Player ratings

Analysis and Player Ratings: NYCFC 1-1 Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

While it may be hallowed ground for baseball fans, Philadelphia Union’s first trip to Yankee Stadium confirmed pretty much what everyone around the MLS community has feared about the butchered baseball diamond: It’s a downright awful place to play soccer.

Especially for a side like the Union, who rely on counterattacking athleticism over tactical nous and consistent precision, the tiny confines in the Bronx put them at a disadvantage from the opening whistle.

Giving away the midfield

A week ago in Philadelphia, a concerted, energetic performance allowed the Union to gain the upper hand on NYCFC in the middle of the park. Despite playing against Jason Kreis’ much vaunted narrow midfield diamond, the teenage duo of Zach Pfeffer and Eric Ayuk helped to keep New York out of sync. Whether it was the threat they offered getting forward, or the nuisance they proved on the defensive side of the ball, both players set the table for Michael Lahoud and Vincent Nogueira to play their games. For Lahoud, that meant sitting close to the back four, playing simply and efficiently as a ball retriever, while Nogueira was able to affect play as he chose, drifting into his comfort zone just right of the center of the park. With Andrew Jacobson yet to prove himself capable of sitting as deep as Kreis needs him to, the threat of both Sebastien Le Toux and Pfeffer in the pocket of space behind Jacobson pulled the entire midfield backwards.

Nogueira successful passing charts. Home (right) and Away (left)

Nogueira successful passing charts. Home (right) and Away (left)

In the second leg of their home and home series, Jim Curtin swapped Pfeffer for another striker and the result was telling. Suddenly, the layer of protection that existed in front of the Lahoud-Nogueira pairing vanished and NYCFC brought the pressure right into the Union half, removing any level of comfort from the visitor’s play. Nogueira, in particular (see chart at left), struggled to cope with the pressure, as his passing accuracy declined and he took possession of the ball in increasingly difficult positions.

After watching his side control the match through the first half while failing to register the tally their performance deserved, Kreis doubled down on his midfield press, inserting Kwadwo Poku in place of David Villa. And the powerful Ghanaian center midfield repaid his coach’s confidence in becoming the battering ram NYCFC needed to finally breach the Union defense. With two key passes and four successful dribbles all in the center of the pitch, Poku brushed past a Union midfield that was already on the back foot.

It was not until after Mehdi Ballouchy powered the hosts in front that Jim Curtin made an adjustment, sliding Le Toux out to the flank and bringing on Chaco Maidana to help slow the one way traffic flowing through the heart of the Union midfield. Add in the injury enforced substitution that brought an end to Nogueira’s rough night and the Union finally began to turn the tide through the direct threat of Pfeffer and the clever orchestration of Maidana.

Containing Ayuk
1st half contributions from Calle (left) and Brovsky (right)

1st half contributions from Calle (left) and Brovsky (right)

It is no secret that the Union’s wingers have a specific set of attacking skills, and while they can get forward and cause incredible chaos on their day — be it Le Toux, Andrew Wenger, or most recently, Eric Ayuk — they struggle in other facets of the game. After watching Ayuk toy with Jeb Brovsky at PPL Park, Kreis made the swap for Javier Calle, a player who may lack Ayuk’s athleticism, but is a savvy, technical defender. A simple look at both their attacking and defensive involvement at PPL Park and Yankee Stadium (see chart at right) shows the change in approach to taking Ayuk out of the Union attack. Whereas Brovsky both sat too far back in defense and took too many chances going forward, Calle split the middle on both sides of the ball. Rarely taking a chance that might see him caught out, Calle pressed Ayuk back to the midfield stripe in an effort to keep him from getting up a full head of steam.

And it worked. It worked so well in fact, that not only did Ayuk fail to complete a successful first half dribble, he also only attempted three passes in the first 45 minutes at Yankee Stadium. For Kreis, it was a calculated gamble that paid off. Because while Ayuk is an exciting, tenacious young player, he is learning his trade. Too often, he is caught staring at his feet while he dribbles, rendering useless any runs made by his strikers or overlapping fullback.

