Player ratings

Analysis and player ratings: DC 1-0 Union

Analysis by Adam Cann, player ratings by Mike Servedio

A worst case scenario for Philadelphia Union’s trip to conference leaders DC United: 4-0? 5-0?

But psychologically, going down 1-0 on a softish goal, then failing to mount any sustained pressure for 80 min has to feel just as bad as a blowout.

Home defense

That Philadelphia was shutout, in and of itself, is not particularly surprising. DC is the best defensive team at home in MLS with 11 goals allowed in 15 games; even the juggernaut in LA has allowed twelve. The real problem for Jim Curtin — and the players, and the fans, and for the front office that assembled this squad — is that the Union looked incapable of imposing themselves on the game. The fire that crackled as Philly threw stone after stone at western conference giant Seattle in the USOC final was gone. That match drained both teams, but the Sounders have the depth and a points cushion to survive a dip in form. Philadelphia Union have neither.

Taking over as a head coach midseason is an unenviable task. Jim Curtin spoke about how naive he was about the responsibilities when he took over, and the size and scope of his task imprinted itself on his early tactical planning: Keep it simple, play to your strengths, never stop. The Union were not bad, awful, terrible, horrendous, or any other emotionally-charged negative adjective on Saturday. But they ignored all three of the implicit maxims that drove the team’s rise to relevance early in Curtin’s tenure.

The Union defense generated one interception and one successful tackle beyond their defensive third. Not great pressure.

The Union defense generated one interception and one successful tackle beyond their defensive third. Not great pressure.

Forgetting the three rules

Nowhere were those three rules more apparent than in how Philadelphia played defense. A team full of energy but middle-of-the-pack in skill, the Union got compact and organized, frustrating opponents in the middle of the pitch and covering the long through balls with the most athletic defensive line in MLS. That compact shape is AWOL, and in its place is the eerily familiar chase-and-scramble system that characterized the more cringe-worthy performances under John Hackworth (not as extreme, but many of the worst elements are back).

The key to the Union’s keep-shape-then-counter success was the wingers. In Andrew Wenger, Sebastien Le Toux, and Danny Cruz, Philly has three of the most energetic wide players in the league. They can track back then take off upfield, and they can do it over and over and over. The tendency in recent games, however, has been to cheat upfield, anticipating the counter before it’s there. This has caused two secondary issues to develop.

First, staying high keeps outside backs more honest, meaning there is a) Less of a chance the central defenders will be drawn wide to defend, and b) Less space for the crafty Cristian Maidana to drift into as a transition attack develops.

Second, with wingers high, the defensive shape leaves pockets in wide areas for opposing teams to exploit. Davy Arnaud would find space dropping deep against a more compact defense, but he would not be able to pick out the long passes up the flank that put Philly under pressure. The brilliance of the tight, organized defensive shell the Union played in the early Curtin games was that it was an innovative response to a jumbled Eastern Conference. Few teams have a backup plan if their first-choice offense doesn’t work. Is Michael Bradley marked out of the game? Do the KC fullbacks have room to get high on the flanks? Is Thierry Henry denied the ball? Um… what do we do?

Davy Arnaud dropped deep to facilitate play, then looked to the space behind Le Toux/Cruz.

Davy Arnaud dropped deep to facilitate play, then looked to the space behind Le Toux/Cruz.

Giving up the extra midfield man

Most teams responded by throwing bodies forward, and the Union would respond by sending their extra central midfielder into the empty gaps behind fullbacks and bursting out on lightning quick counters that seemed to emerge from nowhere.

Against DC, the Union still sent the extra midfielder wide, but the space was not there. Furthermore, the wingers would slide central when Maidana or Nogueira hit the wings, meaning even a potential overload and throughball was off the table. It was, in short, an offense that played to nobody’s strengths.

Simply put, the Union cannot have it both ways. Either they play a compact, defense-first system and suck teams in before hitting the break, or they play an aggressive, high-pressure defensive system and learn how to own the middle of the pitch. The hybrid of the two styles blunts the offense’s speed while giving up the team’s advantage in the middle.

