Saturday evening the Chicago Fire return home to Toyota Park to play the Philadelphia Union in front of what is expected to be a near sellout crowd. While any team would like to start their season off on the right foot, especially at home, this game presents an opportunity to send a clear message to the rest of the Eastern Conference: The Fire are a force with which to be reckoned in 2012. After the jump, I look at the recent problems of the Philadelphia Union and a call to the Men In Red to deliver a dominating performance in front of the home fans.
It wasn't too long ago when the Philadelphia Union seemed like solid contenders for the Eastern Conference title. After losing a large part of their on-field success in the offseason, losing key players to national team duty, the Danny Califf injury controversy, and fielding an error prone goalkeeper, Philly are ripe for the picking this weekend. This past weekend, the Union sent out a line up without Adu or Okugu and managed five shots on goal. This week, Peter Nowak will have to adjust his line up even more now that the U.S. Olympic team has called up defender Sheanon Williams. This may make room for club captain Danny Califf to return to the field, but Nowak will not commit to a definitive answer if Califf will return. Also, Porifirio Lopez travelled to Kingston, Jamaica and played 90 minutes to represent Costa Rica in a friendly Wednesday night ensuring more travel and less rest to a player expected to contribute regularly with the Union. In addition to the fatigue, locker room issues, and international call-ups, Zac Macmath has made two critical goalkeeping errors in as many games, which must cause concern for Union fans. Further compounding Philadelphia's defensive issues; Chris Albright and Gabriel Farfan are questionable with muscle strains. They will likely have to gut it out with the absence of Williams, but the additional burden of the Union backline will have the Fire midfield eagerly anticipating springing Dominic Oduro on dangerous counter-attacks.
However, the Fire may have to be a lot more patient than that if they're going to break through the Union defense. Citing the above injury and goalkeeping concerns, the Union will likely sit back as much as possible and park the proverbial bus in front of the goal. It's no secret the Fire like to spring Oduro on the counter attack, but the opportunity to do so will be limited as the Fire should be able to control possession against an undermanned Union team. Nevertheless, Chicago registered more shots on target than any other MLS team in the regular season last year, even with a stale attack throughout the first half of the season. With the entire lineup of the high octane attack from last season returning, there's no reason to think the Fire can't obliterate a divided and weakened Union by at least 3-0 Saturday. The first home game of the season is the best time to put an Eastern Conference rival to the sword and show the rest of the league and the home crowd that this Chicago Fire team is a legit contender to take the East.
UPDATE: The Brotherly Game reports Danny Califf is not on the Union's travelling roster.