The takeaway from this matchup is quite simple: The early season matters. Since the last time we saw the Union, they've sold us Bakary Soumare and lost Jack MacInerney for a month to Gold Cup pine time. Somehow, Philadelphia still sits only two points off first place in the East despite two solid months of Jekyll-and-Hyde performances. Meanwhile, the Fire have rallied from their early-season nadir - neatly represented in the pair of 1-0 defeats on consecutive weekends at the end of May at the hands of the Union - but their increasingly creditable form still finds them on the outside looking in, five points outside the playoff spots with 14 to play.
As Mark O'Rourke's tremendous piece a couple of days ago makes clear, the Fire have no room for error any more. If Chicago is to have any pretensions of playoff football, getting results from games against playoff teams is going to be crucial. It's bucket-of-crabs time - we need to pull them down and ourselves up. Nothing less than the full three points will do on Saturday. If I'm writing another game-story where our defenders become two-dimensional cutouts of themselves, well, there's still the Open Cup.
Justin of The Brotherly Game was kind enough to answer our questions, and I answered some of theirs. Lineup and score predictions to follow, since I find that process entirely horrifying.
The Brotherly Game asks
1). The Philadelphia Union played the Fire twice in a row in May and each time the Union won 1-0. What changes, if any, do you expect Frank Klopas to make heading into the 3rd match against the Union this season?
The Fire are a massively changed side since that pair of forlorn 1-0 losses. Of course you sold us Bakary Soumare, which stabilized our defensive line - since that match, we've started the same four defenders week-in, week-out, except for one game where our left back Gonzalo Segares was suspended. Soumare is the player you knew - physically imposing and proud, but prone to infuriating mental mistakes. The addition of Soumare moved Jalil Anibaba to right back, and while he's not a world-beater there, at least you don't have Wells Thompson to kick around any more.
We've also just signed an Ecuadorian striker, Juan Luis Anangono. If his paperwork goes through, expect to see at least a cameo from our latest No. 9.
Of course, the single biggest change in the team since late May is the addition of Mike Magee, about whom more below. Suffice to say the addition of Magee has made Chicago much more difficult to defend.
2). Who would you say is the most valuable player on the Fire thus far this season?
If this Fire team makes the playoffs, it's hard to imagine a scenario where Mike Magee isn't a finalist for league MVP. I will go further: If Chicago makes the playoffs, Magee should win the award. Period.
Traded to a team in a total funk, Magee's passion, commitment and intelligence have worked a special bit of alchemy. Watch how Magee relates to his teammates on Saturday - his is the mind at the center of the motion, talking about runs, demanding responsibility, praising effort and skill. And he and Rolfe make a difficult pair to defend up top, as I wrote about a week ago.
As a Chicago kid who asked to come home, ‘Magic Mike' is one of the real feel-good stories in the league this year. He is our MVP.
3). Where do you think the fire can best take advantage of the Union?
When the teams played earlier this year, you saw Patrick Nyarko starting as a forward - an experiment worth trying, since our Dutch DP striker apparently spent the offseason getting to know Chicago's vibrant restaurant culture. Tomorrow night you will see Nyarko in his preferred role, on the outside, probably torturing your left back all evening. Nyarko's bag of tricks is unconventional, and few MLS defenders can cope with him in his current form.
Sheanon Williams offers something going forward, and his long throws are epic. The way Nyarko is playing, though, he's going to have his hands full. And unlike last time - when striker-Nyarko was left with the task of trying to dribble through the entire defense - he'll have the runs of Magee and Rolfe to pick out, which is a much more comfortable fit for him.
Ah, predictions. Good lord.
Score: Fire win this one 3-1. Goals for Rolfe (twice) and Magee; Jack Mac for the home guys.
Lineup prediction: I cannot see Frank Klopas altering his formula much at the moment; he, like Hackworth, seems to run the same lineup and tactic out there until long after it's clear it's not working - and that's not the case here. Chicago is playing fairly well and won't rock the boat, so ...
CF97 (4-4-2): Sean Johnson; Gonzalo Segares, Bakary Soumare, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba; Dilly Duka, Jeff Larentowicz, Daniel Paladini, Patrick Nyarko; Chris Rolfe, Mike Magee.
Subs: Paolo Tornaghi, Shaun Francis, Logan Pause, Alex, Joel Lindpere, Juan Luis Anangono, Quincy Amarikwa.
Hot Time in the Old Town asks
1.) Who or what has been the biggest reason for the Union's turnaround from a dismal 2012 season? (from Ryan Sealock)
I feel like I should say something other than the obvious answer, but it really is largely because of Jack McInerney. His goal-scoring has taken a bit of a plummet in the last month or so, but he is always making strong runs into the box and still contributes even when he is not scoring. Without McInerney, the Union are almost definitely near the bottom of the Eastern Conference. It would be very interesting to see just how good McInerney would be with a stronger supporting cast as he has done wonders for the team.
2.) Do the Union have the talent to make the playoffs even if Jack McInerney doesn't get back to the form he had the first 15 games of the season? (from John Jenzeh)
That's a tough question. Given the current situation in how it appears to be six teams fighting for five spots, I would hope the Union have banked enough points to sneak in anyway, but even though McInerney helps in other ways, the Union are still a weaker side without him. Part of this is because the Union have virtually nothing of a supporting cast in the midfield. The Union's link-up play is often an area of great struggle especially when they go up a man (Union opponents have been shown an almost unfathomable 11 red cards this season) and are forced into playing a more possession oriented style. If McInerney gets his goal-scoring form back, the Union could be smooth sailing. If not, the last couple months will probably be a bit of a bumpy ride.
3.) The Union are in unfamiliar territory this late in the season - just two points back with 12 games to play - despite not playing dominating soccer. How important is making the playoffs this season to Union fans, on a scale from "meh, I guess it'd be nice" to "I will never watch this team again if they fail"? (from Sean Spence)
I'm not sure if I speak for every Union fan, but I would actually say it is pretty important. I don't think people would avoid the team forever all together if they fail, but the last professional Philadelphia sports team to play a playoff game was the Sixers in 2012. Now the Phillies are mediocre, the Eagles are an unknown (though I support the Chip Kelly direction), the Flyers are probably going to contend for a playoff spot but not a Stanley Cup, and the Sixers are going Winless For Wiggins. Out of these teams, the Flyers probably have the best shot of being a playoff team and that won't be until April 2014, so the Union making it would be very cool to see.
And yes, we'd like a projected lineup and prediction, too.
It came out today the Union signed a Brazilian midfielder Gilberto dos Santos Souza Junior (I think Gilberto for short). It is good the Union are seeking midfield help but because Hackworth has a tendency to stick to his guys and not make changes on a week-to-week basis, I think the starting line-up will look like this.
(4-4-2). Zac MacMath; Raymon Gaddis, Jeff Parke, Amobi Okugo, Sheanon Williams; Brian Carroll, Michael Farfan, Sebastien Le Toux, Danny Cruz; Conor Casey, Jack McInerney
Subs: Chris Konopka, Gilberto, Fabinho, Kleberson, Leo Fernandes, Aaron Wheeler, Antoine Hoppenot
Score: I predict a 2-1 Union win. McInerney and Casey each get one for the Union; Magee for the Fire.