Player ratings

Player ratings and analysis: Red Bulls 0-2 Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

In consecutive weeks, Philadelphia Union has beaten the top two teams in the Eastern Conference (by ppg). Even more impressive: They did not allow a goal to either team.

The formula, if you can call it that, has been incredibly simple, and slightly mischaracterized by Jim Curtin. After the DC match, Curtin said that he went back to the guys that earned him the head coaching job in the first place. In short, he was forced to play Conor Casey with Andrew Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux, and he finally had Cristian Maidana and Vincent Nogueira available and healthy at the same time. So… a bit of a coach’s decision but also a whole lot of circumstance led Philly back to the midfield and front line that guided their 2014 hot streak.

NY generated good opportunities in the first half, but the Union D held firm. No mistakes.

NY generated good opportunities in the first half, but the Union D held firm. No mistakes.

Where are the whoopsies?

But there was more to the success of the past two matches than simple personnel moves. No matter what names have been on the team sheet this season, they have made mistakes. From the goalie to the strikers, individual mistakes have haunted the Union’s goal differential and points total from the very start of the season.

And in the past two matches, the mistakes have dried up. Ethan White is not any more efficient on the ball than he was at the start of May, but he has not started any opposition breakaways with a header that made your rec team blooper reel look like good soccer. Even Fabinho, who has been called out individually by Curtin as a player that spoils good performances with mindless errors, has produced two consecutive focused, almost dominant, appearances.

Back to basics

On these very pages there have been pleas for a return to the compact defensive shape that supported the Union’s vicious counterattack last season. The 4-4-2 that started the season did not do it, and ever since then Philly’s wingers have been pressing so hard to be offensive contributors that they have become defensive liabilities.

At the same time, the central midfield has fallen prey to numerous injuries and the movement of Mo Edu between midfield and the back line. Ironically, it has been the reintroduction of Brian Carroll that helped solidify the center of the park and lay the foundation for the excellent second half that saw Philly outplay one of the league’s best midfield trios.

Brian Carroll controlled the center of the pitch, forcing Kljestan to operate wider than he prefers and keeping NY's midfielders from making driving runs to disrupt the defense.

Brian Carroll controlled the center of the pitch, forcing Kljestan to operate wider than he prefers and keeping NY’s midfielders from making driving runs to disrupt the defense.

What has Brian Carroll done? It is more about what he has not done: BC has not left the middle. Center midfielders often get caught out of position because they tend to offer support all over the pitch. And while this is certainly appreciated by teammates, it can leave the center of the park, where the real danger is lurking in the form of high percentage shots, a bare cupboard. Carroll has rarely wandered from the center of the park. He controlled Chris Rolfe with surprising ease a week ago and forced Sacha Kljestan and Felipe to play wide instead of through the extremely dangerous Bradley Wright-Phillips in New York.

Carroll was last seen next to Michael Lahoud in a largely effective but horror-movie ugly and ultimately fruitless attempt to hold back a stuttering but determined Kansas City side. In that match, Carroll had a partner every bit as unstudied in the art of transition soccer as BC himself. Against New York, Carroll eliminated the own-half turnovers that haunted him early in the DC United match. He stayed deep and supported the counterattack defensively rather than seeking to join in. As a result, the Red Bulls struggled to mount their own transition game and relied on wing play — effective, but not their strongest method — to attack Philly.

Around Carroll, there were two other major tactical adjustments. First, Cristian Maidana and Conor Casey, then later CJ Sapong, pressed as a tandem. Previously, the Union have often used a single striker as the point of their defensive spear with Maidana lurking behind. Though this system gives the illusion of controlling midfield space, it actually makes pressing more difficult given Maidana’s somewhat limited mobility (he’s not Higuain or Feilhaber). Teams have easily passed around the Union’s striker, drawn Maidana out, and played through the rest of Philly’s midfield as if the path of least resistance was highlighted by the referee’s magic spray.

With Maidana alongside, teams could not simply pass behind Conor Casey and eliminate him from the defensive shape. Credit also goes to Nogueira here, as the Frenchman put in a tireless defensive shift tracking Dax McCarty.

Philly's wings tracked runs defensively, coming as far back as necessary instead of leaving runners to stay high as outlets.

Philly’s wings tracked runs defensively, coming as far back as necessary instead of leaving runners to stay high as outlets.

