Analysis

Cristian Maidana was really good in 2014

Photo: Earl Gardner

On Wednesday, Jim Curtin said that Zach Pfeffer is seriously challenging Cristian Maidana for the creative role in the Philadelphia midfield. Pfeffer is a huge talent. And on a team that was wore down chasing a US Open Cup and a playoff berth, he should have received his first dose of regular playing time last season.

But if Cristian Maidana is healthy, Cristian Maidana should play.

It would be easy to dismiss Maidana as simply a good playmaker. But by almost any measure he was more than that in 2014: He was elite.

Team KP- Off Player Contrib - MaidanaOnly 14 players in MLS averaged over three key passes per 90 minutes in 2014. Maidana is in that group, along with a who’s who of buzzed-about MLS talent. Above Maidana are Brad Davis, Landon Donovan, Diego Valeri, Graham Zusi, Federico Higuain, and Javier Morales. Pedro Morales and Fabian Espindola round out the top ten.

Removing corner kicks from the equation narrows the list of players averaging three or more key passes per 90 minutes to eight. And the seven players above Maidana are the creme de la creme of the MLS creative crop: Donovan, Valeri, Javy Morales, Davis, Higuain, and Pedro Morales. And then Maidana. The numbers are similar controlling for corners and free kicks (all dead ball situations), with Zusi sneaking above Maidana, but the rest of the leaderboard remaining the same.

Any way you spin it, Maidana was creating chances last season at a rate that rivalled the most revered playmakers in the league.

Which leads to the question: Why would Philly consider Maidana anything but a nailed-on starter?

There are two-and-a-half possible answers.

Playmaker fatigue - MaidanaShort shifts

The biggest issues for Maidana in 2014 were health and fitness. The Argentine’s fitness record looks like a textbook example of why the MLS summer schedule is so brutal. Maidana played more than 80 minutes in more than two consecutive games twice all season. His longest streak of 80-plus was five, though that number is a bit deceiving: The first two came before the World Cup break, and the last three followed it.

The Union’s primary playmaker, then, gave them 80 or more minutes in only 13 of his 23 starts. That’s a paltry 43 percent. And it means that only two-thirds of Philly’s league matches saw Maidana in the starting eleven, and only 38 percent  of games saw him on the pitch for any of the final ten minutes. That is a lot of absenteeism to build around.

Maidana is surrounded by less illustrious company in this realm. While Landon Donovan went at least 80 minutes in every match he started for the Galaxy, the Morales’ are actually more damning comparisons. Vancouver’s stud maestro Pedro Morales — older than Maidana by nearly two years — went at least 80 minutes in 85 percent of the matches he started. The ageless Javier Morales lasted at least 80 minutes in 90 percent of the matches he started for Real Salt Lake. Portland’s Diego Valeri: 80 minutes or more 85 percent of the time.

The two players who shared Maidana’s lack of stamina yet also managed to make significant creative contributions are Stefan Ishizaki and Gaston Fernandez. Ishizaki lasted at least 80 minutes in about 55 percent of his starts while contributing 2.56 non-corner key passes per 90 minutes. Fernandez went at least 80 minutes in 53 percent of starts and gave the Timbers 2.27 non-corner key passes per 90. Maidana’s 3.00 non-corner key passes/90 compares favorably to both Ishizaki and Fernandez, but context raises red flags.

Ishizaki and Fernandez were key players on their respective teams, but neither was a primary playmaker. Ishizaki’s numbers pale in comparison to Landon Donovan’s, and Fernandez played a similar second fiddle to Diego Valeri. Maidana, on the other hand, was clearly the creative hub for Philadelphia, with Vincent Nogueira the only other Union player in the top fifty key passers in MLS (the Galaxy feature six players; Portland four).

Maidana’s creative instincts are elite, but whether it was fitness, a confluence of unlucky injuries, or coaches deciding that the team’s most potent creative force was a late-game luxury, the Argentine raised questions about his ability to be a foundational player by logging under 2000 minutes in his first MLS season.

Key Passes - MaidanaA playmaker only

Maidana’s second issue is that he is not primarily a playmaker, he is only a playmaker.

