Who. Chicago Fire — Beat Columbus Crew, Atlanta United, and USL side Louisville City in the US Open Cup this season
When. 7:00PM EST on Wednesday, Aug 8
Where. Talen Energy Stadium, Philadelphia, PA
Ilsinho is out, and Mark McKenzie was held out of Saturday’s match against Portland with a slight knee issue so he will likely be a gameday decision.
Dax McCarty remains out for the Fire, leaving them with a collection of misfit toys in midfield around Bastian Schweinsteiger.
I mean… it’s a semifinal. A place in the US Open Cup final is on the line.
Not great for Chicago. Six straight losses in league play and seven games since they last gave up fewer than two goals. That’s a fairly poor record that has left them averaging less than a point per game.
Up front, the attack is largely driven by the Serbian tag team of Nemanja Nikolic and Alexander Katai, but without the defense to support that attack, Chicago cannot collect the points they need to compete in the Eastern Conference.
The Union are 2-0-0 against the Fire this season, scoring seven and allowing four. In their last matchup in Chicago, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam traded goals in extra time as Philly escaped with a 4-3 win.
In their first meeting in Philadelphia back in May, Chicago came out in a pure man-making system with Schweinsteiger as a sweeper. The decision to do so was partially injury-driven, but it reflects the chaotic nature of Veljko Paunovic’s tactics this season. The team has struggled to control games, yet they continually cycle through strategies, moving to a less strict version of that man-marking system the last time these teams played and morphing into a zonal 5-4-1 last match against Real Salt Lake.
Cory Burke has three goals against the Fire this season, and Borek Dockal notched two assists the first time the clubs faced off. In short, the Union’s lineups have been better than the Fire’s over the course of 180 minutes. Without Dax McCarty, that will be the case once more on Wednesday, so the key will be avoiding the only three things that Chicago can do to break through: 1) Balls into Nikolic in the box, 2) Katai isolations, or 3) Shots from distance
The Union still have to fight through a playoff race, but the Fire are almost done in the league. However, that does not mean Philly will be looking past this match — the club is chasing silverware.
Both managers rested key players last weekend:
Bastian Schweinsteiger: 45 minutes
Alex Katai: 21 minutes
Nemanja Nikolic: 0 minutes
Borek Dockal: 74 minutes
Alejandro Bedoya: 24 minutes
Haris Medunjanin: 0 minutes
Hosting this match gives the Union a big advantage in terms of control. Paunovic builds very context-specific gameplans, and a win-or-go-home game gives a big incentive to play it safe. To that end, and given that Ilsinho remains in recovery mode, the Fire may revert to the heavily man-marking based system they used against the Union back in May. The goal behind this was to keep the ball off of the feet of the Union’s best players and force the centerbacks to be the primary ball movers. Ilsinho’s magic at the end of the first half in May erased the memory of a frustrating forty-five minutes, and the Fire was once again fairly successful blanketing Borek Dockal in Chicago.
So even though Philly has been the better team and, accordingly, taken six points off the Fire, there have been some effective tactics that Jim Curtin and his team will need to overcome.
The Union will likely rely on Fafa Picault and David Accam to provide penetration. Picault’s speed and trickiness was essential in the buildup to Cory Burke’s first goal in Chicago, but Accam had a lot of trouble creating his own space against the tight man defense the Fire used in Philly. Assuming he starts, Accam will need to be very proactive off the ball to create his own space and beat the first man to jumpstart Philly’s attack.
Defensively, Philly’s three foci are the Fire’s big names, so let’s briefly dive into how you control each player below.
Nemanja Nikolic vs Union centerbacks. Nikolic has two elite skills: He hides from centerbacks very well, and he’s a pretty good finisher on just about every ball coming into the box. Imagine if you took away all of Dom Dwyer or Bradley Wright-Phillips’ hold-up play and just left the ability to find space and finish: Boom, that’s Nikolic. That description should not be seen as minimizing the danger Nikolic offers. He’s a Golden Boot winner because he’s extremely good in the box, and will disappear in a moment if you turn your head. Tracking Nikolic for the full ninety minutes (or longer, since 30 minutes of extra time will follow if the match is tied) is essential to defeating Chicago.
Alexander Katai vs Isolation defense. This Katai fella. He can shoot from anywhere, and once he creates a yard of space you can bet your doopiest dollar a shot is about to ring out. The big questions are whether the Union can a) force Katai wide when he’s iso’d, and b) provide cover if he tries to cut into the center. That help defense needs to come from midfield, because if a centerback assists, that will open space to simply drop the ball through to Nikolic.
Bastian Schweinsteiger vs soccer formations. Look… if you like the chess match that is a single soccer game, trying to figure out how Veljko Paunovic will deploy Schweinsteiger, and then how the German will interpret his role in-game. Once a game begins, Schweinsteiger will often seek out an area of the pitch where he can regularly create overloads. This often puts the World Cup winner in the left channel because he likes to be able to open up his body to spray the ball across the pitch, or, because of his elite technique, open his body and play down the left side of the pitch as the opposition prepares to shift.
Quickly pressing Schweinsteiger is essential. If that cannot be done, the team must immediately prepare for balls over the top. This means Andre Blake on his toes and the centerbacks turning their bodies and being in position to retreat.
The Union are the better team, but the thrill of the cup is that anything can happen over the course of 90 (or 120) minutes. If the Union get on the board first, expect Paunovic to begin tweaking his tactics quickly, and that could mean anything from switching the shape entirely to simply playing a more aggressive press against Philly’s defenders.
A big thing to watch for from the very start is whether the Union can get multiple bodies into the box while still escaping Chicago’s pressure. Getting free from man-marking can lead to a team being out of shape when they get the ball into the final third, so balancing the need to create opportunities with the team’s structure will be essential to getting the win.
The Union and Fire face off on Wednesday at 7PM EST in Chester, PA at Talen Energy Stadium.