The second major adjustment was that the Union’s wingers started deeper defensively, and were willing to tuck inside to clog up the center of the pitch. Finally, the Union had layers of defensive pressure ready for a team that clearly thought they could pass through the visitors. Certainly the wide areas were more exposed, but that’s not how New York wanted to play. And against a team that they expected to shoot themselves in the foot, the Red Bulls continually recycled play or tried to beat Philly on the dribble from wide areas (props to Mike Grella for a few phenomenal moves to beat Ethan White in the first half).

Every criticism of Andrew Wenger’s play this season has been met with this riposte from Curtin: He is putting the work in on the defensive end, and the goals will come.

That statement is only accurate to the extent that Wenger has been putting in work. He has not, however, been tactically aware, efficient, or coordinated in his defensive work or pressure. No, Wenger has not been a good player on a run of bad luck in 2015. He has simply been a bad player.

But that is not to say he has always been or always will be a bad player; he has been in a slump of epic proportions. Against New York, however, Wenger finally looked like he was on the same page as the rest of his team on defense.

Wenger and Sebastien Le Toux were both at their best defensively in New York. Moving central, but without abandoning their wings, they helped control Kljestan and Felipe’s space and offered more protection to a patchwork back four.

From their deeper positions, the wingers were also more connected to their midfield. Particularly in the second half, Philly was able to break out effectively because the wingers were moving into space — rather than sitting in it — when Nogueira looked up to play outlets.

As against DC United, the Union managed to force a good team out of their preferred gameplan. That is how teams in the bottom half of the table need to play to win games.

Sapong's contribution is hard to quantify. Beyond the goal he scored, of course.

Sapong’s contribution is hard to quantify. Beyond the goal he scored, of course.

Nogueira second half passing: Not many touches, but enough time to pick out long passes.

Nogueira second half passing: Not many touches, but enough time to pick out long passes.

Everything but the kitchen counter

Even with the defense operating at a functional level, the Union would not have taken six points of the cream of the Eastern Conference without rediscovering that swift, effective counterattack that scorched opposing defenses in 2014. With the second half introduction of CJ Sapong, the transition game left its cozy game of poker with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster and reemerged in Harrison, New Jersey.

Sapong challenged everything in the air and was a menacing defensive presence. Without time, Karl Ouimette and Roy Miller rarely played the ball through the middle, meaning the Red Bulls were spending more time in buildup and less time teasing apart Philly’s midfield. And as the wide players were forced to take more offensive responsibility, they moved forward and opened gaps that the Union (finally) exploited with quick breakout passes from Nogueira and well-timed runs off of Maidana.

Fabulous Fab

The much-maligned Brazilian left back was simply excellent against New York. The positional issues that have plagued him were absent, and the individual mistakes disappeared. Notably, Fabinho is credited with – wait for it – zero crosses. None! Even when the Union have less than 35% possession, Fabinho would be expected to get off somewhere between three and forty-three crosses. It was almost as if the game was simplified by a forced focus on defense, and Fabinho responded by playing with a quality that has been clearly absent all season.

However, this game does not fix the Union’s defensive problems. Fabinho’s long track record of indiscipline and thoughtless crossing should not be absolved by ninety minutes of quality.

Instead, the same conclusion should be drawn from Fabinho’s standout performance that can be drawn from Brian Carroll’s quietly strong showing and from Andrew Wenger’s impressively consistent defensive outing: When the game is simplified, the Union can compete. They have athletes on the wings, technical players in the middle, and, usually, Maurice Edu holding together the back line. Lineups like that will rarely be heavy favorites, but they should not be dismissed as easily as the Union have been this season.

Jim Curtin said he got back to the players that won him the permanent head coaching job in 2014. But what he really got back to were the tactics that gave a thin roster the best chance to compete in MLS.

Player ratings

Brian Sylvestre – 8

A number of smart saves and a pair of assists from the woodwork earned Sylvestre a shutout in New York. That is no easy feat. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, Sylvestre sat behind an Edu-free defense and directed it like a seasoned veteran.

Sheanon Williams – 6

A competent performance in his full return to the right back position showed that Williams remains capable of more than he has shown this season. Though he struggled to get involved offensively and was beaten more than he should be by nifty footwork, the Sheanomenon did not look positionally like the deer-in-headlights that he has too many times this year.

NY clearly tried to force the Union to play through Ethan White.

Marquez (L) and White (R) first half passing. NY clearly tried to force the Union to play through the latter.

