The Philadelphia Union entered Sunday’s match against the Chicago Fire on an emotional high note, having beaten the Fire earlier in the week. That win propelled Philadelphia into the U.S. Open Cup Final, a remarkable accomplishment. Now they returned to MLS Regular Season play in desperate need of three points to salvage their season.
Since several players needed rest following the midweek cup match, head coach Jim Curtin enacted a lineup shakeup. Curtin still employed the typical 4-2-3-1 formation, but some fresh faces – center back Steven Vitória, defensive midfielder Warren Creavalle, and winger Eric Ayuk – were featured. John McCarthy, fresh off his solid performance in the Open Cup match, started in net in lieu of Brian Sylvestre, who is still dealing with a hand laceration.
The Union started the match by doing something they had not done all season – conceding a goal in the opening 15 minutes. In the 9th minute the Fire started to march down the right flank, and they were able to get deep into the Union half after Richie Marquez and Fabinho did not snuff out the danger early enough. Patrick Nyarko delivered a low ball across the face of goal that Kennedy Igboananike one-timed into the net.
The Fire lead did not last long, however. In the 21st minute, following a stretch in which Chicago controlled the possession, the Union got on the scoresheet. Cristian Maidana used a corner to direct the ball into the danger area, where Fernando Aristeguieta managed to stick his leg around a defender in order to notch a goal.
A few minutes later, a potential penalty teased the home fans into thinking they would be taking the lead. Joevin Jones of the Fire handled the ball near the border between the box and the rest of the field, and the referee unfortunately ruled it a free kick. Maidana’s well-taken free kick posed a big threat to Sean Johnson, the Fire’s keeper, but Johnson was up to the task (as he was almost all night).
Then, in the 31st minute, the Union unleashed a deadly counterattack which led to the team’s second goal of the night. Maidana used his speed and technical ability to cut to the middle with several options at his disposal. He found Fabinho streaking down the left side, who hit a shot from the top of the box that had enough power on it to withstand a deflection off of a Chicago defender and still find its target.
The two teams began playing very physical soccer at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. Philadelphia drew a few fouls during this time, but it was their players who received the most stringent punishments. A couple of rash challenges meant Warren Creavalle and Tranquilo Barnetta got their names put in the referee’s book.
In the 54th minute, the Fire again penetrated deep into the Union side of the field, where Nyarko poked the ball into the net following some fancy footwork from Igboananike. The match was once again in a deadlock, and the teams went back-and-forth for the next half hour or so.
Then, with about ten minutes remaining in regular time, the Union began peppering shots at the Chicago goal, only to be denied time and time again by Sean Johnson. Maidana ripped a shot from the top of the box, C.J. Sapong had a headed shot near the right post, Marquez had a headed shot right in front of goal, Brian Carroll and Sébastien Le Toux fired in back-to-back shots in a span of a few seconds, and Fabinho hit the crossbar with a rocket of a shot. The Union just could not get one past Johnson until Le Toux, who came on as a substitute, finally got a goal in the 90th minute. Maidana, who became the MLS assists leader with his three helpers on the night, carried the ball downfield and switched the play by sending the ball over to Le Toux, who delayed his run, took a couple of touches, and finished well to the back post.
The River End barely even had time to celebrate before the Fire answered with a goal of their own. After an apparent handball went uncalled, the Union had a defensive breakdown, and Igboananike sent the ball to the top shelf to ensure his team would end up with a point. The wild match then came to a close, leaving the players on the field and the fans in Chester feeling very disappointed.
This was not the first time the Union coughed up a lead; far from it, as pointed out by writer Dave Zeitlin.
The Union have dropped 21 points from a winning position this year. Had they protected all their leads, they'd have the most points in MLS.
— Dave Zeitlin (@DaveZeitlin) August 18, 2015
Missing out on yet another chance at three points means the Union’s chances of making the playoffs continue to dwindle, and they face an uphill battle for the rest of the season. The team’s next match (at Montréal Impact next Saturday) is a virtual must-win.