One question that often came up during the John Hackworth era was: Why do the Union play with three central midfielders then consistently send one out to the wing in possession? Sure, a winger could slip inside, but the difference in tight-space skill between Maidana/Nogueira and Le Toux/Wenger is a big one — so what is the actual benefit?

Curtin answered my question by showing that pushing that attacking mid high and wide pulled a defense apart on swift breaks. But without the compact defensive system to build from, those breaks are not on, and the Union are simply turning a 3v2 midfield matchup into a 2v2 and gaining nothing from it.

Le Toux’s health

Sebastien Le Toux’s renaissance under Jim Curtin has been spectacular, and his injury on Saturday allows an opportunity to examine exactly what Le Toux does that makes him a perfect fit for his role on this team.

Starting from a wide position, Le Toux makes vertical, often angled runs toward the center of the pitch. This type of movement complements Conor Casey well, as the big man loves to drop deep as a target, pulling defenders out of position and leaving space for a willing runner like Le Toux.

In contrast to the Frenchman, Danny Cruz tends to make runs either straight down the line or angled into space in the middle. This often put him in the same areas as Casey on Saturday, and left the Union without a threat over the top. Note that the few times Cruz did make a more vertical off-the-ball run in the second half, he caused real trouble for the United defense and forced Bill Hamid to be brave in his box.

In the final 15 mins, Philly rarely looked like a team desperate for points.

In the final 15 mins, Philly rarely looked like a team desperate for points.

The final fifteen

The third maxim outlined above is “never stop.” And while it may be going too far to say the Union stopped, they certainly failed to do much during the final fifteen minutes of a game that demanded points. Vincent Nogueira and Cristian Maidana mostly drifted about 40 yards from goal, neither getting into the box as a third runner. The most active midfielder during the closing stages was Amobi Okugo, pushing forward from deep positions to press and even put a cross into the box. This looks good for Okugo, but it is hardly the ideal scenario for a team with two DPs in front of the defensive midfielder.

In all, the Union generated three shots during the final sixth of the match. All from distance. One on frame.

Looking ahead

The Union have put themselves in a precarious position, but all is not lost. Three home games and a trip to Columbus to close out the year mean Philly is still very capable of sneaking into the postseason.

Unfortunately, Philadelphia has not been a points machine at PPL Park. They are seventh in the Eastern Conference in points earned at home, and only Portland and Chivas have given up more goals at home than the Union.

The big questions going into Thursday’s match against Chicago revolve around Sebastien Le Toux’s health. If he plays, Philly simply needs to revert to their compact, dangerous counterattacking system and trust in their energetic wingers and talented designated players to lift them over a less talented Chicago side.

Without Le Toux, however, Jim Curtin’s tactical prowess hits center stage again. Saying the Frenchman is a perfect fit for that wide winger/striker role implies the ugly truth that nobody else on the team fills that slot nearly as well. Curtin may have to play with two out-and-out strikers from the outset or push Maidana wide and use an Okugo/Edu base behind Nogueira. The Union coach will have numerous equally unproven options, and he will have to choose wisely for Philadelphia to complete a dramatic turnaround and reach the postseason.

Player ratings

Rais Mbolhi – 6

Can’t really fault Mbolhi much on the United goal, a free header nodded straight into the corner of the net. His save from the well-hit Perry Kitchen shot in the first half was awkward but effective. Obvious that there are still communication issues to work out with his new teammates.

Sheanon Williams – 5

Caught watching Luis Silva head past Mbolhi. Offered more going forward than Gaddis did on the left, but failed to make much impact with his crosses — not entirely his fault as the Union failed to get numbers in the box all match.

Carlos Valdes – 5

The two stops on the goalline were fantastic. It was great hustle to get the first one and great instinct to block the second one. Other than that though, the Columbian looked labored most of the match, and even appearied to be limping at times. Did not come forward for corner kicks until halfway through the second half. Curtin said his substitution was tactical, and that is believable, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn the defender has at least a little bit of a knock as well.

Maurice Edu – 6

Returned to defense with the injury to Ethan White, the Union captain put in a decent shift at both ends of the field. Actually had a very nice block on Sean Franklin right before the DC goal that unfortunately drifted right to Chris Korb. Did well to join the attack late in the match and had one of the better opportunities to score with a long distance shot that Bill Hamid spilled.