Although Maidana profiles as an elite creative force, he does not threaten the net nearly as much as his comparable playmaking brethren. Valeri, Pedro Morales, and Higuain all notched double-digits in goals while putting an average of 35 shots on target between them. Maidana’s numbers look a lot more like Graham Zusi (5 goals; 13 SOG), Brad Davis, (4; 15) and Dillon Powers of Colorado (5; 12). Zusi, of course, had a wide role setting up one of the best strikers in MLS last season while Davis and Powers played further from goal than Maidana and may be more comparable to Vincent Nogueira (2; 14).

Is it too demanding to ask that a top class playmaker also contribute more directly to the goals total? Not in the Union’s system. With attackers pushed high and wide on each wing, Philly should be spreading the defensive midfield out and creating confusion on the counterattack. A well-timed late run should be able to find the time and space to threaten the goal.

Maidana was instrumental in formulating many of the Union’s best counterattacks last season. But when he was not placing the pass that released the break, he struggled to find the right runs following up the play. The attacking midfielder in a 4-3-3 needs to be a threat from the central area on top of the box in order to draw out central defenders and, ideally, take some small measure of the scoring burden of the front three.

Yes, it is a lot to ask. But it is also the nature of the position, and it is the next step that the Union will need Maidana to take if the club is going to finish above the red line in 2015.

Maidana vs New England in March: Attacking from the right.

Maidana vs New England in March: Attacking from the right.

…and a half

The half-reason is one of those curious dilemmas that arise whenever eleven players with various tendencies and habits are pushed onto a field together and asked to play soccer: Sometimes everyone complements everyone else. And sometimes two guys want to be in the same spot on the pitch. This can be a big problem, but it doesn’t have to be.

The Union stumbled onto two very good midfield players who are extremely adept at sneaking out of the tumultuous central areas of the pitch and finding space near the wings. Nogueira and Maidana both thrive in escaping to the fringes of the pitch to find the time needed to play balls into space for Philly’s speedy wing attackers. It would be difficult to argue that Nogueira and Maidana stepped on each other’s toes. As the season progressed, Maidana actually showed an incredible intuition for how teams were defending and where that would open space. Early in the year, he drifted right. But in Jim Curtin’s system, he tended to find more space on the left, where Andrew Wenger would push extremely high and pin back his defender.

Thus, Maidana’s tendency to split wide, while adaptive and modern, may not be an ideal fit for a Union side that already clogs up the wings. This is hardly an indictment of Maidana as much as it is possibly the best argument for Zach Pfeffer.

Maidana vs Vancouver in June: Attacking from the left.

Maidana vs Vancouver in June: Attacking from the left.

Pfeffer is much more of a central playmaker who can trail plays and finish them off. He will not create at the same elite rate as Maidana, but he will offer balance to a midfield that could look deserted when Nogueira and Maidana crept wide.

Yet, the half reason is just that. It is not an overpowering argument, nor should it even give the coaching staff pause. If Zach Pfeffer is going to be in the first eleven, the Union will have to adjust to fit him in the same lineup as Cristian Maidana most nights. While Maidana may not have spent nearly enough time on the pitch in 2014, he used his 1,889 minutes well.

And the Union need him to break 2,000 if they want to play more than 34 games in 2015.

55 Comments

  1. The Black Hand says:

    This is a problem with this club. We do have some real talent. The trouble is they are all vying for three positions.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Le Toux is set in place. Wenger is set in place. Williams is set in place. For better or worse Gaddis is set in place. Perhaps you mean in the central channel in the middle third? Because Vitoria is set in place, and for the moment so is White.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Exactly what I meant.
        .
        I’m not sure White is a lock. I see a real chance that Edu starts the year as our CB…for a while at least.
        .

  2. “Well timed late run.” One more thing that I really only saw from Amobi Okugo last year and speaks to his quality as a player. It was a nuance of his game that I think was often overlooked by many. It did not lead to frequent gol scoring, but he picked and chose his spots very carefully. I imagine, this season, with Kaka playing chess, we may see Amobi score a bit more, unless there is a directive to stay back.
    .
    The well timed late run is a definite area of upgrade and improvement within US Soccer and locally with this club as well. It allows the game to be played spatially instead of always linearly.
    .
    Good article.