This is hardly a bleak situation, however. After being sent to play in the lower Thai division, this season represents not only Ayuk’s first significant minutes on the field, but likely his first experience training with true professionals. Jim Curtin will certainly take heart in the knowledge that when he did conceded possession, Ayuk tore after the ball, charging down a number of clearances and throwing himself into even more 50-50 challenges. It’s no secret that young players need time to acclimate. During that time there will be dominant performances, like the first NYCFC match, and less notable performances, such as Thursday night. Ayuk will file this one away and move on.

Points stolen

And it will be easy to put this match in the rearview, because for the second straight match, the Union reversed their early season fortunes and were on the scoring end of a late goal. While it was Kreis who made the first adjustment that swung the match towards his side, Curtin’s decision to abandon his second forward despite the Union’s need for a goal deserves just as much credit. With Le Toux sliding to the wing and Maidana given the keys to the midfield behind a fresh and energetic CJ Sapong, Curtin broke up the waves of possession that were crashing down on the Union backline. The final addition of Zach Pfeffer, instead of another forward such as Conor Casey, proved another clever move.

While it could be argued that NYCFC took their foot off the pedal as the match wore towards its conclusion, the point could just as easily be made that the introduction of two dangerous midfielders helped the Union to possess the ball in midfield and force New York’s midfielders to defend rather than attack, slowing their play, limiting their touches and allowing the Union back into the match.

The goal in itself was just a goal, an excellently timed and athletically taken goal, for sure, but just a goal. A hopeful free kick took a fortunate bounce and an opportunistically positioned striker pounced on it. But after looking very much like the weaker team for the first 75 minutes of the match, the Union showed their mettle in again snatch points late against NYCFC. For the times he has been slated for his decision-making in this young 2015 campaign, Curtin deserves his share of the plaudits for a string of decisions that helped his team pull an underwhelming performance out of the fire, turning what could have been a demoralizing loss into a momentum building road point.

Player ratings

John McCarthy – 5

McCarthy’s energy at PPL Park was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind the Union’s first win of the season. But in his second MLS start, that youthful excitement led to a string of nearly calamitous decisions from the young goalkeeper. Did well to regain some composure after the break and make key saves down the stretch, but failed to strengthen his case as a worthy starter for the long term.

Sheanon Williams – 5

Considering the lack of size or pace he faced in Ned Grabavoy, Williams intensity and physicality had an odd look to it on Thursday night. After being booked just before the halftime break, he was forced to play the rest of the match on a knife edge.

Maurice Edu – 8

Does anyone think that without Edu in the backline the Union don’t concede 5 goals at Yankee Stadium? Didn’t think so.

Stephen Vitoria – 6

Did well to keep a lid on the stumbling, bumbling figure of Adam Nemec in open play, though his failure to jump on pretty much every set piece led the Slovakian to a string of relatively uncontested headers with which he might have done better. Whether he was winning the ball in the air or stepping up to make a tackle, Vitoria clearly is growing in confidence alongside Edu and seems more content to leave his deep post in order to make plays. Still has work to do on his recovery however, as he frequently forced Edu and Williams to slide over in cover. If Khiry Shelton had ever picked up his head, he would have seen a wide open Grabavoy having a cup of coffee at the far post.

Ray Gaddis – 5

Fought hard to keep up with the pacy, athletic Shelton, as the two went back and forth racing each other up and down the line. Won’t be pleased to watch the replay.

Eric Ayuk – 4

As mentioned above, Ayuk was invisible from an offensive perspective, completely blanketed by Javier Calle. However, he was relentless defensively and likely made himself even more fans with his work rate, even though the match wasn’t going his way.

Michael Lahoud – 6

From being outnumbered 3 vs 2 to 4 vs 2 in the center of the park, Lahoud fought through a match in which he was under fire from every angle. While he remains prone to the occasional gaffe in the middle of the park, Lahoud has cleaned up much of his game, especially his passing, which is sharper than it has been at any point in his Union career.

Vincent Nogueira – 4

Clearly on orders to target the diminutive shuttler, NYCFC put Nogueira under pressure at every opportunity. With little movement around him and few outlets to be found, the Union’s metronome failed to provide the type of consistent, accurate build up play that so often is the highlight of his game. After departing with another early season injury, Union coaches and fans alike will be sweating on Nogueira’s health as the Union look to string together more positive results.