Ray Gaddis – 5

Very slow to join the attack, particularly in the second half when the Union needed to add numbers going going forward. When he did get forward, he was forced onto his right foot and had crosses blocked on a few occasions.

Okugo showed his passing range and moved the ball quickly, but the chances didn't develop.

Okugo showed his passing range and moved the ball quickly, but the chances didn’t develop.

Amobi Okugo – 4

A rough assignment tracking the lively Perry Kitchen, Okugo struggled to contain the United playmaker in the first half. With DC sitting more deeply in the second half, Okugo did show his usual passing range in getting the ball forward quickly enough and into the feet of Nogueira and Maidana.

Vincent Nogueira – 5

Was his usual industrious self, making himself available for passes all over the field. But more than a few times was on a different page than his teammates, failing to put passes to their feet or misreading the runs of players. Worse than that, had a few errant back passes to Amobi Okugo that put the Union defense under further pressure. Saw less of the Frenchman near the opponent’s 18 yard box than we’ve seen over the last few weeks.

Not Wenger's best day.

Not Wenger’s best day taking people on.

Andrew Wenger – 5

Had two of the Union’s best chances. Early in the first half, made a fantastic run cutting in from the left and redirected Nogueira’s cross on goal, but straight at Hamid. Did well to create space for a shooting opportunity in the second half but had his shot go just wide (possible that Casey should have peeled off on this play and been available to tap in). But also disappeared for portions of the match and was unable to pick up the ball and run at defenders like we’ve seen the winger do over the last month. Had one of the best crosses of the match early in the second half, picking out Danny Cruz who probably should have scored from close range.

Sebastien Le Toux – n/a

Only played 20 minutes before being injured. Union fans will hope his ankle is not seriously hurt.

Cristian Maidana – 5

Popped up wide frequently and did well to keep the ball moving. But with Conor Casey as the only recognized forward on the pitch, Maidana needed to be on the ball in, and around, the DC box more often. With the Union looking to put crosses in, the big Argentinian also needed to be in the box for service, but was often behind the play or too far out on the wing.

Union defensive discipline on trial: Sebastien Le Toux drifted into the middle for no reason, leaving Gaddis alone in the buildup to the DC goal.

Union defensive discipline on trial: Sebastien Le Toux drifted into the middle for no reason, leaving Gaddis alone in the buildup to the DC goal (Click to play).

Conor Casey – 3

Perhaps the 3 is harsh, as the big Union forward saw little service for most of his 65 minutes on the pitch, but Casey was another player who just did not seem like he was on the same page as his teammates. Should have done better to peel off Wenger for a tap in in the second half. There were multiple occasions where he tried to retreat back for the ball to his feet, only to either have a pass misplayed to him or for him to misplay a return pass.


Danny Cruz – 4

Brought his trademark energy after Le Toux’s unfortunate injury. Had a few good movements with the ball at his feet, running at DC defenders. But had little end product, both crossing from the outside and with a few terrible attempts on goal that ended up in Row Z. Was one of the few Union players willing to take shots though. Had a terrific chance to score on the rebound of Edu’s shot but was just put off enough by the retreating Chris Kemp. Also could have scored from Wenger’s cross early in the second half.

Brian Brown – 4

Similar to Casey, struggled to create things on his own as a lone striker. Had one nice run with the ball down the left side, but also disappeared for stretches at a time. Playing against an organized United defense, the rookie needed more support going forward, and that support hardly ever arrived.

Pedro Ribeiro – n/a

Hard to give a rating to Ribeiro, who probably should have joined the match at least 5-10 minutes earlier. Spent much of his time on the pitch playing target forward with Philadelphia resorting to long balls from the back.


  1. I give the whole team a 3 with a standard deviation of +/- 2. A bunch of crud out there on Saturday.
    I am unsure we have ever had an analysis that did not include at least one 7. A bunch of crud out there on Saturday.
    Luckily I was so distracted by the hanging and potted plants littering the bowl of the stadium. Think I saw a hoe a hose and some creosote railroad ties too.
    Here is this week’s question. Who played worse the Union or the Eagles.