    • Can someone explain why they think Okugo was so great? He really wasn’t that great at his desired position. He wasn’t good on the ball. He made bad passes. He was an adequate center back, lacking height and true understanding of the position. I fail to see why there is so much love for this guy. Was it just because he was our draft pick? I don’t get it.

      • The Black Hand says:

        You are talking about Amobi Okugo, right??

      • I would love to watch futbol through your lens ALL4U, for about :30 seconds- just to see it how you see it – then not again.
        .
        For the record. I think the words Great and Awesome are completely 100% overused. Never did I attribute the word great to Amobi Okugo so please do not associate it with my comment above.
        .
        BTW is that ALL4U as in the Janet Jackson version or the Warrant version?

      • Yes I was definitely talking about Amobi. And still no answer as to why he might even be thought as good..so…yeah. Again, bad passes from a midfield position, and how many goals scored against the U from set pieces and corner kicks…..still failing to see where I’m wrong.

      • The Black Hand says:

        The Amobi that I watched showed good vision with his passing and displayed very good positioning. He looks to make the upfield outlet, but doesn’t throw it away if it wasn’t there. He is quite good at providing an outlet for his back line. He closes down on his mark, quickly but not so fast as to drift off of his point. He is a damn fine player. Not sure what you disliked, really.

      • When you say he closed down his mark quickly, you mean his mark ran to him right? Because he’s definitely not fast. And I can’t count how many times I’d see him turning after ‘his mark’ had deftly passed a ball by him with a stunned look on his face trying to figure out what just happened. Even more hilarious is his desire to show what he has over-seas, that’s assuming anyone would want him…Cambridge United maybe? Third-fourth tier English football if he was lucky. I’m sorry I don’t see what you think you saw.

      • The Black Hand says:

        He is pretty good. We all have our opinions

      • Look, I’ve argued at length about the qualities of Amobi’s game and will not do it to appease you. I was just making an observation above regarding him making late runs. If you don’t see his game as worthwhile, fine. You have your lens I have mine. The feelings about his game were often argued here. Anybody who has been reading these pages knows what I think about the player. He was and is an excellent young player. Period. Do some research if you really care to understand my perspective.
        .
        I do take pause at your attributing the word ‘great’ to my comment.
        .
        And lastly ALL4U is the invitation to join you under the ‘Delaware Memorial’ so we can further discuss the merits of said argument, have a beer, play pick up or so I can get my ass kicked- you are unclear — because if it is the latter— you sir are the TROLL under the bridge.

      • ALL4U. I accept responsibility for the direction this has taken. My apologies. I try to comment as I would speak and have lost the way this time.

      • Certainly we are both Union fans, and only want to see the best for our club. I’d be up for the beer idea (too out of shape for the pick up), and surely neither one of us wants to promote hooliganism. I accept the apology, and offer one of my own. But we shall just have to disagree on Amobi. Let’s just hope MLS can avoid a work stoppage so we will have something truly entertaining to talk about soon.

      • Why no hooliganism! Man, one day we can hopefully say……..don’t f#$k with that Philly firm…..they’re crazy. I’m not down with racist ultras…..but there is nothing wrong with equal opportunity hooly firms! They make the sport much more interesting!

      • The Black Hand says:

        Poor Richie’s Bastards!!!!
        .
        This season might be a rough one. Hooliganism it is!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Another “half” reason for what Curtin said: Perhaps it was just lip service to the media, either to pump up Pfeffer’s confidence a bit after last year, or to light a bit of a competitive fire under Maidana.

    • The Black Hand says:

      We hope that it’s ‘lip service’. If it’s not; this club is severely behind the ball. Maidana should be an absolute focal point of this club and Curtin should have the Union well-rehearsed in running play through Maidana, in the attacking third. I do think that this is Curtin trying to keep his young player’s confidence, as well as portray a level of depth within his club…I sure hope this is the case, at least.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I agree JL. I like Pfeffer and want him to be a part of this team, but in reality, he should spell Maidana this year, and start in US Open games, or “back to back” type situations. I think Curtain is just pumping Pfeffer up, while making sure Maidana doesn’t get too complacent.
      .
      But having a confident Pfeffer is the depth this club needs.

