Match Preview: Union versus Chicago Fire, 9/3 at 8:30 PM

The Philadelphia Union have an opportunity to capture a share of first place in the Eastern Conference standings as they hit the road to take on the last place Chicago Fire at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, IL.

The boys in blue are riding high on a 2-game winning streak after beating Columbus Crew SC and Sporting KC. The wins have the U sitting pretty in the chase for a playoff spot as they are now 8 points above the red line with 7 games to go. The Union are just 3 points behind East leaders Toronto FC, and manager Jim Curtin says he told the team that he wants them to shoot for the top of the table. Playing the hapless Fire this week is a good opportunity for the team to take another step toward that goal.

Chicago, on the other hand, would settle for getting out the cellar. They finally snapped their MLS-record 2-year winless-on-the-road streak 2 weeks ago in Montreal when they beat the Impact 3-0. The Fire hoped that breaking the streak would inspire them to win more away games, but their defense was shredded by DC United for a 6-2 loss at RFK Stadium last week. The Fire were the worst team in MLS in 2015 and stand a good chance of repeating that dubious feat this year.

This will be the third and last meeting for these teams this season. The first was an early-season match played in brutal winter-like conditions in Bridgeview with the Fire beating the Union 1-0. The Union dominated the run of play in that match, but couldn’t find the back of the net, giving Chicago’s first year head coach (and former Union player) Veljko Paunovich his first MLS victory. The Union took the rematch at Talen Energy Stadium with a 4-2 score. That match started out badly for the Union as they let David Accam score easily in the second minute. But the rest of the game was the Roland Alberg show, as he scored the Union’s second-ever hat trick.

Both teams were active during the summer transfer window. The Union sent the Fire Targeted Allocation Money, General Allocation Money, their first round draft pick for 2017, and discovery rights for an unnamed player. In exchange, the Union got the Fire’s top spot in the USMNT allocation order, which enabled them to sign Alejandro Bedoya. The Fire then sent some of that General Allocation Money to the Colorado Rapids to acquire Argentinian striker Luis Solignac. They also signed Armenian international David Arshakyan. The Fire are hoping that those two players can complement forward Michael de Leeuw on the front line and kickstart an offense that has had trouble scoring goals this season. Solignac has already paid dividends for the Fire as he scored one of the goals that broke their long road winless streak. Arshakyan saw his first MLS action in a substitute role in last week’s match against DC.

Curtin will be forced to make changes to his lineup this week because Bedoya and goalkeeper Andre Blake will be missing due to national team call ups. In his press conference on Wednesday, Curtin said John McCarthy will be in goal, which will be his first MLS action this season. Matt Jones had filled in earlier this season when Blake was serving with the Jamaican national team during the Copa America Centenario, but Jones is just coming back from a knee strain, and will serve as the backup GK. Curtin also said that Brian Carroll and Ilsinho, both of whom are recovering from plantar fascia injuries, are likely going to be available to play.

The guess here is that Curtin will put Carroll and Ilsinho on the bench as they work their way back into match fitness. Curtin mentioned the possibility of putting Alberg in at the number 10 position with Tranquillo Barnetta replacing Bedoya as the number 8. If that’s the way Curtin goes, expect Carroll to come in as a sub if Philadelphia has a lead late in the game.

The absence of Blake in goal could be an issue if the Fire get scoring opportunities. But the Union’s back line performed very well against Sporting KC, and should be up to the task of shutting down the Fire’s attack.  Offensively, the Union have been creating chances, and that should continue against Chicago’s defense.

Possible first XI (4-2-3-1): McCarthy; Fabinho, Marquez, Yaro, Rosenberry; Creavalle, Barnetta; Pontius, Alberg, Herbers; Sapong

Prediction: The Fire are clearly better at home than on the road, but that’s not saying much. McCarthy in goal makes a clean sheet less likely, but the Union’s superior talent should enable them to take the 3 road points. Union 2, Fire 1.

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