive that it’s out on the road, and it’s impressive that someone managed to bring it out in such good shape, but you’re still not convinced it would last on a long drive. Yet, that’s what has happened since, with Chicago leaning heavily on a man-to-man system and using their German superstar in a Schweinwanderer role, giving him complete freedom in attack to go wherever he pleases. Defensively, Schweini can end up anywhere in the front four, and occasionally further back. It’s particularly impressive that the rest of the Fire have been able to recognize and adjust to what is essentially a 4-2-3 formation with a German man scurrying around and occasionally telling you to defend as a striker. The general principles of the system are close to what Chivas Guadalajara used to capture the CONCACAF Champions League, but Pauno has made some adjustments to fit the Schweinsteiger at his disposal.
Ceding possession. The Fire will rarely have the ball for extended stretches, and when they do they will look to attack quite directly when possible. This solves the club’s creative midfielder problem by often bypassing midfield altogether and simply looking to get Katai on the ball in the final third and then waiting for fireworks.
Schweinsteiger will roam freely across the pitch looking for combinations and trying to create overloads. Even though he can beat you with short 1-2s, it’s important to press him hard because giving the German legend or Dax McCarty time to pick their heads up is asking for trouble. The Fire’s first goal against NYC FC was a simple throughball to Nikolic that caught the visitors out of shape after they had a long spell of possession.
Union counterpress vs Fire counterattack. The Fire went 11 minutes at home without even attempting a pass in their attacking half at home against NYC FC. That’s… wow. But when they do roll forward they have a great set of players to exploit the mistakes of teams that get too focused on holding the ball and lose their defensive spacing. Watch how the Union defense is positioned and responds when Philly loses the ball in midfield because it could have a large influence on the team’s success.
Union midfield movement vs Fire man-marking. Chicago hasn’t been using Schweinsteiger as a sweeper like they did in May, but instead they use him to help control what the opposition center backs can do with the ball. The goal is to separate center backs and force them to make risky passes into midfield that can be picked off. Since teams often spread out offensively to counteract the Chicago man-marking, a poor pass can give the Fire a lot of space in which to break the other way. NYC used very specific inside movements by the wingers to create space wide for overloads and overlaps, but the Fire rotated well to prevent their fullbacks from being sucked inside and giving up gaps on the wing. The Union will need to drag players around the midfield without putting themselves in terrible positions to defend counterattacks. This is a smart midfield and they have seen this plan before from the Fire, so they should be able to adjust.
Union finishing vs Richard Sanchez. Philly has been hot and cold in front of net this year, with the unfortunate cold spells lasting a bit longer than the hot streaks. Chicago has a leaky defense, but Richard Sanchez has great ability if not exactly a high level of consistency. The Union need to put shots on frame to force Sanchez to work. Remember — Jim Curtin’s team is 5-0-0 when scoring first, so they just need to turn that initial chance into a lead and then keep playing their game.
Wingers vs first man: The key to beating a man-to-man system is to get by the first defender. That sends everything into chaos. All four of the Union’s wingers are capable of embarrassing their man if they can face up to him, so the key is for them to find enough space that they get those opportunities to turn and dribble.
With CJ Sapong snakebit in front of goal, who does Jim Curtin call on to play up top?
Can the Union pounce early and make Chicago play from behind? Philly’s record when ahead is perfect, but getting that opening goal has been a challenge. Look for the Union to go at the Fire early and try to play on the front foot.
How will the Union center backs handle another big challenge? In their past seven MLS matches, McKenzie and Trusty have faced faced a former Golden Boot winner in all but two matches, and in one of those they faced the hottest striker in the league (Adama Diomande). That other match was against the Fire, and the only reason McTrusty didn’t see a Golden Booter going the other way was that Nikolic, the 2017 winner, was rested. He’ll likely be back on Wednesday, so the run of big matchups (which will continue on June 21 against a man that literally thinks of himself as a god) will continue.