Union aims to douse surging Fire

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The Philadelphia Union, coming-off an enormous road victory over the tough Vancouver Whitecaps last weekend, are focused on keeping a good thing going at PPL Park on Saturday night (7:30 p.m., CSN), when they take on the Chicago Fire.  Chicago is a better team than they were in early May when the Union beat them 1-0 in Illinois.  You could argue that the Union has also improved.

Fans may recall that first Fire clash as Union goaltender Zac MacMath’s best game of the season. MacMath made about a half dozen very tough saves (and one accidental one off his hip), as Chicago spent much of the match peppering the Philadelphia net.  Sebastien Le Toux saved the day with a late lov into the swirling suburban Chicago wind that fell perfectly to Jack McInerney who steered the ball home.

At the time, the loss dropped the Fire to 2-6-1.  Since then, they’re 5-3-3 and have climbed back into at least the periphery of the playoff discussion in the MLS Eastern Conference.  This is thanks largely to the addition of forward Mike Magee in a trade with L.A..  You have to wonder what Galaxy management was thinking.  The player they got for Magee, Robbie Rogers, has done practically nothing for L.A., while Magee, who had already netted 6 goals, has added 7 more in 9 games with Chicago, giving the Fire the offensive ace they were sorely missing.  Magee is now tied with Vancouver’s Camilo Sanvezzo for the MLS goal lead with 13.  In fact, this will be the second straight week the Union will have a chance to shut-out a league goals leader.

On the other end of the pitch, the Fire’s defense has gotten a helping hand from Bakary Soumare since coming over in a trade with the Union.  Soumare didn’t play much with Philadelphia, save for a 3-match fill-in stint while Jeff Parke was out with an injury.  Of course, one of those games was against Chicago, which probably served as an audition for the Fire who the defender was hoping would scoop him up.

The fact that the Union almost lost to the lesser version of the Chicago club on May 5th doesn’t bode well.  On the other hand, the Union is coming-off some very competitive play against some well-rounded Western Conference squads in recent weeks and did not seem initimdated in British Columbia last weekend while shutting-out the potent Whitecaps.  May was also a long time ago in terms of the style the Union is now playing.  Rather than simply hanging around in games until Jack McInerney can find a way to score, the club is now spreading the offense around.  A typical example is last weekend’s game-winner, a nice touch by super-sub Antoine Hoppenot off one of the most clever feeds you’ll see this year: a back-kick from back-up forward Aaron Wheeler, a guy who probably wasn’t even on some Union fans’ radar screens before about a month ago.  MacMath has been steadier in net and Le Toux, who in May was happy to simply be on the field, has now transformed himself from goal-scorer-extroidinaire into one of the more dangerous assist men in the MLS.

It should be a hard-fought battle with no easily predictable outcome.  But the Union, especially at home, needs to grab this one.  They’ve played themselves into a good position in the East, especially considering how many of the season’s toughest games are now behind them.  They’ve got an eminently winnable contest next weekend against DC United.  Win these next two and the front-office will only be about 3 or 4 victories away from calling the printer for those playoff tickets.

WHERE THEY STAND: Philadelphia’s record is a good-looking 9-6-7 (34 points) which puts them in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, but only 1-point out of second and two out of first.  Two of the teams ahead of them must play each other this weekend (New York is at Sporting Kansas City).  The other (Montreal) gets an easier draw than the Union (at DC), but given these match-ups, a Union victory ensures that Philadelphia moves-up in the standings at least one notch this week.  Conversely, a loss can not drop them any lower as the club holds a 4-point advantange over both Houston and New England, the teams immediately behind them.  But Philadelphia would obviously like to keep those clubs at a distance.  And one can’t forget about resurgent Chicago, still 5-points out of a playoff slot, but gaining momentum and confidence with each step.

CHICAGO IN OPEN CUP SEMIS: Aside from their rise in the MLS standings, the Fire also bring a certain swagger into this week’s match in Philadelphia for having outlasted the Union by a wide margin in this year’s U.S. Open Cup Tournament.  Chicago plays a semi-final Cup match at home against DC United next Wednesday.  The other finalists are Portand and Real Salt Lake who also do battle Wednesday night in Utah.

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