  2. I missed the game. Both my kids had games Saturday afternoon, and my daughter managed to not set the DVR correctly, somehow. I was annoyed at the time, but it’s clear now she actually did us a favor.
    My choice for replacing Le Toux is Jimmy McLaughlin. Yes, I know he’s young yadda yadda yadda. Who else? Cruz? No thanks. Been there, done that. I’ll sink or swim with the kid and see what he can do out there.
    Choice #2 is to switch to more of a 4-4-2 alignment, sliding Wenger over to the right and Maidana or Nog over to the left. Slot Casey and Brown in as the forwards, and let’s see what Brown can do with some extended minutes.
    I’m good with either of those options, though I prefer McLaughlin.

    • I feel this 4-4-2 is what should have happened after Le Toux injury. As I mentioned previously, Kyle Martino was spouting off and what is more concerning to me, the IM Mr. Curtain seems to think as well, that Le Toux for Cruz is ::: Like for Like. Absolutely not. They were already terrible and that substitution and more of the same junk only exacerbated the acute COPD of an offense.
      The team was struggling with any decent service. No tempo. No rhythm. Anytime Casey got the ball he had no option but to go backwards then Brown comes in for Casey when it is obvious this is one of those games when we have no originality no fresh ideas and are relegated to cross after cross after cross to siberia- only no one is there to receive or only Casey is there to receive surrounded by 6 DC Unitied guys or then only a 5’8” Brian Brown on the spot waving his left foot at crosses he has no chance for. John Ling go home and kiss your daughter today- what a gift she offered you- whether by accident or on purpose.

    • John, you should raise your daughter’s allowance for that.

    • The Black Hand says:

      We should have looked at McLaughlin far earlier in the season. The US Open Cup was the prime time to see what he (and Pfeffer) can do with the top club. (Pfeffer didn’t get much of a look) Unfortunately, we didn’t do that and I don’t think that we have the time to allow McLaughlin to adjust. For me, the 4-4-2 (Brown/Casey) is our only choice.

      • Black Hand, who do you put in for LeToux? Cruz. He hustles but so do I and neither of us score goals. McLaughlin is an option that should be used. If he isn’t being productive then put Cruz in as the last resort.

      • The Black Hand says:

        No one. I would add Brown up top and switch our formation to a 4-4-2.
        I think that Wenger, Okugo, Noguiera and Maidana make up a smart midfield. Of course, this will all ride on Maidana and Noguiera being able to adjust their game.
        However, I did read that LeToux was at training today…without crutches.

      • But if not now, when would we EVER see McLaughlin or Pfeffer? Since the union are all about youth (not)

    • I watched the game on TV and still missed half of it since you couldn’t see anything when the ball was in the shade. You would think a national network like NBCSports would be able to hire a professional cameraman.

    • old soccer coach says:

      I do not know the ins and outs of MLS roster rules. The Union’s website lists Jimmy McGlaughlin as inactive. Would someone who knows explain whether he would even be available for selection at this moment?

      • He would be available. He is on loan to Harrisburg, but he can be recalled. And Harrisburg just finished their season, so there is little (apparent) reason not to have him available at least in training.

  3. I missed this game due to a family thing. So you are saying this game was amazing and I should watch the game first chance I can get.

  4. A 5 for Maidana is too high. He was certainly trying stuff, and playing his role, but virtually every pass was off — just behind the player, or just in front of him, or just into a defender’s path. Over and over and over again. In fact, I think a lot of the blame you’ve placed on Casey and Nogueira rightfully belongs to Maidana for this game.

    Curtin, after the match, lamented the lack of options in the box, and I think he is correct. As you wrote, our system depends on the wingers, because aside from Casey, they are the only ones who will get into the box on this team. Maidana, for all his (usual) playmaking skill, is not a Diego Valeri or Federico Higuain who’s going to get in the box sometimes. Nogueira sticks to medium-range shots and rarely gets in the box. Okugo and Edu, when they play in the midfield, do not get into the box.

