Philadelphia Union 3 (Pontius 10, 55; Sapong 64)
Chicago Fire 1 (Solignac 67)
Thirty games is surely enough to know a squad, right? Surely. If there were hidden reserves in this edition of the Chicago Fire - if, for instance, there were someone on the roster with an idea how to create chances against a settled defensive structure - they would have shown themselves by now, right?
This evening’s capitulation in Chester was like the time you gave your friend Stan a place to stay for ‘a couple of nights’ during ‘a rough patch.’ You knew how that would turn out, no matter what you told yourself at the time - because you know fuckin’ Stan, the lying drunken lout that he is. We know these Chicago Fire by now. This should’ve been completely predictable, if we’re being honest. I mean, this was a checklist of ongoing Fire difficulties: Road game; opponent willing to play in a low defensive block; etc. Expecting a Fire win tonight was like expecting Stan not to spend his days drinking and playing Keno.
So let’s stop kidding ourselves about what these Chicago Fire are, and where they’re headed. Talk before kickoff was that NYCFC’s 1-1 draw had opened the door for the Fire to get back into the race for home-field during the playoffs - see, that’s the kinda thinking that lands Stan on your couch. Our focus needs to be on the teams below us, Atlanta and Columbus and Red Bulls; by the time you read this, the Fire could be third in the East and sinking. Because this evening, against a thoroughly pedestrian Philadelphia Union side, our Men in Red were beaten, and beaten fairly easily.
The final score was 3-1, but it could’ve been much, much worse. The Union showed that the basic template against the Fire needn’t be complicated to be effective - play in a low block, let the backline pass itself into boredom, counter hard when the ball turns.
The trick, then, is to make the most of one of those early opportunities, snatch the advantage, and get the Fire leaning further and further forward. It only took 10 minutes for the hosts to manage it, with Keegan Rosenberry’s pullback cross finding Chris Pontius; Pontius stooped to hammer home his first goal of the season, and La Maquina Roja was already pulling in the pits for repairs.
With Philadelphia leading, the game became an inverted version of keepaway, with the Fire holding the ball for long stretches ineffectually. The long good look Chicago created in the first half came in the 26th, when Michael de Leeuw’s passing from the deep right channel cut out the entire defense and left David Accam with the ball between the centerbacks - only for Accam to slice his shot closer to the corner flag than the goal.
Philadelphia, given 80 minutes to practice two- and three-pass counters, finally added to their tally in the 56th. Fafa Picault cut against the grain to get a shot off - almost precisely where Accam’s airmail job happened 30 minutes earlier - and Matt Lampson could only push the shot softly onto the penalty spot. Pontius won the race to the rebound, his second goal on the night after a scoreless season.
The third Union goal will net them some money when they sell C.J. Sapong somewhere this winter. The statuesque striker got a proper No. 9 goal on the hour mark, overpowering Joao Meira and ghosting in behind Johan Kappelhof on a near-post run to flick home Fabinho’s centering ball.
The Fire did show a bit more verve in the final 30 minutes thanks to some decent substitute performances. Luis Solignac got the goal, taking advantage of a Rosenberry lapse to win the ball directly in front of goal. Djordje Mihalovic displayed admirable drive and creativity in midfield in relief of a largely ineffective Arturo Alvarez.
The Fire (14-10-6) have another difficult road test on Wednesday, when they visit San Jose. We will see Philadelphia again in Chicago; they visit Oct. 15.