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Scouting Report | A crucial Eastern Conference clash in Philadelphia

The proverbial shoe was on the other foot on Saturday night, when the Chicago Fire found themselves on the wrong side of a late-game equalizer after they’d pulled the same stunt against Sporting Kansas City just seven days prior.

After that heartbreaking 2-2 draw against the New York Red Bulls, it’s a quick turnaround into a trip to the City of Brotherly Love (kind of) to take on former Fire great Jim Curtin and his first-place Philadelphia Union.

Here’s what to look for in the first of the Fire’s final four matches of the regular season as the Club currently sits just outside of the playoff picture in 11th place with a game in hand.

COOKIN’

Everyone seems to be trying their hand at the culinary arts in 2020, but - let me tell you something - no one in MLS is cooking like Philly right now.

They are DOOP-ing extremely hard at the moment, having won four of their last five. They’re also unbeaten in their last six, 8-1-2 in their last 10, and coming off of a 5-0 drubbing of Toronto FC this past weekend.

Granted, TFC were missing a slew of key pieces, but five goals is five goals and TFC were never in the game at Subaru Park on Saturday night.

Sergio Santos scored the club’s fourth hat trick (last done by the Fire’s own CJ Sapong in 2017), and the Union got all of their scoring done before the 70th minute mark.

This team can flat out play on both sides of the ball. They have given up the second-fewest amount of goals in MLS behind Columbus, and have scored the second-most amount of goals at 39, trailing only LAFC.

They play a 4-4-2 diamond with high quality, intelligent players at almost every position and depth to go along with it.

They’ll be without a key piece, midfielder Jamiro Monteiro, due to yellow card accumulation. My guess is that Anthony Fontana will fill in. The Homegrown product has been lights out recently, with six goals in his last nine appearances.

Brenden Aaronson continues to shine as the time winds down on his stint with the Union ahead of his reported $6M move to Austria’s RB Salzburg, led by former Fire great Jesse Marsch. The 20-year-old is a clever midfielder (predominantly No. 10) who finds good pockets of space, is constantly checking his shoulder, and is a sensational distributor of the football. His ability to wiggle out of trouble in tight spaces is part of what made him so attractive to RB Salzburg, who he will join in January.

Striker Kacper Przybylko is paired up with Sergio Santos and makes intelligent runs and moves off of his teammates well, but he’s struggled in front of net recently. His last goal came on Sept. 12, a 4-1 win over Montreal.

Midfielders Jose Martinez and Alejandro Bedoya provide different services, but are steady in their contributions. Martinez is the disruptor and rhythm dictator in the No. 6 role, while Bedoya is much more attack-minded and - as an MLS veteran - has seen it all in this league.

The backline is anchored by Jakob Glesnes and Mark McKenzie. The pair represent a good combination of youth and experience, in addition to size and athleticism. Left back Kai Wagner has some of the best delivery in MLS (i.e. assist on Sergio Santos goal against Toronto) while right back Ray Gaddis is as steady as they come.

Goalkeeper Andre Blake continues to do Andre Blake things between the sticks and is always keeping the Union in games, while midfielder Ilsinho has emerged as one of the best super-subs in MLS history over the past few years.

This may seem like a daunting task from a Fire standpoint, but just a few games ago, D.C. United – who currently sit in 13th place in the East - drew the Union 2-2 in a midweek fixture.

The Fire have also shown throughout the entirety of 2020 that they can compete with the best of the East, and Chicago will have arguably the most important pieces of their puzzle back.

NOOOOO OOOOONE FIGHTS LIKE GASTÓN!

These past five games have been trying from a personnel perspective for head coach Raphael Wicky without the services of midfielder Gastón Giménez. His absence due to international duty with Paraguay paired with injuries and suspensions elsewhere forced Wicky to make a number of changes to a lineup that was really starting to click right before the international window.

Now, with Giménez back in the fray, the Fire will make a full push to get back to the form we saw a few weeks ago and try to string together the results they need to book themselves a ticket to the MLS postseason.

Giménez will not only bring his myriad of talents back to the table, but his presence will allow everyone else to step a bit further up the field and play in their more preferred roles.

With Gastón gone, it was a replacement by committee with the likes of Álvaro Medrán playing the No. 6 role and being a pest defensively. Fabian Herbers retreated and pitched in from his now normal No. 10 role as well. Giménez returning allows these two, and everyone really, to be a bit more liberal in the way they get forward knowing that they have the cover and class of Giménez behind them.

I think you’ll see an even more confident and refreshed Giménez for these last four games and (hopefully) beyond. While with Paraguay, the 29-year-old started in both CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifiers and even provided the game-winning goal in a 1-0 win over Fire teammate Miguel Navarro’s Venezuela. Giménez is in tremendous form, and - while he did quarantine for 10 days upon return - I think it was a much-needed rest for a midfielder who empties the tank and dishes out pain every night.

I, like all of the Fire faithful, cannot wait to see him back in action Wednesday night in Philly, especially against such a talented Union midfield.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Midweek fixtures are always tricky. Legs are usually a bit heavier, and the quality can vary. We’ve seen solid performances from the Fire on Wednesdays as well as some not-so-great performances this season.

The Fire can’t afford to have a subpar performance against a team like Philly. There is too much quality and experience on Jim Curtin’s side for it to be anything other than a near-flawless game if they are to get a result.

I think you’ll see a renewed sense of energy from the Fire, not only after the draw that felt like a loss on Saturday, but with the return of Giménez as well.

This, paired with the absence of Jamiro Monteiro, gives the Fire a clear advantage in the middle of the field, even though they’ll be outnumbered on most occasions. Quick ball movement to find space out wide with the crowded midfield will be needed to find their own numerical advantages. In doing this, you should also be trying to pin back Kai Wagner to prevent him from whipping in service, because it is extremely difficult to handle. Boris Sekulić and whoever starts on the right-hand side in the wing position for the Fire will need to force the issue. The press will also be vital in creating chances far up the field. Getting off to one of the Fire’s signature quick-scoring starts wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

The Union are now officially fighting for the Supporter’s Shield (yes that is a thing again) and the Fire are fighting for their playoff lives. This game won’t be short of intensity or emotion. 

Philly have yet to lose at home this season, and the Fire are still looking for that elusive away win. Wouldn’t it be just the most MLS-y result if the Fire were to pull it off? Whatever the case may be, this is must-see TV on WGN and ESPN+ come Wednesday night from Subaru Park.

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