    Another way to conceptualize what you wrote about our system is that it depends on the wingers to turn a defensive 4-5-1 into an offensive 4-3-3. Le Toux and Wenger have the ability to do that. Cruz has the energy, but does not excel at defensive skill or positioning, playing too high up the pitch. And he doesn’t get into the box either. With Le Toux likely out, if I’m playing against the Union, I get a big CB to beat up on Conor Casey, have the RB and a midfielder to double-team Wenger, and voila! Instant shutout.

    • Well, your last sentence is pretty much exactly what Ben Olson did on Saturday, as MLSSoccer’s positional map seems to indicate.
      In other news, Gaddis looked either completely gassed, or hurt, by the end.
      Did the TV show M’Bolhi getting in Espindola’s face after a collision in the second half?

    • To me, the biggest adjustment that teams have made is not allowing Wenger to go at his opposing fullback 1v1. Korb always had cover from either Franklin or a centerback which makes it difficult for Wenger to break free.

      This is when we will find out if Curtin is ready to become a manager as he has some big decisions to make as Chicago is going to sit deep and play on the counter. Does he switch things up radically with a change in formations or does he just tweak on the margin?

      I’m guessing that we might see Casey start on the bench (short week, not playing well, etc.) with either Brown and/or Ribeiro getting a start up top. Assuming that White is healthy, I think that we’ll see Edu back in midfield as his ability to get into the box is something that was missing on Sat.

      • It might be important to note that Curtin has some big decisions to make, but as your last point indicates, he has few good options to choose from. Brown and Ribeiro are works in progress and Casey is pretty clearly a 60 minute guy at this point in the season. So anything Curtin wrings out of that situation will be impressive in some sense.

      • Very true, he doesn’t have a full bench of great options. The roster is clearly limited in certain areas and, dare I say, even threadbare.

      • I agree completely about Curtin, and this is what I wanted to see before I was ready to decide if he was non-interim material or not.
        The plan was good, but due to all the circumstances Adam outlined, it’s not working anymore. Can Curtin adjust and find any kind of success? I’m not even talking about playoff success, but just shifting tactics and having them be more or less effective.
        Hackworth couldn’t do it. Nowak did it maybe a bit too much. If Curtin can, then I’ll welcome him with open arms.

  5. The comparison of Maidana’s play and abilities to Valeri’s and Higuain’s hints at what is really wrong with this team: THE PLAYERS AREN’T VERY GOOD! Edu isn’t Jermaine Jones. Maidana is slow and even if he was faster he wouldn’t be Valeri or Nguyen. Casey isn’t Wright-Philips. None of our 3 goalies is as good as Hamid. Nogueira isn’t Bradley. Needless to say, Wenger isn’t Thierry Henry. LeToux isn’t Dempsey.

    Sure, the guys had a nice little run when Curtain was hired. But everyone has now figured us out.

    It’s only going to get worse, with NYFC and OCFC joining East. Maybe Union FO should advocate for relegation. Might just be able to win USLPro championship.

    • So you’re saying we’re not as good as an All-Star team?

      • No, I’m saying NONE of our players are all stars. Every good team has one or two. We have none. (Edu was a politically correct choice, not really one of the best XI, or even best XXX.)

    • Speaking of Hamid, he & Kitchen are DCU’s “24 under 24” entries. Future stars. Ours is Okugo. And he’s not in Curtin’s preferred XI. Huh?

    • So one big question I have is whether other teams have figured the Union out, or if the Union have been attempting a more complex gameplan than they should. I wonder if a return to the simple plans of the early Curtin days would be beneficial.

      • Maybe neither? We changed styles & personnel while we were still getting results (including the comeback draw v. NYRB). Since changing we lost to the leaders of each conference. Without LeToux, we need more better chances. We find out Thursday.

  6. It was hot, but how do you get “out competed” in the first half of that match? This team needed to charge out of the gates & to avoid going down in the first 15 minutes. I admire Curtin for changing the style beginning with Seattle because he thought he had to. The easier choice was to play the same way & make it obvious that we don’t have the players to play differently. Adam points out the problems with changing to high pressure and how it seems to have mucked things up. LeToux has carried us and there was no Plan B. I also wonder if the effort has to do with feelings about the Okugo benching so Edu can play CDM. Valdes looks like his groin injury isn’t fully healed. Do you grind out a counterattacking win against Chicago or go all in with high pressure? And why not bring back Hoppenot?

