After a tough loss on Friday night in Kansas City, the Fire are looking to get back into the race for first place in the Eastern Conference when they face the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park on Wednesday night. Philly are also coming into the game on the back of a loss, going down 3-2 in Columbus last weekend. Though the Union are out of the Playoff race, they will be looking to play spoiler and stop the Fire from moving into second in the standings.
Here are some things to look out for from a tactical standpoint.
Combination plays: Stopping Philly from playing their game
After John Hackworth took over head coach halfway through this season, he has tried to get the Union away from the long ball game if possible and move towards keeping the ball on the ground and moving forward through short, quick, pass combinations.
In the first 60 minutes against the Columbus Crew last weekend, Philly worked this to perfection, gliding through the Columbus midfield on many occasions by moving well off the ball and limiting the amount of touches taken. Even though they were the away team, they enjoyed a lot of possession but for all of their pretty play, they created only a few chances. It was only when they got the wide men in behind did they cause any real damage.
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Against the Chicago Wednesday night I can see coach Hackworth deploying the same tactic but it will be up to the Fire to disrupt this as much as possible by trying to impose their game of high pressure, something that was missing against Kansas City Friday. The more the Fire can force Philly into kicking it long, the more it will take them away from their possession-based game plan.
Stopping the super sub: Antoine Hoppenot
Rookie Antoine Hoppenot has been the Union's go-to-guy when the team is looking for a spark in the attack this season. He is clearly more comfortable coming off the bench and single handily turned last week's game against Columbus in the Union's favor after coming off the bench by allowing Philadelphia to play more direct.
Hoppenot is a defender’s nightmare -- a player who is always on the shoulder of the last man and never stops pressuring the back line when he enters the game. He took full advantage against a tired Columbus defense last week, earning a penalty kick and making some brilliant runs in behind the defense. He especially likes to make runs behind the outside defenders, something the Fire were guilty of allowing Kansas City to do too often last week.
When the French striker inventively makes his appearance from the subs bench Wednesday, the Fire cannot allow him to influence the game as he did last weekend.
Fire attack: getting Fernandez more involved
Though the Fire sat back for the most part on Friday and looked for balls to be played up to Sherjill MacDonald, the team did find some success when “Flaco” Fernandez was able to get forward and support the more advanced players.
Due to Pavel Pardo's injury, Alex has been playing in a much deeper role and must put his defensive duties ahead of his desire to support the attack. Alex's new role has also put more emphasis on Flaco Fernandez to help out in the attack as much as possible. When he did go forward against Kansas City, it resulted in some of the Fire's best chances.
Playing back at home, I expect the Fire to be much more adventurous in attack and this will mean that Fernandez will be given more license to get forward than he was against KC where he was forced to track back for a lot of the game. Fernandez has found himself in some brilliant positions this season, and if not for some lackluster finishing, he would easily have double the amount of goals he already has for the Fire. His forays forward could be the difference against the Union on Wednesday night.
Left back: A familiar face returns
Friday night’s red card to Gonzalo Segares means we will almost certainly see fan favorite Dan Gargan back in the starting lineup for the first time in 11 matches. Gargan is the first sub off the bench if anyone on the back line is injured and the team has relied heavily on his versatility, especially with the many injuries to Fire defenders this season.
That being said, the Fire have been quite lucky to avoid injuries to the back line in recent months and the team's discipline has been excellent this season with minimal suspensions. All of this means that Gargan has started in 17 games this season but none since late July at San Jose. Getting him minutes is very important, especially heading towards the playoffs where the format is longer, meaning a greater chance of someone picking up an injury or suspension.
We all know about Gargan's defensive abilities but against the Union at home, he will be encouraged to push forward and contribute to the attack. How well he combines with the Fire's left winger (assumed to be Patrick Nyarko) will be important. A good performance by Gargan Wednesday would also make a statement to coach Frank Klopas of Gargan's intent to win back a starting place as we enter the most important stretch of the season.
Prediction: 2-0 Fire with goals from Nyarko and Fernandez.
Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve.