Player ratings

Analysis & Player Ratings: Sporting KC 1-1 Union

Peter Vermes doesn’t like to see opposing teams bunkering in Kansas City.

Unfortunately for Vermes, he will keep seeing the tactics he hates from Philadelphia. Because they keep working.

Union early defensive shape

Union early defensive shape

Executing the plan

There were tense moments for the Union in a game that played out almost exactly as predicted tactically. But for all the pressure they exerted, Kansas City was left with a paucity of dangerous chances on Zac MacMath’s goal. Defensively, Brian Carroll and Amobi Okugo stayed central and close together. On the wing, Danny Cruz was extremely effective pushing forward at pace. And in back, Mo Edu and Ethan White kept a close eye on Dom Dwyer. It was as if Philadelphia was ready for everything from the defending champs. As if they were well prepared.

The shift in Union tactics under Jim Curtin has been breathtaking in its speed. Organizationally, we are looking at the MLS version of the Mighty Ducks.

From a midfield that stretched itself out of shape and sacrificed its numerical advantages early in the season has emerged this well-drilled unit: Returning to a triangle swiftly when the ball is lost, reading each other’s pressing and cutting off appropriate lanes, quick to counter and sending an extra man into the box. What sounded like an area of strength in the offseason became one of flux and weakness. Now, with the center of the park simplified in their roles, the weakness has once more become a strength.

Okugo first half

Okugo first half

Okugo second half

Okugo second half

Okugo can do more

The only piece of the midfield puzzle still missing is… Amobi Okugo (and maybe Maurice Edu after the almost-certain return of Carlos Valdes). A move from the backline to the midfield finally released Okugo to show his complete skillset. But recently, his considerable soccer brain has out-competed his soccer instincts.

If you believe that Okugo is the full package as a midfielder, you see this recent poor form as a re-adjustment. Indeed, an argument could be convincingly made that Okugo is interpreting his midfield role through the eyes of a defender. The clearest evidence here is replayed when the Union win a ball back deep in their own half or in midfield. Okugo often pauses, just for a moment, before remembering that he is due up field or on a checking run.

That little pause is symbolic of an instinctual yet intelligent midfielder playing with hesitancy. It shows up in soft checking runs and it show up again in a tardiness to join attacks or take the touch required to switch fields or turn the other way. Okugo’s past performances in Union colors suggest he is capable of controlling the pace of a match with his defensive pressure and passing. Right now, he’s simply thinking too much.

Feilhaber first half

Feilhaber first half

Foiling Feilhaber

One player who was not out of form going into Friday’s matchup was Benny Feilhaber. As NBCSN was kind enough to remind us at regular intervals, the former US international is having a career year. He provides the creativity that keeps defenses tight watching for through balls and opens space on the wings for Graham Zusi.

For the first 20 minutes of the match, Carroll, Nogueira, and Okugo did brilliantly to force Kansas City to come up the wings, preventing the balls into Dom Dwyer’s feet and watching for the nifty through ball splitting the fullbacks and centerbacks. After that… it got a bit dicey.

Nogueira should be praised for his improved discipline, as he rarely chased and lost shape. But as Feilhaber found a neat pocket just left of center, the Union did not compensate.

Essentially, Feilhaber overloaded the right side of the Union defense in front of a conservative Okugo. While Brian Carroll would shut down with speed, forcing Feilhaber backwards, Okugo played the lanes and when KC got an extra man on that side, they found enough space to look up and attack the Union defense. This should have been a fixable issue at halftime. And, lo and behold, it was fixed.

In the second half, Okugo was more aggressive defensively and it broke Kansas City’s rhythm. If not for Ray Gaddis’ defensive error and the Zusi chance that followed in the immediate confusion, Philly would have allowed just one attempt on goal from inside their own box in the second half: Dwyer’s fine run in front of Edu that he skied off an Igor Juliao cross.

One system to rule them all

The Union are earning points now. While they still make mistakes, they are concentration mistakes, not errors borne from a system that is either poorly conceived or poorly understood. Sebastien Le Toux and Danny Cruz, in particular, have continued to adjust to more disciplined defensive roles while understanding when and how to break forward.

In the back, Ethan White has proved the first worthy successor to Danny Califf. He generally plays within his means and makes up for lackluster distribution with a physical approach that was sorely missing from the defense.

In MLS, teams that find success in the postseason generally follow one of two approaches: They impose their system on all comers (e.g., KC, LA) or they devise a system capable of adapting to many forms of attack (e.g., Houston, RSL). Jim Curtin is following the second strategy.

Thirty minutes into the match, Kansas City held 78% possession and the Union had created not one opportunity. And yet, it was difficult to worry. Philly’s strategy was clear, and the players’ understanding of that strategy was near-universal. The team’s confidence came not from a swaggering belief that they could romp over anyone on their day, but in their swaggering recognition of KC’s frustration as time ticked away and chances failed to materialize.

It is the bemused confidence that often slips onto the face of Maurice Edu. The defender’s laconic style in back suggests a player who often feels one step ahead of his opponent. He is not always right.

But that self-assuredness is what makes Edu a natural team leader. And it is infecting a talented team that was badly in need of reassurance.

Player ratings

Zac MacMath – 6

Recovering from an early flap that Brian Carroll had to clear off the line, MacMath was strong for the remainder of the match. His fine saves at the end of the first half summed up a strong defensive performance by the team.

Sheanon Williams – 6

Feilhaber’s preference for his side meant The Sheanomenon was limited in his ability to join the counterattack. He made up for it with a solid defensive display against the ever-dangerous Zusi. As the game wore on, Williams jumped into the offense more often, fizzing a shot at Andy Gruenebaum in first half stoppage time and nearly connecting on a cross from Gaddis in the second half.

Ethan White – 7 

Another fine performance from the Maryland product. Along with Edu, White kept the Union compact for much of the first half, only losing that shape when the Union midfield lost their runners in the latter half of the first forty-five. Peter Vermes was intent on making White play the ball out of the back, and sat Dwyer between the Union centerbacks all game. As a result, White was stuck playing a vertical game that relies on strong showings from Conor Casey to work (Casey showed; it often worked).

Maurice Edu – 8

Five tackles, three interceptions, and five recoveries in the middle third of the pitch? Edu simply rose to the challenge against the much-hyped Dom Dwyer. Adding dangerous runs forward to a good defensive line and Edu simply looks like a player who feels comfortable in his role. But whether he enjoys that role, and whether it changes once Carlos Valdes almost-definitely joins the squad, remains to be seen.

Ray Gaddis – 5

After a mundane first half that saw Danny Cruz track Igor’s runs with regularity, Gaddis turned on the surprises in the second frame. First there was the wild n’ crazy header that led to Zusi’s goal, then there were the dangerous forays forward as the player sought to make up for his mistake. He ultimately did, thanks to Brian Brown.

Brian Carroll – 7

A sterling performance from the captain, as he did what Brian Carroll does best. Paired with Okugo, Carroll was surprisingly the more aggressive from the outset, earning two fouls in the first ten minutes that effectively ended Benny Feilhaber’s desire to roam into No. 7’s territory. Though he did start to drop deep as the game wore on, Carroll showed he can still rise to the occasion against a strong opponent.

Amobi Okugo – 4

Okugo probably deserves a 5. But think of this as potential motivation. His passing and pressure were hesitant, and it took until the second half before Okugo let his instincts and intellect interact in a way that maximized his abilities in this double-pivot system. This is still a player that needs to demand the ball from his defenders. At once point in the second half, Ethan White played a suspect ball through the middle to Okugo. Had he been checking back hard, Amobi could have at least flicked the ball upfield. Instead, he had to try to slide into a 50-50 challenge that he lost. White was not happy.

Vincent Nogueira – 7 

The Frenchman showed discipline to stay central and avoid chasing alone, and he was the hub of the Union transition game throughout the first half. In the second, Jorge Claros got close and did an excellent job minimizing Nogueira’s influence. But Claros’ dedication to his task opened space in front of the Kansas City back four and forced him to sit deeper, recycling attacks from a less dangerous position.

Danny Cruz – 8 

He will never be perfect defensively. But if Cruz can dribble at defenders with speed 5-6 times a game and have his head up four of those times… that is how the Union create chances in transition. And Cruz should be praised for his defensive discipline. His penchant for running through 40-60 challenges has diminished and he seems to understand that holding shape does not preclude those high speed breakouts he loves so much.

Sebastien Le Toux – 6 

A middling first half followed by a second half that saw him more involved. Le Toux’s fine service from corners meant he was too valuable to remove from the match even if Cruz had appeared the more dangerous winger over the first hour.

Conor Casey – 7

Casey had the kind of game that, as the cliche goes, ‘won’t show up on the stats sheet.’ His one shot was a late front post header that Gruenebaum’s positioning kept out. Otherwise he failed to threaten goal but battled Aurelian Collin all match and, at times, became a creative force by stepping out of the middle and looking to play crossfield balls. Casey’s work was most important in allowing the Union defense to relieve pressure by playing the ball long without it coming right back at them.


Andrew Wenger – 5

Again, Wenger got into good positions and rarely made it count. He was beaten by Igor on the cross that led to Dwyer’s big opportunity

Brian Brown – 8

Go back and watch Brown’s movement as Gaddis sets up for the cross that became an assist. The Jamaican shifts his feet, dancing like a NBA point guard in a defensive stance. By the time the cross comes in, Kevin Ellis has no idea where Brown is, and the resulting header was a laser.

Fred – n/a

Fairly uninvolved, but a good sub. Nogueira looked beat.

Geiger Counter – 7

Jair Marrufo was composed and largely controlled the game well. As far as MLS refereeing goes, this was good stuff.


  1. Could. Not. Agree. More. About. Brian. Brown. More of him ASAP, please!

  2. Your comments on Amobi Okugo are well read and likely what is at issue with his “underwhelming” play as some have written. He sets the pace and will find the purest creation of his DM form shortly I imagine. Stability helps and the return of Valdez could be just what the remedy is along with finding comfort in his role with Noguiera on field as he likes to drop quite deep and build play. Either way- Amobi is first rate and has quite a solid soccer brain.
    Hopefully Curtain got to sit with Okugo in management transition and realized if there was a player to ‘ostracize’ it was Edu and not Okugo in CB role. Good insight from the manager. Good insight indeed.

    • What is lost in the analysis is the fact that Okugo played conservatively to cover Edu and Williams who always abandons their deep positions to join the attack. What folks miss is the discipline Okugo brings to the midfield. With Okugo in midfield, teams no longer run past our midfield to pressure our defense.

  3. I agree that the tactics were clear and well executed, yet, if it wasn’t for a brilliant header from Brown, we could have easily been looking at a loss. The best we were ever going to get out of that game was a draw, and right now, we need to go after three points if we intend to make the playoffs. Hopefully, we won’t see the same tactics against Montreal.
    It was interesting to see how far forward Carroll was getting. I wonder if that was by design as I would expect Nogueira to be the guy you want to join the attack late.
    With the return of Valdes, at this point, I think it is a toss-up between Amobi and Carroll for who the odd man out is. Edu was brilliant in covering for some positioning errors from Gaddis.

    • Carroll returns to the bench as soon as Madiana is ready (pushing Noguiera back), so the real decision is what to do with Edu. It really comes down to Okugo or White then. Edu’s been such a good influence back there, I’d probably move White back to the bench and keep Okugo at MF.

    • Cheer up spugger!!! Clear, well-executed tactics, with a moment of brilliance from our new striker!!! It is quite true that one of the best MLS squads, playing at home, could have won the match, but they didn’t!!!

    • Best to get out of this game was a win. Had Williams actually shot (instead of raising his arms to celebrate) on the last corner of the game we would have won!

  4. JediLos117 says:

    I sit White.
    Valdes and Edu going forward to playoffs

    • The Black Hand says:

      Amen! White is not that good, really.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        White is good enough in my opinion, but it doesn’t seem like it would ever be hard to justify sitting him. Plus with Valdes now back, White to the bench is a no brainer.

      • white is good it is just that edu and valdes are both better. no shame in that

  5. Wait, there was a ref on the field? I saw 5 or 6 yellow card fouls between the 2 teams, and I missed the first half hour.

    • Andy Muenz says:

      There may have been some hard fouls, but he was consistent and I don’t think the game ever threatened to get out of hand. He did a good job at talking to players rather than reaching for his pockets.

  6. After years of never playing palyers in position, I want to see White and Valdes at CB.

    Figure out the rest from there.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Edu has been disappointing, overall, but he is poised at CB. White is not good enough to play over Edu.

      • Edu has been a rock at CB and he is a better DM than Okugo will probably ever be. If the fans were expecting anything out of Edu on the attacking end, then you have not been tracking his career. An incredibly versatile player on the defensive end of the field, but Edu has the poise and soccer intelligence to be a fantastic DM in MLS.

        Also, we finally got to see what Gaddis can do as an “inside-out” player on his assist. Left side player, cutting in and serving the ball with his preferred right foot. Result = Goal. You dont need a naturally left or right footed player on the corresponding flank to be effective.

      • I will tell you right now Okugo’s ceiling is higher than Edu’s.

      • Edu = 46 USMNT caps, 2010 WC veteran, has played in UCL. Champion in SPL, etc. That is quite a ceiling….

      • The Black Hand says:

        True, but we have yet to see THAT guy.

      • also currently playing in mls because he cant get minutes in the uk and missed out on the world cup roster

      • Fair point. I never particularly liked Edu on USMNT. My ceiling for Okugo upper end European play. He will get called up soon too.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Edu has been strong, at CB, and should have been strong at the 6. Unfortunately, his midfield play has been very inconsistent and, in my opinion, poor. Okugo, on the other hand, has been pretty good at the DM. His under-the-radar play is what you want from your CDM. Offensively, he gives us much more support (and intelligent play)than Carroll and more hustle than Edu.
        As for Ray, you’re right. His assist was damn fine! His overall play has suffered a bit on the left. Sheanon’s play has not justified any detriment to Ray’s game. I’d put Gaddis back on the right and juggle Williams/Fabinho on the left, until we find a legit LB.
        I think that an Edu/Valdez CB pairing is the way to go. Okugo/Noguiera in the rear-mid.

      • jbh, I have to disagree with you on Edu being a better then Okugo at DM. Maybe Edu was at one point but right now hes definitely not. The reason they tried Edu in the back is because he was horrendous in the midfield. I can see why Edu didn’t get any playing time with stoke city….

  7. Had fun watching this game! Looking forward to the remaining games of this season!

  8. Old soccer coach says:

    Center backs are Valdes and Edu. Both can distribute, both can judge well when to make the once or twice a game offensive run out of the center. White has less offensive versatility, but will be needed as depth for red cards or accumulated yellows. Defensive center mids are Okugo and Nogueira, with Carroll as the top reserve ( seems to me he’s played better since getting more rest between games’ don’t no whether the relationship is causal or coincidental).
    The key is Maidana’s hamstring; I am hoping for him on the bench Saturday with a 30 minute runout in the second half. Finally, once again, Zach MacMath shows that he raises his game under competitive pressure.

  9. Sitting Edu would be truly foolish. The question is who pairs with Valdes: Edu, Okugo, or White. And the decision about the starting XI basically devolves into starting Ethan White or starting Danny Cruz.

    If it’s Edu or Okugo, we roll with basically the lineup we have now, except that Maidana slots back in at midfield, pushing Nogueira back and Carroll/Lahoud to the bench (with Okugo or Edu being the remaining D-mid, whichever is not playing at CB). Given recent play, I would have to imagine that Edu stays back and Okugo remains in the midfield to get more chance to get back to that role.

    If it’s White, on the other hand, things get interesting. Then we push both Okugo and Edu into D-mid positions, with Nogueira up somewhat in the center and Maidana above him, and Casey & LeToux playing as a traditional forward pair. The possible limitation is wing play, but the 4 guys up top would all be mobile enough to find space. I think this would get our best XI on the field, and with 4 solid defenders, plus Okugo and Edu (and Nogueira) in front of them, and an incoming world class keeper, we might be impossible to score against.

  10. The Chopper says:

    If Chaco is healthy, then Carroll is on the bench. The question for me then is do you start Ethan White or Amobi Okugo next to Carlos Valdes. Okugo has shown in the past that next to a veteran presence like Carlos or Jeff Parke he is a very capable presence. His defensive play suffered this year as the early season lineups were loaded with inexperienced and out of position players.

    But with Valdes back, I don’t see a reason to keep Edu on the back line. The man is a midfielder and has more to offer there than Okugo does right now.

  11. If all the players we have on the team right now are all healthy; there cannot be a starting role for Carroll or his appearance in the first eleven. And since that should be ovbious, I see no reason to keep bringing up his name in the discussions less it be construed as insulting to his fine reputation. There are situations when certain policies are implied not expressed.

    I see these starting eleven in whatever formation you want-just throw them out there to play football:
    The Algerian, Fabinho, Valdez, White, Gaddis, Nog, Edu, Okugo, Chaco, Casey, Brown.(Bench: Zac, Le2, Wenger, Williams, Berry, Cruz, Wheeler).

    • I think you lost everyone when you put Fabinho in over Williams. Brown over LeToux isn’t exactly a free throw at the moment, either.

    • This proposed lineup has no wingers. Leave Cruz and LeToux on the field. White makes way for Valdes, who gets paired with Edu (better size and composure back there….keep Okugo at DM). Brown comes off the Bench. Fabinho stays on the bench as cover for Williams/Gaddis only.

      • Leave Cruz out of the 18. Bring in Pfeffer to the 18. I like Cruz’s but he does nothing for me on the field. Fabinho should not be on the field with Valdes coming back to the team.

  12. It’s great that everyone on this page wants to play FIFA Manager. What strikes me as funny is that the same people who are frothing mad about the team having three goalkeepers don’t get upset at all about the five defensive midfielders on the squad, like, it’s just another puzzle to solve. It’s not; it’s a sign of managerial incompetence, much more than 3 GKs.

    • +1 It would be nice to trade at least one of them for another striker/winger option.

    • Osager, your premise is flawed.

      1) We almost always play more than one defensive mid at a time.

      2) With the exception of Carroll, all of those defensive mids are capable of playing other positions on the field.

      3) Goalkeepers don’t have the same level of risk for injury that field players do so you don’t need the same amount of depth in goal that you do at other positions.

      • We can play ten midfielders for all I care as long as they are all good players. Look at the last Germant WC team–only one stricker. The entire squad was all midfield and defensive players.

      • Soooooooooo much more fun watching Mascherano for Argentina compared with watching Mascherano for Barcelona.

      • I think we’ll have to agree to disagree. They almost always play with 2 centerbacks but the Union have not much depth at that position, just my opinion. I think playing good players at their actual positions is preferable to playing defensive midfielders out-of-position, again, just my opinion. As for GK versus outfield player injury rates, multiple studies have been performed and the results are not consistent, so, depending on which study you read, you may draw different conclusions.

      • The Chopper says:

        Part of the reason the Union have an abundance of defensive midfielders is that Okugo was pencilled in to be a defender this year. It was an underwhelming performance on defense that put him back in the midfield mix.

        Also it was unclear with formations and tactics where It would be best to position Noguiiera. Still an abundance of capable players here is not that big a liability. These are versatile players and the depth has certainly come in handy.

      • “Underwhelming” or not, in the entire Union squad and Valdez included, Okugo is still top two in both center back and midfield positions. We tend to hype new players forgetting those that have proven themselves and shown consistency over the years. The team’s playing formation should be reorganized to fit Okugo. He is the franchise.

      • If Okugo is the franchise, we are in trouble. Okugo is a decent player, but you don’t build the team around him.

      • Ok, agree to disagree, but I have to as what studies are you referring to? I think that it’s common sense that on average, a person would be more prone to injury if they ran 5-6 miles for 90 minutes vs only running 1-1.5 during that same time period. And that’s not even taking into the higher probability for collisions for the people running further.

      • Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport
        Volume 17, Issue 1, Pages 34–38, January 2014. Am J Sports Med. 1980; 8: 325–327. Br J Sports Med. 1978; 12: 43–45. Am J Sports Med. 2004; 32: 5S–16S. Am J Sports Med. 2001; 29: 426–430. Am J Sports Med. 2006; 34: 928–938. Am J Sports Med. 2005; 33: 1694–1700. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2012; 22: 323–329.

      • Thanks, I had no idea there were that many studies done on it. Interesting stuff.

      • TL;DR? Goalkeepers get hurt at just about the same rate as outfield players. There may be statistically different rates of different types of injuries, but overall it’s about the same.

  13. Preferred line-up? I still take Williams out:

    Gaddis – Valdes – Edu – White

    4 of (Cruz/Nogs/Maidana/Okogu/)

    Casey – LeToux/Brown

    What’s bothering me most about Williams is that he is playing very slowly. The mental part is plodding for me.

  14. OneManWolfpack says:

    All good comments! This lineup assumes Maidana is healthy.
    My starting XI (especially at home): GK: M’Bolhi / Backline: Williams – Valdes – Edu – Gaddis / DM – Okugo and Nogs / Attack: Maidana – LeToux – Cruz – Casey (up top)… basically a 4-2-3-1.
    Brown for Casey later on.

  15. Philly Cheese says:

    Good sharp header and movement by Brown, however, I hope the way Brown was pushed around and knocked off ball after the goal, is not an indication of timid play to come. Don’t want to see any pattern of falling down like Hoppenot started.

    • one of the times he went down in the box it was actually a foul imo. collin kicked him and it should have been a penalty, hard to fault him for that

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