If coach Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez really want fans to buy-in to the idea that the Fire still have a chance at the playoffs this season, Saturday’s home match against the Philadelphia Union is a must win.
Both men reiterated in media calls this week that the playoff goal is still very much for the taking with the team starting to play its best soccer of the season. And while the Fire have been better lately, they will need to prove the worst loss of the season last Saturday was an outlier and the effort they showed in Montreal is what will be the norm moving forward. To do that, they must win Saturday.
Chicago already proved this is a winnable game, having notched their first win of the season against Philadelphia 1-0 back in April at Toyota Park. The conditions were horrendous and the Union rattled the woodwork a number of times, but the Fire persevered that day. The Union got their revenge with a 4-3 win in Philadelphia back in June in a game where Roland Alberg looked like a Hall of Famer.
But both squads are different heading into Saturday’s clash and the past may not matter much. Philadelphia seems a lock for the playoffs and bolstered their squad with the additions of Alejandro Bedoya (who thankfully will be away on national team duty) and Charlie Davies. The Fire have added Michael de Leeuw and Luis Solignac who have added much needed offensive threats.
Eugene Rupinski of Brotherly Game stopped by to answer some questions about the promising Philly future, how the new additions have helped and who he thinks will be the X-factor Saturday.
Hot Time: The Union are poised for the playoffs despite slipping a bit to fourth place. How are fans feeling as the postseason gets closer and would the appearance be enough or is there an expectation for a deep run?
Rupinski: Philadelphia fans are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, so I think it's a fair assessment to say that dropping from first to fourth has made Union fans a bit nervous. That being said, there is a gulf starting to form between the teams that are looking certain to be playoff-bound (Toronto FC, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia, and Montreal) and the teams that are not guaranteed to make it (D.C. United, Orlando City, New England Revolution, Columbus Crew SC, and Chicago). The Union are in a good place going into the playoffs, and personally I'm optimistic of their chances of making it in.
Once a team is in the playoffs, anything goes. I feel like if the Union make it into the playoffs, then a deep run wouldn't be a complete shock. This is a team that has quality from top to bottom and has proven it can hang with anyone.
Hot Time: Since we last met, the Union has made some significant additions. What have Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies brought to the team?
Rupinski: The Union had two major needs going into the summer transfer window - replacing Vincent Nogueira and finding a striker that could not only back up CJ Sapong but could also push him to compete for the starting striker position. Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies fill these roles perfectly.
Bedoya has really stabilized the 8 position for the Union. Before adding him, the Union tried using Warren Creavalle and Tranquillo Barnetta as stopgaps, however neither was successful in the position. As a central defensive midfielder, Creavalle never had the offensive ability needed to play the 8 - not a dig against Warren, but his strength is on the defensive side of the ball. Tranquillo was the opposite - as an attacking midfielder he was able to create the chances offensively Creavalle couldn't, however he left a lot to be desired on defense. He's a playmaker, not a defensive rock. Bedoya has the ability to play both sides of the ball well, and that's allowed Barnetta to go back to being a 10 and Creavalle to being a 6 where they both excel.
Davies has had a bit of a different impact. I think him being in a Union kit will push CJ Sapong to be better and will also allow Fabian Herbers time to develop and mature. Herbers has still gotten minutes as a back up on the right wing for the injured Ilsinho lately, but I think in order for him to be a successful striker at this level he'll need to watch guys like Sapong and Davies and not just be thrown into the fire because the Union need someone to play. Having Charlie Davies affords the Union that luxury and also gives them a sense of security. If Sapong has an off night, you still have a quality guy in Davies who can come in and score goals and torture opposition defenses.
Hot Time: Last time we met, Roland Alberg was in absolute top form and wreaking havoc all over the place. Who should Fire fans be worried of in this match? Is anyone in particularly strong form right now?
Rupinski: Alberg will still be a threat, be it as a starter or coming off of the bench. He was a one-man wrecking crew against Sporting Kansas City and he only played 25 minutes. If he doesn't start, look for the offense to run through Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius. These guys have been having great seasons, and Pontius leads the team in goals with 10.
I think someone else that is having a phenomenal season is Keegan Rosenberry. Rosenberry flies under the radar because he's a right back, but he's been an integral part of the Union's success. He's contributed two goals, two assists, and has played all 2430 minutes of the Union's season thus far. He has shut down some of the best forwards in MLS, was the MLS All-Star starting right back, and if there is any justice he will win MLS Rookie of the Year and it won't be close.
Predicted Lineup: John McCarthy; Fabinho, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry; Warren Creavalle, Derrick Jones; Chris Pontius, Tranquillo Barnetta, Fabian Herbers; CJ Sapong
Predicted Score: This will be a tough test for the Union, who are missing Andre Blake and Alejandro Bedoya to international duty. Ilsinho and Brian Carroll are returning from injury and may not be available to go, so I'm predicting Homegrown Player Derrick Jones in for Bedoya and Herbers starting for Ilsinho. The Union need points to keep pace in the East, while Chicago is playing pretty much for pride. I think the Union win but only just barely, 3-2.