The Chicago Fire have got off to a slow start to this 2021 MLS season. After an impressive draw in the season opener against Eastern Conference contenders New England Revolution, the Fire dropped their next two matches against the Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls.
Next up, the Fire host the Philadelphia Union, a team with extreme juxtaposition in their season thus far. The team that calls Subaru Park home has already made the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League and is now the only side that can become the first-ever MLS team to win the competition.
On the flip side, the Union have also stumbled out of the gate this MLS season. They have the same number of points as the Fire and have also lost their last two matches.
How did you become a Union fan and can you tell the people what type of content you produce that is centered around the club?
KK: I’ve actually been involved with the team in a lot of different forms. I worked for the club and wrote stories for PhiladelphiaUnion.com from 2010 to 2014, then operated as an independent reporter from 2014 to 2017. I took on a new job covering the 76ers at that point but kept my Union podcast going (It’s Always Soccer in Philadelphia). I still try to write the occasional article at CrossingBroad.com and this year I took a new gig as a postgame analyst for the Union’s radio broadcasts on FOX Sports The Gambler.
It’s been a busy season so far for the Union, and an interesting one at that. You guys are in the semifinals of the CCL, a great achievement. However, the Union have struggled thus far during the MLS regular season, gaining just one point from their first three matches. What has been the difference in the club’s play between the two competitions and what is the main reason for the club’s slow start in MLS?
KK: I’d honestly say it’s CCL fatigue. They’ve played really well in the competition, and maybe their focus was skewed towards Saprissa and Atlanta instead of the regular season. They pulled a 0-0 draw in Columbus, which is perfectly fine, but looked like a different team against NYC and Miami. It’s all fixable though; they just made some uncharacteristic mistakes in those games, lunging for balls, leaving their feet when they didn’t have to, etc. The Jose Martinez red card was bad, but to his credit, he apologized to the team afterward.
As a Fire fan, what are the key strengths of the Union that I should watch out for on Saturday?
KK: Fire fans should definitely focus on the Union’s pressing game. They have a very German side now, which is to say that they like to swarm the ball, turn opponents over, and try to move in transition after winning a numbers game. They are in great physical shape and can run for days, so Chicago has to be really smart on the ball and can’t afford loose touches or bad turnovers. Philly isn’t a team that creates a lot of opportunities via on-ball possession, but if opponents get sloppy they are so good at punishing that.
Can you describe the style of play that the Union and Jim Curtin play?
KK: It’s a 4-4-2 diamond, similar to what those great Real Salt Lake teams used to play. They are at their best when trapping and “Gegenpressing” higher up the field, which allows them to create these 4v3 and 5v4 odd-man movements in transition. A lot of what they do is turning defense into offense, and they’re excellent at mitigating opponent chance creation as well. If there’s one weakness, it’s teams that have good on-ball skills and crisp passing, because if the Union can’t dispossess you, they’ll get frustrated and sit back a little deeper and absorb pressure.
Not sure how much Fire soccer you’ve watched, but as a Union fan, what do you think are the main weapons the Fire have that Union fans should be wary of?
KK: Definitely Robert Beric. I love watching him play. He’s one of those guys who just has this innate nose for goal, and even though he only has one goal this year, you see what I’m talking about in those two shots he clanked off the posts in Atlanta. He wasn’t even facing the goal, but he just has that quality presence in the box and if you aren’t paying 100% attention to him, you’re picking the ball out of the back of your net.
KK: The Union aren’t in fantastic form right now, but I think with the CCL not resuming until August, they can shift focus and try to get back on track in the league. This one is a funky afternoon game, 12 PM your time, with a couple of teams in need of points. Feels like a 1-1 type of affair to me.