Safe to say, the boys were tired heading into the match. The Union only made one substitution in the match against NYCFC and rolled into Chicago with the same starting lineup. That means that 10 guys who played 90 minutes on Sunday were set to play again just three days later — after flying halfway across the country. One reason for this heavy minute load on the starters is due to the absence of the Union’s ever-reliable youngsters, who are away with the under-20 United States Men’s National Team at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships. While Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson were off bagging goals in Honduras and sending the USMNT U-20 squad to the U-20 World Cup, the boys back home had to endure a wild turnaround. And the lack of young, fresh legs showed on Wednesday against Chicago.
The Fire, a side sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, awaited the Union at Soldier Field. A team that was dealt a 2-0 drubbing from Houston Dynamo on the weekend and who were losers of seven of their last nine matches in the MLS. A team in free fall.
Enter Xherdan Shaqiri. The Swiss international and former Liverpool player had been injured for about a month but returned for the match against the Union. And in the match, he showed why Liverpool wanted to make him a part of the team that eventually went on to win the Champions League in 2019. Shaqiri, playing in a number 10 role with freedom to roam, controlled the center of the park and picked apart the Union back line, who were lucky to not concede in the first half. Between Shaqiri and his running mate Chris Mueller, the Union were on the back foot early. Chicago found success picking out long balls over the top into the feet of Mueller, who meticulously sliced and diced the Union defenders. On the other side of the pitch, the Union looked stale and out of ideas. They couldn’t create any true chances in the first half and were lucky to head into the locker room at 0-0.
Heading into the second half, the Union made a couple of changes. Manager Jim Curtin subbed in Sunday’s match winner Cory Burke for Julian Carranza and opted for experience as he swapped Nathan Harriel for Olivier Mbaizo. Harriel had a tough first half, being tasked with defending Mueller and also having to keep an eye on Shaqiri as he often floated out to his favored left wing. However, in Harriel’s defense, I thought he had a decent half going forward and could have continued making those darting runs up the line. When Harriel gets into the attack, the Union become a much better side. The next step in his game will be to have the comfort to join in on the attacking side of the pitch and mirror his wing back buddy Kai Wagner. Having two wing backs that can both defend and attack would bolster a sometimes stagnant Union attack.
The substitutions seemed to work early in the second half, as Cory Burke found himself in a couple of immediate goal-scoring situations. However, he failed to find the back of the net, as he either failed to produce a final product or was denied by the Fire’s superstar goalkeeping talent, Gabriel Slonina. Burke’s best chance of the night was his diving header that Slonina miraculously deflected off of the post in front of the goal, before finally collecting the ball as it lay on the goal line. On 90% of MLS goalkeepers, that header would have equalized the match.
However, the Union continued to let Shaqiri and Muelller dictate the game for the most part, and in the 68th minute, they found themselves down a goal. The Chicago goal came from a ball sprayed out wide from Shaqiri to Mueller who faked a cross, cut inside on Kai Wagner before proceeding to pull off one of the most disrespectful nutmegs in MLS history, leaving Wagner in utter disarray. Mueller then crossed the ball into the box where it found Chicago right back Boris Sekulic, who laid the ball off to Federico Navarro, who put the ball into the back of the Union’s net. Things only got worse for the Union from there. Four minutes later, Jose Martinez brought down ex-Union forward Kacper Przybylko and received his second yellow card of the night, forcing him to hit the showers early and leaving his team a man down. The red card also means that Martinez will be suspended for the Union’s next game against Columbus.
But I guess one of the only positive things you could take from the match Wednesday night is the way that the Union played after the red. They created some of their most dangerous chances of the game as they went a man down, and on a more clinical night, could’ve left the match with a point. A Daniel Gazdag miss over the bar, a weak Chris Donovan free header, and a controversial no-call on a rash challenge on Cory Burke in stoppage time gave the Union more than enough chances to get level. But when it’s not your night, it’s not your night, and Wednesday was really not the Union’s night. And with the young guys advancing in the CONCACAF U-20 Championships, the squad will be without Aaronson, Sullivan, and McGlynn for at least one or two more matches.
That means the rest of the Union roster will have to step up and maintain the level that elevated the team into first place in the East. However, the Union will have to travel to Columbus for another away match on Sunday. This grueling stretch with limited resources will test the fitness and mental fortitude of the more senior players in the Union’s camp. Let’s hope they’re up for it.