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    I know a team needs depth… but it’s a real shame we finally got our best 11 on the field, and now LeToux is hurt, and maybe done for the year. No luck… none whatsoever. Couldn’t even get a half with our best 11… Brutal.

  8. I certainly agree with this article. We need to get back to basics and allow our defense to create the scoring opportunities on the counter attack. We simply do not have the creativity amongst all of our attackers to break a team down. We need the numbers advantage of a counter attack.
    As someone else mentioned, I loved seeing M’Bolhi jawwing with Espindola. Glad to see he’s getting an edge about him.
    I fear we will find ourselves in the same predicament at the end of the season as 2013. Close to a playoff spot, but in need of a lot of help that doesn’t come.

  9. James Lockerbie says:

    I think all we need is Curtin to give the guys his best Patton like speach

  10. Is it too soon to start finding a way to get Torres from Chivas since they are disbanding at the end of the season?

  11. Great piece, Adam. Nice, objective (i.e. un-panicky) perspective and a well-rounded, thorough take.

    Very much interested to see if Curtain can adjust here. I like the idea of a 4 4 2 lineup with Casey on the bench to begin. Let’s see if Brown can manage something in the first 60. Casey hasn’t accomplished much outside of throwing some shoves and jawing at refs. Love the guy, but he’s not getting much done.

  12. Someone else had said this, but no luck pretty much sums everything up. Le Toux getting hurt is going to kill us, he really carried this team. We have the midfield, but are in need of one or two quality strikers and maybe a CAM who can get into the box and shoot. Hard to say at this point, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing just how deep Sak’s pockets are and who we can get in the offseason. Is it too late to take Jozy from Sunderland?

  13. I think we’re all deluded. Garber’s not going to let Philly have Jozy or Torres, even if Sak had the $ to spend. MLS would invent some rationale for Jozy to go to NYRB (losing 2 DP’s probably). And will definitely invent the “disbanding team allocation draft” to arrange for Cubo to go to LA to replace Donovan. It’s the fans’ fault. We sell out ppl even though our team sucks (Curtain says you are what your record says you are and our record says we’re in 7th place in a sucky conference.) So there’s no reason for Garber to arrange to get us good & prominent players. Even if we do get a good player or two we’ll have to trade away building block players to get higher in allocation order, something that Seattle and New England and LA never seem to have to do.

    • “Show me the money.” The Union are in the 4th largest media market. Next to the largest. Along the Northeast Corridor with 5 franchise’s next year. MLS has every reason to want Union to spend on DPs. I missed the “we’ll spend whatever it takes” announcement. Union has a reputation for not spending. The Kraft opened their checkbook to win Jermaine Jones. And why would Jozy come to a team whose manager is unknown and whose FO is suspect? Let’s not blame Garber for the organization’s obvious flaws. One playoff appearance in 5 years (i think we miss again this year) speaks for itself.

      • Agree 100%

      • Gruntled Fan says:

        Completely agree, updated salary figures just came out, while we’re finally spending some money on players, where is our “million dollar man”? I think most of the off season acquisitions were well done, and I can live M’Bolhi based on what he’s making ($240,000), but would love to see a big name signing like Altidore or some other high profile striker.

      • Saw those figures, too. I think Seattle pays its starting forwards, Dempsey and Martins twice what our entire club makes. Same can be said of LA which pays Landon and Keane even more.

        If I’m not mistaken, the only player on our roster whose DP salary is not paid entirely by the league is Edu who makes more than the amount the league will cover for players. I think the league pays everything that is $330,000 or less (in that ballpark). Edu is our higest paid player at $600,000+

      • To be fair, Sounders make twice the revenue, too. I don’t expect owners to lose $10 million. But you don’t need to spend millions. Higuain makes $500k. Wondo makes $650k. They’re not coming here but the market is more than the millionaires club. Unless they don’t want to come here?

      • Philly has to be a better town to play in than Columbus, no? But yeah, I agree. There’s a lot of room between $300 and $5 million. BWP makes makes $330,000. …

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