Andrew Wenger – 2

After another ambivalent showing, it is time for Wenger to take his place on the bench until he can climb out of his own head and get back to playing the instinctual soccer that made him such a threat in 2014. Scuffed the Union’s two best first half chances badly, failed to beat anyone on the dribble, and nearly conceded a devastating goal when he turned the ball over carelessly inside his own 6-yard box.

Sebastien Le Toux – 3

Lacked the touch and focus to trouble NYCFC and looks increasingly unsure of himself around the box. Given his ill-discipline when it comes to the lines he runs and the space he chooses to attack, he will continue to give Curtin a headache in any two forward set.

Fernando Aristeguieta – 5

Aristeguieta never quits, but somehow he also never receives foul calls despite being absolutely mauled by NYCFC defenders. Hit an early shot well, if just over the bar, and made a nuisance of himself around the box. But, whether it was a lack of service or a player working through a couple of knocks, Aristeguieta looked just a bit off the pace on the night.


CJ Sapong – 7

Worked hard. Scored a goal. Pulled off that mask. Good day’s work.

Chaco Maidana – 7

If only he could stay healthy. With Maidana on the field, the Union look a different side. The guile and composure he brings to the attacking half of the pitch is infectious and if he can manage to get a decent run of games in a row, Maidana is capable of being the player to help the Union climb the Eastern Conference table.

Zach Pfeffer – 6

His sharp, direct play contrasts well with Maidana’s movement and ability to find space. Unlike his fellow Union center midfielders, Pfeffer is not shy about getting into the box and challenging the last line of defense. After his regrettable sending off against Dallas, he looks to be a player rounding into form.

Geiger Counter

Baldomero Toledo – 3

Toledo yet again proved that he might be the most inconsistent referee in MLS. While other officials can blow the whistle too frequently, not enough, or at the wrong things, Toledo always seems to leave players, coaches, and fans shaking their heads in bewilderment. Both teams can feel aggrieved by his erratic performance.

Preferred lineup for Sunday’s match vs New England Revolution


Blake; Williams, Edu, Vitoria, Gaddis; Lahoud; Ayuk, Pfeffer, Maidana, Sapong; Aristeguieta

With Nogueira dealing with a knock, and the Union looking to take points from a third consecutive match, Sunday’s match proves as good a time as any to go for a bold, aggressive look against top Eastern Conference competition. Deploying Lahoud as the solitary deep-lying midfielder is likely not the key to any sort of long term success, but in a one-off match against a defense that the Union can exploit, throwing bodies into attack could be just enough to put the Revs on the defensive, and keep them there.


  1. Interesting you suggest that lineup because I was thinking the exact same thing. I won’t hold my breath but the team may actually be able to string together some passes with a lineup like that. I know Lahoud has been playing great, but if Nogs was healthy I’d love to see him in Lahoud’s spot. Sure we’d probably be left pretty exposed at the back but I’d expect us to finally play some attractive soccer with that starting eleven.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      It certainly is an interesting proposition, and if the Union ever find themselves down a goal with 20 minutes to go, I’d be all about it. But, as much as I’d like to see that trio for long stretches, the lack of defensive cover they would offer makes it a non-starter for me. Lahoud may not be on the same level technically, but someone has to sit in front of the back line and provide protection. NYCFC has yet to convince Jacobson to do it, and look at them, ugly shape, constantly scrambling back. that’s why I think that for short stretches, when the Union are decidedly on the front foot, it could lead to some serious attacking potency, but is unlikely to work over a full 90 minutes.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    If NYCFC is trying to play the narrow diamond midfield of Kreis’s past history, they are doing it sufficiently poorly so as to render it unrecognizable. I thought it was closer to a flat 4 in the midfield, the flank mids were quite wide, and the center mids seemed side by side more often than not.
    I agree with you that Kreis obviously made the decision the neutralize Eric Ayuk. His decision was enhanced by field size as Ayuk’s game is stepovers, courage, and high energy one v one, the first and third of which demand open space. His decision was also enhanced by Ayuk’s being 18 years old and still growing into a mature player’s strength and endurance, as Curtin has mentioned more than once.
    I do not disagree with you suggestion that perhaps Wenger be shaken up gently by being benched; he does deserve credit for defensive effort sustained for 90 minutes.
    We all love McCarthy’s fairy tale, but his fairy godmother saved him repeatedly in the first half. If goal-keeping on the first team is being used for developmental purposes as seems to be the case with McMath unavailable and M’Bohli rightly on indefinite overseas leave, give Andre Blake a run of games. Curtin will rightly stick with success, but behave in accordance with the logic of the circumstance. Once McCarthy’s luck runs down, make the switch.

