Trial by Fire: Us Open Cup Semi Final Preview

It’s almost here, the day we have all been waiting for. The day that the Philadelphia Union aim to repeat history by reaching the final of the U.S. Open Cup for the second year in a row. The only team that stands in their way is Chicago Fire as they travel to PPL Park to try and gain an upper hand before facing the home side in the league just days later.

This game carries more than just a do or die scenario, whoever wins will unquestionably gain a significant mental advantage when the two meet on the 17th of August. But for now, the Union’s main focus is ensuring a spot in the U.S. Open Cup final in September.

With Accam reported to be back fully fit for the game, it means the Union are going to have their work cut out for them..but they are no stranger to mountains that need climbing. There have been two scenarios already in which the Union have been a man down, one of which was in the Quarter Final showdown with the Red Bulls. Despite losing a man just before the closure of the first half and then conceding at the death, the U forced their way back into the game with a penalty shootout win. If you were trying to explain to a friend what makes this Cup so special, you would show them that game.

The Union have conceded the most goals in the MLS on 40 whilst the Fire have only scored 23, setting us up for a true all or nothing battle. If the Fire were without Accam it would definitely hand the reigns over to the Union, but even with their key player..there isn’t really a great supporting cast around him. It’s normally at this point where we list the Union’s injuries and say how much of a disadvantage the team are at..but the injuries sustained don’t really set the team back when you look at the bigger picture.

Is Andrew Wenger really that much of a loss, was he going to incredibly breakout and get two assists whilst dominating the left wing? No. His absence has allowed a much more effective and elusive Eric Ayuk to patrol the wing and score a few goals. Nogueira is the more notable loss but Curtin seems to favour playing Barnetta in that role. Nogueira has netted five times for the Union this season and his presence on the field will be sorely missed but whilst Curtin changed it at the break against Orlando, Barnetta didn’t look that concerned in a central role.

The only reason that Barnetta looked a little lost out there is because he’s still adjusting to the MLS, still adjusting to a new team and now adjusting to a new position. Players aren’t just going to excel wherever you put them, if Curtin wants to play Barnetta in a centralised role then it’s going to take a few more weeks for him to feel comfortable.

However Pfeffer would be the much better option, allowing Barnetta to control the wing. The team do not have a lot of depth but if it wasn’t for players such as Ayuk or now Gaddis, the team would be in a much trickier situation.

In terms of a lineup, for me the answer is simple. Accam has six goals and their next best goal scorer is Larentowicz on four. So the Union need to fight fire with fire, in terms of the league the Union’s match fit top scorers look like this:

Sapong- 7
Le Toux- 4
Ayuk- 2 
Pfeffer- 2

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 14.55.59The Union will want as many of these to start as possible. Le Toux is the all time leading scorer in this competition and for some reason relishes in these situations whilst his experience will be invaluable. Sapong will be the lone striker with a potential switch at around the 70th minute mark for Nando. For me it’s Pfeffer who should get the start alongside Maidana, allowing Barnetta to control the flanks. Super Seb Le Toux can later be switched for Ayuk to bring an unrelenting pace to the flanks.

The Marquez and Vitoria partnership was something Union fans have craved for months and finally got to see. The back four looked as solid as it has all year and with Fabinho’s versatile attacking nature, the presence of Vitoria has been missed. The Fire will really struggle to get out of the middle third of the pitch when you have Edu, Vitoria and Marquez all in their primes.


The key to this one for the Union is watching out for Harry Shipp. Whilst all eyes will be placed on the Fire’s leading goalscorer, you can’t take your attention away from the man who knows this team better than anyone. He started 33 games last year and led the team with six assists. Shipp already has five this season and is a crucial part in the teams attacking play. The aim for the Fire will be to draw Maidana into coverage so that Shipp and company can create plays without worrying about a counter. Maidana has to stay well positioned and allow the remaining midfielders to box Shipp out of the game. Show the ball onto his weaker foot and make sure that he’s constantly marked.

Other than that, it just becomes a game of composure. The Union are starting to gain a reckless reputation when it comes to tackling. This is a game where they simply cannot afford to go a man down early on. If that happens, Chicago play a very successful possession based game and will just keep the Union chained up all game long. The challenges have to be conservative, no silly mistakes, no letting the opposition get in their had. This has to be a relaxed, fluid form of defence that whilst pressuring will make sure they don’t surrender a penalty or even worse a sending off. Missing a key player for the final should they make it is the last thing the team need!

Complacency is another issue. Far too often do the Union take a lead, be it one goal or two and become complacent. Again, they can’t afford to here because of how badly both teams need this result. The Fire are on 22 points, one behind the Union in the league and both have struggled hugely this season. They NEED a win and therefore the play is going to reflect that. Cup football often shows a different side to players and if the Union take a lead and then take their foot off of the gas, Chicago won’t play for a draw..they will play every second like it’s do or die. But that works both ways, should the Union concede first, they HAVE to react and quickly. A 10 minute push at the end won’t be enough here, it has to be 90 minutes of fast paced, free flowing passing to break down the will of the midfield.

The Union do have an ace up their sleeve however in the way of Aristeguieta. His aerial ability has been what has made him dangerous in his limited game time for the Union. At 6″1, he stands tall over:

Gonzalo Segares: 5″9
Lovel Palmer 5″8
Joevin Jones 5″6

Three of the potential six guys that could lineup in tomorrow evenings Chicago Fire back four. If the Union get put into a scenario where they are desperately searching for a goal, lofted crosses to the Venezuelan forward who could come on as a substitute could well be the answer.

This game is destined to be a shootout for the simple reason that it’s a do or die game. If the Union leave empty handed here it will leave them with a heavy heart going into their remaining MLS fixtures and probably spell the end of their playoff hopes. But if Jim Curtin can rally his starting eleven to deliver, lift the spirits and confidence of his players and push them to the final..then not only should it be three easy points next time out but it sets them up nicely to attack the final run in and make one last push for the play-offs.


I think the Union have enough momentum in their sails to pick up a win here. The team flourish in this competition and with it now being Curtin’s main focus, you have to think that he’s prepared vigorously for such an occasion. The pressure is building on the coach as well as the team and a good result here would certainly boost his hopes of a contract extension. The homefield advantage and the passion of the Sons Of Ben should spur the team on to a narrow 2-1 victory. Whether that win is sealed within 90 minutes or 120..we will have to wait and see.

Philadelphia Union 2-1 Chicago Fire