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Union vs Chicago Fire: Preview and Predictions

The Union return to the banks of the Delaware on Saturday night with a bitter taste in their mouths following a deserved loss to FC Cincinnati. How and will they respond against an on-the-rise Chicago Fire side?

MLS: Philadelphia Union at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting Chicago

Currently riding an undefeated run of 5 matches headed into Saturday’s match, the Fire are one of the most-improved teams in MLS this season. Their current run includes a clean sheet against the Seattle Sounders and a dramatic late victory in Charlotte thanks to the heroics of former Union man Kacper Przybylko. Owners of last place in the Eastern Conference and a 10-game winless streak on June 18th, coach Ezra Hendrickson deserves rapturous applause for the way he’s righted the ship.

Much of this turnaround has been the result of an uptick in form of summer signing and former Liverpool midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri. Shaqiri notched his 10th assist last weekend in Charlotte, tied for 4th in MLS. His newfound form and comfortability in MLS has unleashed Chicago’s attackers, giving confidence to a talented front 3 of Chris Mueller, Jairo Torres, and Przybylko. Shaqiri is as dangerous as there is in MLS when he’s leading the break and releasing one of his wingers at the perfect time down the flank. Mueller, a 25-year-old winger who’s spent time at Hibernian and Orlando City, has 5 goal involvements in his last 6 matches. Torres, who’s had his struggles in first season in MLS, notched his first assist of the season last week. Przybylko also started slowly after his trade from the Union to the Windy City, but he returns to Subaru Park for the first time coming off of a brace in Charlotte. I’d also be remiss without mentioning Gaga Slonina, an Illinois native and new member of Chelsea FC. Slonina is one of the top goalkeepers in MLS at age 18 and until a month ago, had a handful of top European clubs vying for his signature.

Chicago are brimming with confidence as a result of their recent form, and will assuredly give the Union a tough match as they fight to keep their playoff spot. They currently sit in 7th place on a 4-way tie for points with Orlando, Inter Miami, and New England.

How the Union could play it

The Union had an uncharacteristically sloppy defensive performance last weekend in Cincinnati. Jim Curtin’s men were late to attack balls coming into the box and allowed Cincinnati to control key 50-50 balls. Do not expect that to be the case vs Chicago. Jim Curtin demands excellence and tidiness from his defense, and the shock from Cincinnati will serve the players well headed into Saturday.

I’m sure my tactical predictions are beginning to sound boring, but such is life for a 1st place team. The Union will look to pounce on players who are less confident playing the ball out of the back and generate early scoring opportunities in transition. The Union may not get much outside the box with Gaga Slonina in net, so scoring on the counter will make life much easier for them. If the Fire resort to booting the ball out of the back, bringing on a line-breaker like Jack McGlynn early in the game would make a lot of sense as the team looks to create a proper build-up.

This could also be one of the last times we see Kai Wagner in a Union uniform as transfer interest heats up around the German left-back. Jim Curtin confirmed in his press conference on Thursday that he has spoken to Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch about Wagner. The Union should want to keep him as they chase a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, but professional football is, of course, a business. Enjoy each of his days in Chester, people.

Here’s my predicted XI. Harriel returns to the side at right back after being on bench for the last 3 matches. One of the best one-on-one defenders in the league, he is probably best suited to defend dangerous wingers Jairo Torres and Chris Mueller. Even so, Olivier Mbaizo has been positive at right back as he looks to secure a spot on Cameroon’s plane to Qatar in November and will compete with Harriel there for the rest of the season. Other than that, Curtin’s usual starters round out the team. Expect appearances from Jack McGlynn, Paxten Aaronson, and Quinn Sullivan if the Union need to put a late goal past Gaga Slonina.

Prediction: 1-0 Union, the defense gets back on track with another clean sheet and Ale Bedoya scores an early goal that ends up deciding the match.