      • Agreed. I saw that comment from Curtin as nothing but positive. To me it says that Pfeffer may be ready to make the leap and be a (somewhat) regular contributor. He always talks about wanting competition for every spot. I didn’t read anything more into it than that. Maidana needs to be the main man there, but nice to see there may be an alternative to spell him on occasion.

    • +1. If there is anyone from last year’s squad whom I am looking at to make a big leap this year, it’s Pfeffer. He’s been apprenticing at practices plenty, and in his very limited time last year looked really good.

      Nobody is pushing Maidana out of the XI. But with fitness an issue, we should hopefully see Pfeffer spell him late game, and perhaps start games when he’s injured (or when they are close together). And if the Pfeffster really looks that good, then who knows?? Maybe we re-make the midfield to fit them both?? Put Maurice in the back, and play Nogueira/Maidana/Pfeffer in the center of the pitch? Man, that could really be something…

  4. Curtin is just being a coach. He is publicly acknowledging that Pfeffer is having a very strong camp and letting Chaco know that he has to step it up.

  5. Interesting article, but Maidana definitely needs to be the starter. Pfeffer hasn’t really shown anything I’ve seen so far, to do enough to replace Maidana. And maybe the author is forgetting, or missing the fact that last year the U talked about Maidana’s fitness, or lack there of, as being caused by the cultural differences between here and Argentina. I.E. the fact he and his family ate late dinners,(as is the culture in South America), and the lack of desired nutrients in his meals. All of which they said, they were working with him on. And I also believe unlike our new acquisitions, he was coming off actually league play and wasn’t just sitting on the pine. Players need time off, an off season. They can’t be expected to play 365. Nogueira also came in from playing a season in France and to me, at least, was quite heavy legged towards the end of the season. I really don’t think either will have fitness questions in 2015, having had a true off season before the start of this one.

    • See now this comment gives me hope for you.

      • Troll on Joel, troll on. Can we see you under the Delaware bridge during Union matches, or is that a little to high-profile for you?

      • The Black Hand says:

        Delaware?

      • Is it not the Delaware Memorial bridge out the back of the stadium? Sorry, truly not up on the bridges names. I’m more concerned about whats on the field. But if not, I humbly stand corrected.

      • Commodore Barry Bridge, I do stand corrected. Should have taken the time to look it up. Apologies.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Forgiven

      • Dude, what on God’s green earth are you talking about? If you have to explain your zinger…….and are flat out geographically wrong to boot about the bridge that goes over PPL….you epically failed bro!

      • The Black Hand says:

        The water has flowed under the Commodore Delaware Barry Memorial Bridge. Let’s get back to spouting off incessantly about the club and football in general.

    • Didn’t forget/miss that the U talked about Maidana’s fitness. That’s why I wrote, “…whether it was fitness, a confluence of unlucky injuries, or coaches deciding that the team’s most potent creative force was a late-game luxury, the Argentine raised questions about his ability to be a foundational player by logging under 2000 minutes in his first MLS season.” Because it’s unclear why Maidana struggled to stay on the field/was hauled off so often in 2015. The point is simply that it’s something to keep an eye on because you can’t build a team around a player that can’t stay on the pitch. Even Thierry Henry got over 2,600!

      • Let me just say I’m glad this site exists, and that you and the others are writing stories and actually covering the team with knowledge and passion for the U. I just found this site a few days ago because of a mention on the CSN website. I had no idea it even existed, nor that it had the information and coverage I’ve been desiring for years. You can’t imagine how disappointing it’s been checking CSN everyday, only to find one story a week, sometimes only made up of a measly few paragraphs. Thank you all here, for the hard work and time you put in. From me, its greatly appreciated. (Yes that rock I crawled out from under was huge…)

      • It is good to have another voice. I discovered the site a year ago myself. Look forward to moving ahead with the conversation and always enjoy the debate and verbal sparing from the regulars- provided it remains intellectually honest – which I did not do with you. Anyway…
        .
        I sometimes think to call in to the radio stations, daily or weekly, a la Andy Dufraine, from Shawshank — and patiently wait for the narrative to turn all the while making the argument for the world’s game.
        .
        Likely it never would. Maybe though. It would be fun to make some of the hosts squirm.

