The Chicago Fire hit the road to PPL Park this Sunday evening looking to bring back three points from Philadelphia for the first time in club history. While the Union are in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, they have also played the fewest games with 20. The Fire, meanwhile, find themselves in fifth place, the final Eastern playoff spot, only one point behind fourth place D.C. United, but having played one more game. With the season coming to a close and points at a premium, Chicago will do themselves well bringing maximum points home.
Jack McInerney has started to blossom in recent weeks displaying solid finishing skills and a tendency to be in position to get on the end of a deadly ball in a dangerous position. He has four goals and two assists this year including a stoppage time game winner against New England. However, the Union will be missing their starlet forward after he got involved in a scuffle after Nelson Rivas' vicious headbutt on Antoine Hoppenot. From my vantage point, McInerney's ejection was very harsh and warranted a yellow at most, but now Union head coach John Hackworth has to play the hand he has been dealt.
Even though Hoppenot suffered a facial fracture from the headbutt, it appears as if he will be available to start along with rookie Chandler Hoffman who is back from a toe injury. Hoppenot can be dangerous, but is by no means dangerous on the same level of attackers the Fire defense has been able to effectively shut down lately in San Jose and New York.
Attack the Air
Philadelphia has allowed 24 goals in 20 games, which isn't a bad record, but when 11 of those goals come from headers and seven from crosses, a clear weakness can be exploited. With the endless supply of talent from the Fire wingers, there is no reason why crosses shouldn't be sent in all day for Sherjill MacDonald to knock home. Furthermore, with strength on the wings, Patrick Nyarko, Marco Pappa, and Alvaro Fernandez should run at defenders and draw fouls for a re-visitation of last week's glorious Pavel Pardo to Austin Berry goal.
One possible explanation for Philadelphia's vulnerability is the youth of the backline. Carlos Valdes is the oldest member of Philadelphia's starting back four from last week's game against Montreal. At 27 years old, Valdes does have some international experience to help lead the defense, but with Gabriel Farfan at 24, Sheanon Williams at 22, and Amobi Okugo at 21, the rest of the defense is still very green. Will Hackworth replace Okugo for the more experienced Bakary Soumare who is still trying to get match fit?
MacMath Doesn't Add Up
Compounding the inexperience problems at the back for Philadelphia is 21 year old goalkeeper Zac MacMath. While MacMath has performed better in recent weeks than the beginning of the year, he is still prone to a couple major errors per game. Many of these errors come from crosses and corners in which MacMath does not seem to have the necessary experience to know when to come out for the ball or confidence to fully commit to throwing himself in danger and punch the ball away. Chicago needs to take advantage of this as often as possible and make sure every corner kick or set piece is sent in to a dangerous position with a big man looking to get on the end of the cross.
The Fire have every chance to walk out of Philadelphia with all three points for the first time in club history and I feel very confident they will do it. As already tweeted, the top four teams in the East all play against each other. With a D.C. loss or draw, the Fire can move into fourth place with a win. If both games end in a draw, the Fire will be 3 points out of 1st place with a game in hand on all of the teams ahead of them. Here's hoping that is exactly what we see happen.