  3. The Black Hand says:

    Spot on ratings, with exception to Edu. Mo was too poor on the ball, to deserve an 8. He played a couple of “good god, NO!!!!”balls, in some pretty dangerous areas.
    I like the lineup, as long as Sapong can influence on the left.

    • Disagree. Mo made one big screw-up in the final minute of the game, but otherwise he was an absolute beast and clear Man Of The Match. Did you see how aggressively he pushed up in the last 20 minutes to help us — successfully — get the tying goal??

      • I have no quarrel with Mo’s play – save the walk about at the end of the game. He is a solid defender and at times makes some scary passing choices, but over all, he is a stud on back line.

      • Mo was massive. Should be 1st Union player this year to make MLS TOTW

      • Aristeguieta made it one week

      • The Black Hand says:

        It’s his distribution that has me weary. His defending was stout, but he needs to be more composed with his passing (same thing plagued him in the midfield). He made a couple of very bad decisions/touches, that could have been costly. I felt that an 8 was high, not very high…but high. Splitting hairs, really…

    • Disagree.

    • You can see Edu’s pedigree compared to who he’s lined up with game in and game out. If he doesn’t move the ball up in an attempt to get something started or kill clock then the ball is probably in the Union net. I’ve watched Williams and Gaddis at times become spectators way too often. Gaddis after all this time, still can’t get his feet situated correctly 1v1. The issue with Edu’s passes are not an Edu problem it’s the piss poor skill on the ball from this team. I was in Philly for a few games and I was also at Yankee stadium. Even Noguiera and Maidana have trouble passing the ball on this team because of a ridiculous lack of movement off the ball . Passing the ball isn’t an issue it’s how these “professional” players receive a pass. You can start with Wenger and Le Toux who both have hooves instead of feet and go through the entire team. Edu has played at the highest levels and passing and distribution was not an issue with his game. Low 30% possession even at PPL park? It’s not Edu’s passing or distribution that’s an issue here. The issue is the team wide lack of professional level basic skill with the ball. They could have lost the last game 3/4-0.

  4. The Chopper says:

    It certainly seems like Edu is going to have be a fixture in the back. The problem appears to be that there does not seem to be a four man midfield combination that gets the most of Vincent Noguiera. Leaving him in the back by himself, probably does not provide enough defensive cover. Moving him forward or to a wing, seems to neutralize his strengths.

    With Edu in the back, Lahoud has to play.

    So to get the most out of Nogs, the Union needs a five man midfield. Unfortunately, the wing play has been pretty much awful (save a moment here or there from Ayuk). I am hoping that maybe returning Maidana to more minutes in the middle will help open up the wings and help those struggles subside.

    If that doesn’t work and the Union move to a two striker set, I am not sure if there is a formation with the current roster that keeps Chaco and Nogs on the field at the same time and can provide enough defensive cover.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      Agreed. There is the option to dispatch with wingers all together and go with Lahoud at the base of midfield diamond, with Maidana at the tip and Nogueira and Pfeffer between. Puts a whole lot of pressure on the fullbacks, but it would help with possession and bridging the gaps between levels. Might be worth a shot at some point. With a healthy Maidana at the CAM and Aristeguieta doing his thing up front, there may be no real need for a two striker set, assuming the wings can get going (and I acknowledge that right now that is a BIG assumption)

  5. Another option: since our wing play has been so lacking this year, get rid of wingers in favor of a 4-2-2-2, with Lahoud and Carroll (give Nogueira a rest for this game) as CDMs, Maidana and Pfeffer as CAMs, and Fernando (or Sapong) paired with Le Toux (or Casey). While it nominally lacks width, Maidana and Le Toux (or Casey) will look wide for space when they can. Plus, right now we have no width anyway. And the 2 CDMs provide good defensive cover for a Revs team with lots of potent weapons.

  6. section 114 says:

    I think you overrated Wenger and LeToux

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