Two Eastern Conference teams that are expected to end the season at opposite ends of the standings face off on Saturday night as the Philadelphia Union hosts the Chicago Fire at Subaru Park.

Philadelphia had a wonderful start to their campaign, sweeping aside the Columbus Crew 4-1 at home. However, they were then beaten by Inter Miami on the road the following week, which was a result that caught the attention of the rest of the league. There’s high expectations for this Union team, and they’ll have to bounce back here if they want to get their season back on track.

Chicago, meanwhile, had to wait an extra week to kick off their campaign. The added time didn’t seem to help them in the slightest, as they were woeful early on against NYCFC. They recovered in the second half, and they secured a draw by the end of the night, but they know that they will have to be much better on this occasion to have any hope of getting a result.

Here’s some key things to watch out for.

Rest versus rust

The duality of man will be on show once again.

Philadelphia has already played three games this season, including a CONCACAF Champions League tie during the week. They had to travel to El Salvador to take on Alianza FC, and even though they rotated the starting lineup, all of the players still had to make the lengthy trip over. They lost a day of practice just because of travel.

Then there’s Chicago, who has only played once since they were given opening weekend off. Anyone who’s not injured should be at full fitness, and this might be the most refreshed the team will be at any point in the year. 

In theory, this would give the Fire a distinct advantage. However, it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes too much rest can hurt a team. Just look at how Chicago started their last match. They were too slow coming out of the blocks, and it took them a while to get into rhythm.

If the same thing happens this weekend, and they run into a Union outfit that is already rocking and rolling, then the contest could be over before it ever begins.

Chopping and changing

Unfortunately for the Fire, they’re already going through a bit of an injury crisis.

They lost both of their starting central midfielders in the first half last week. Federico Navarro went down early on, and then Jairo Torres was forced off near the break. Both have been ruled out for at least a few weeks, and they’ll certainly miss out this weekend.

So, who is Ezra Hendrickson going to turn to?

I wrote more about this in another article, but there’s a chance that he’ll call upon the same players he did last time around. Mauricio Pineda replaced Navarro, and then Fabian Herbers came on for Torres. Both did well, and they made an impact on opposing sides of the field. Pineda helped shore up the backline, while Herbers pushed forward and ultimately grabbed the equalizer.

It might not be that simple. That is because of Gastón Giménez, who is usually a starter in midfield. He eventually came on against NYCFC, but he was effectively the third-choice midfielder on that night. The interesting thing is he wasn’t listed on the injury report, although there has since been news that he’s not at full fitness.

Will Giménez get the nod against Philadelphia? Will Hendrickson trust in Pineda and Herbers again? Only time will tell, but his selections could be the difference between Chicago getting a result or not.

A new leading man

One change that almost certainly will happen is at the striker position.

Kei Kamara was acquired before the start of the season, but since he had just arrived to the club, he wasn’t able to start on opening day. Kacper Przybyłko was given the nod as a result, and it was pretty much his last chance to prove himself for the Fire.

He bombed. Hard.

The forward was woeful, and he was hauled off at halftime. Kamara came on in his place, and that change kicked the side into gear in the final third. The new man was energetic, and he helped create the equalizing goal.

Kamara has had enough time to get used to his new surroundings, so he’ll lead the line against Philadelphia. That’s going to be an incredibly tough test for him and his teammates, as the Union had the best defense in the league by a wide margin last year, and they’ve been solid at the back ever since head coach Jim Curtin took charge. 

That won’t scare the number 23. Kamara has been there and done that in MLS, and if anyone knows how to break down a very strong backline, it could be him. It doesn’t matter how good Philly is if Kamara simply jumps over everyone in the box. Then again, if the Union shut him down, then Chicago might not have any other option going forward.

It’s the sort of matchup that could decide the outcome of the contest.

Bouncing back

As mentioned at the start, this might be a bigger game for Philadelphia than people realize.

They need to respond following last week’s surprising loss to Inter Miami. It wasn’t the worst loss in the world, as they actually had a higher expected goals tally, and the two goals they conceded were screamers. However, a loss is a loss is a loss.

This is the Union after all. Their standards are just so high at this point. It’s for good reason, as they were a Gareth Bale away from winning MLS Cup last season and a Covid-19 outbreak away from potentially winning it in 2021. They’ve also kept almost the same team from the previous year.

If they want to meet their lofty expectations, then they’ll have to bounce back this weekend. They’re going to be heavy favorites versus Chicago, especially since they’ll be at home. This is pretty much a must-win game for the Union, not because of how important a victory would be, but because of how concerning another bad result might be.

They’ll likely be fine, but imagine the headlines if they drop points here.

Free hit

Chicago won’t have to worry about that sort of pressure.

Although their fanbase has high hopes for the future, even they realize that the Fire don’t have much of a chance in this contest. They’re still an unproven unit, and the injuries they’ve had to deal with certainly hasn’t helped their odds. This game is a free hit for them.

That gives Chicago some freedom going into the match. They won’t feel like they have to win. As long as they aren’t beaten badly then it will be a decent afternoon for them. If they somehow steal a draw or even a win? It’ll be party time in the city.

That allows them to just play their game. Head coach Ezra Hendrickson loves to pack it in defensively, so he’ll relish the opportunity to get a clean sheet in one of the league’s toughest environments. The Fire has a solid partnership at centerback, so if everyone else can step up to the plate, then a 0-0 could be possible. 

Maybe the aforementioned freedom will lead to the frontline playing with more creativity and fluidity. Everyone knows how badly they need a spark, even with the addition of Kei Kamara.

Just don’t lose 7-0 or something like that.