For the fourth straight week, the Philadelphia Union lines-up against a struggling franchise when it takes on the 2-5-1 Chicago Fire Saturday in Bridgeview, Illinois (1:30 p.m., NBC Sports Channel). The Fire has been drowning in a sea of injuries and suspensions this season, its latest red card flashed against midfielder Jeff Larentowicz in Chicago’s last match against Montreal. Ironically, Larentowicz had been one of the few midfielders to actually start all 8 of the Fire’s contests this season, notching a goal and an assist. And while those stats may seem modest, they look a lot bigger when you consider that Chicago has only scored 6 goals overall this season and Larentowicz has been one of the Fire’s primary shot-takers. Philadelphia’s front-liners, meanwhile, have to be licking their chops when they read about the 14 scores the Fire has given-up.
But the Union (3-3-3) have their own troubles, including a red card suspension against star defender and throw-in expert Sheanon Williams and an injury to veteran defender Jeff Parke. The Union has also managed only a 1-1-1 record during the current soft spot in their schedule, largely because of a penchant for allowing weak offensive teams to feel a lot better about themselves. The Union has given up 2 goals in each of these three games to clubs that had barely crossed the goal line previously.
This time should be different. The Union forwards and pressing midfielders have been getting better and better coordinated over the last month, more players are getting involved in scoring chances and the Union in general seems to have a much better idea of what they want to do with the ball in the offensive third. This should help the defense because the more the offense presses, the less the defense has to defend. As for recent back-end lapses, midfielder Amobi Okugo observed this week that the club isn’t experiencing a ton of of them; they simply need to tighten things up on those few occasions when an opponent begins to break through.
Despite the dissappointments of the recent shut-out loss to New England that shouldn’t have been a shut-out and last week’s draw with Seattle that should’ve been a win, a victory in Illinois and a 7-point 2-1-1 stretch wouldn’t look all that bad. More importantly, it may be a necessary mark for the Union to hit if they want to maintain a good position in the shifting sands of the MLS Eastern Conference.
WHERE THE UNION STANDS: While the club was practicing this week, numerous rivals in the East had game action on Wednesday. Among the highlights: New York proved that those guys wearing the colors for Montreal are actually human, shocking the Impact 2-1 at Red Bull Arena, while D.C., New England, Sporting KC and Toronto all did the Union a favor by losing. The result is that Philadelphia remains tied in points with 5th Place Columbus (11) and is still just 3 points behind Montreal and Kansas City (with a whopping 2 games-at-hand on KC). The Union is a distant 6 points behind Houston and New York, but perhaps after a win in Chicago, they can begin thinking more seriously about those teams again. After all, both of those front-runners also have a games-played disadantage to the Union.
WHERE McINERNEY STANDS: Despite going scoreless in the Union’s last two contests, Union forward Jack McInerney is still tied for the MLS lead in goals at 6. L.A. midfielder Mike Magee has also hit a bit of a drought, while Sporting Kansas City forward Claudio Bieler has caught them both thanks to a 2-goal outburst a week ago against Chivas USA. Jack is still firing, though, and getting solid chances.
WHO REPLACES WILLIAMS/PARKE: When it comes to the red-carded Williams, the short answer is no one, at least in terms of those long throw-ins. Parke, who is nursing a hamstring injury suffered against Seattle, takes his veteran pressense in the middle to the bench. Enter the politically-correct but disgruntled veteran defender Bakary Soumare whose tenure with Philadelphia has hardly been pretty. Inuries prevented him from having much of an impact last season after being hailed as a key aquisition by then manager Peter Nowak. Upset at not being utilized by current manager John Hackworth, Soumare has politely requested a trade.
Making it onto the pitch on Saturday will be interesting for several reasons. First, Soumare was originally drafted by Chicago in 2007, playing in 63 Fire matches before being transferred to France (for a then record 2.1 million buckaroos). He also still lives in the Windy City. Furthermore, the Union apparently tried to trade the defender back to Chicago recently but couldn’t swing a deal. From a playing stand-point, Soumare is known as an athletic, dynamic former all-star who can own the back half of the pitch when he’s healthy. A good performance could conceivably make it tough for Hackworth to sit him again. One final note: Soumare has a reputation of being a chippy player at times; it will be interesting to see if that aspect of his game surfaces on Saturday, considering how many friends he still has on the Fire’s roster.