      • Joel, how come everyone bangs heads with you when they first come on here? Lol! Ahhh, I remember our first chat…….. It descended into Clock Work Orange stuff! Good times!

      • because I’m an ass.
        .
        Sincerely,
        .
        The Droog.

      • On behalf of everyone else who spends way too much time thinking about soccer (and regrets it not at all), welcome to PSP!

      • The Black Hand says:

        +1

      • The Black Hand says:

        Look forward to hearing more from you ALL4U…just never ever talk poorly about Okugo again!!:)
        .
        If you’re looking for a place to talk/debate about this club, you have found the right spot!

    • footballers do not have an offseason…..ask Jurgen. If your playing topflight and national team footy…….you have off maybe three weeks all year. Its part of the lifestyle they chose.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    On the basis of 30 minutes of streaming against Jacksonville and 45 against Tampa Bay only, I am half-sensing that when Pfeffer is on the field the Onion’s 4-2-3-1 tends to be less of a rectangle of the CBs and DCMs in the critical area in and in front of the box and more a trapezoid with one of the DCMs, Pfeffer, pushing forward much more like a box to box central midfielder. Maybe I’m nuts, but that’s what I think I saw. I am intrigued to see whether he can manage the defensive responsibilities physically, because he gives both depth and a versatile flexibility that his older better known, more limited colleagues on the bench do not. Curtin seemed to me to mis-speak while complimenting his longest-tenured, youngest homegrown player because, when Maidana has come off Fred slots into his position, not Pfeffer. I do not think of Pfeffer as directly in competition with any single member of the central midfield triangle. He is pushing all three of them as he shows that he too can play any one of those three spots with a versatility that the others on the bench lack.

    • Careful OSC, 4 or 5 more people and The Onion may go viral- less it was a typo by you. 🙂
      .
      Regarding Pfeffer. Exactly. Zach is maturing and will see more time, likely subs and hopefully a spot start or three when, as I’ve written before, Chaco pulls his hamstring again – cause you know, he’s pulling the hammy again.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Joel, I’ve been calling them the Onion for a long time to myself. Philadelphia is Phoolishdelphia; the Phillies are the Phoolies; the Union, the Onion; when I was a kid in SW Ohio the Bengals were the Bungles from day one [They trained about 500 yards from our house for preseason camp.] To rework Andy Jackson’s reply to Calhoun, Irreverence AND Devotion, Now AND Forever, One and Inseparable! Glad to jump on the bandwagon. : )

      • Awesome. Our only outlet sometimes is being sardonic.

      • I chuckle at the Onion too Joel, if we see it in a banner or tifo at PPL this year….we know where it came from!

  7. Maidana’s shortcoming is he’s slow. He makes the correct runs, he just gets to the right spot too late. I like the guy. The fact his family is happy here is heart-warming. He’s a good creator. But he’s slow.

  8. old soccer coach says:

    A possible source of the idea that the Aristegueita loan is six months is in part at least the French publication “Ouest France” whose reporting of the alleged deal makes that claim. Their story gave no indication of the source of the information that my four decades old collegiate French could discern.

    • The Black Hand says:

      Hopefully, they got it wrong. I would feel much better with the one-year loan. I would hate to see a player perform well for us….and then leave in August.

  9. Madaina is a decent player, but as we saw last year………….he doesn’t have the engine to hold down the O Mid spot. I look forward to Pfeffer getting minutes here………..lets finally see what the kid’s got!

  10. The Black Hand says:

    Start Chaco. Spell him with Pfeffer.

    • I just hope his fitness level is up and they had those speed and agility ladders out for the lad………….good touch and vision….just slow as molasses and looks like he’s about to keel over 40 minutes into a match. I’m also biased on playing the kids……it at least shows a club plan or philosophy….which, we really haven’t had in 6 seasons.

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