Ethan White – 6

I mean, those were some nasty moves Grella pulled out. White made no major mistakes despite being targeted by New York all night. The Red Bulls attempted to force the ball onto White’s foot whenever possible and attempted to roll Bradley Wright-Phillips off the struggling defender early in the match. None of it worked, as White maintained his position well, with Brian Carroll patrolling the zone in front of him and making wandering difficult to justify. White remains a liability on the ball and the Red Bulls are the latest team to try and force the Union to play through him. But such a flaw can be partially forgiven when Philly is actually compact enough defensively to win a few long clearances and recover loose balls in midfield.

Richie Marquez – 7

How did Marquez convince Fabinho to play it safe defensively? What sorcery was that? Marquez’s highlights should consist mostly of well-tracked runs in the box. Over and over, he picked up the Red Bulls movement and canceled it out. The athleticism was impressive, the intelligence even more so. This was far from a perfect performance but, again, with an unknown goalie behind him, an out-of-form partner beside him, and one of the league’s trickiest strikers lurking, the bar for Marquez was simply to limit chances. And he did that wonderfully.

Fabinho – 9

His defending was great, sucking inside to control the box when plays were developing and stepping out to challenge Lloyd Sam when necessary. That run though…

Brian Carroll – 7

Carroll could have been at 8 but for a poor effort late in the match that opened the door for Kljestan to power a low shot that was well-blocked by a sliding Ethan White. Otherwise, the veteran Union midfielder was at his best. He followed runs into the box, quickly closed down the zone in front of White, and generally was a nuisance to Kljestan at every turn.

Andrew Wenger – 6

Things have gotten so bad for Wenger that he can’t even get a secondary assist for his botched move that set up the shot Nogueira turned into the first Union goal. Come on, MLS, throw Wenger a bone. He’s having a tough season. The highlight of Wenger’s night was, unfortunately, also a lowlight. His 66th minute touch through Ouimette was a stunning combination of skill and timing, but his hesitancy to pull the trigger once he was behind the defense led to a bad angle shot that will only be marked down in the stats as a shot because of the intent.

Nogueira provided the extra man going forward that Philly needs to fill space when the striker pushes a defensive line deep.

Nogueira provided the extra man going forward that Philly needs to fill space when the striker pushes a defensive line deep.

Vincent Nogueira – 8

Flipping Carroll’s script, Nogueira could have been a 7 if not for the brilliance of his goal and the forty-five minutes of the second half he spent proving he’s still the most irreplaceable player on the Union. Though he prefers to be on the ball as often as possible, Nogueira had no such luxury against New York. But he made the most of the few times he saw the rock, spreading it around the field accurately and skipping forward to give the Union the extra man in attack they have lacked.

Sebastien Le Toux – 6

The most notable aspect of Le Toux’s performance cannot be seen in any statistics (unless you track player movement, in which case… call me!) A player who has pushed too high and too central all season in an attempt to jumpstart his offensive woes, Le Toux reversed course and focused on his defense against New York. Not that he had much choice since Philly rarely saw the ball, but it was impressive to see a more focused Le Toux playing as part of a defensive system. He tucked inside to protect the middle of the park and hustled back to the wing off turnovers. In the second half, Le Toux played a supporting role to Maidana and Nogueira, acting the way a fullback would on most teams: Playing short passes to the playmakers and moving off them. It didn’t win him any good looks on net, but it was exactly what Philly needed with the defense pinned so deep. A big step in the right direction for a player that has been far from his best this season.

Cristian Maidana – 7

Maidana may never take over games. Instead, his overall value is best judged by thinking about him the way we think about strikers. A striker may only get two or three chances to make his mark on a match, and a good one makes the most of those meager pickings. Similarly, the possession-averse Union may often grant Maidana only a few good chances to pick his head up and choose the right option. When he makes good decisions, the team becomes the offensive threat it has not been all season.

Conor Casey – 5

The passing radar was way off, but Casey put in the defensive work to keep Philly’s shape compact as New York attacked out of the back. And by challenging in the air, he helped produce the litany of loose balls that Nogueira eagerly vacuumed up in the first half.

Substitutes

CJ Sapong – 9

Obviously, this is exactly what you want from an attacker off the bench. Sapong looked motivated and energetic, but that energy was used within the framework of his role. No wild chasing, no flying around trying to do everything. Just going after aerial challenges, closing down the defense quickly, and hustling to be in good positions when the team had a rare chance to go forward. It paid off with a goal, but even if it hadn’t, this 36-minute appearance would have been a worthy man of the match contender. Looking back over this season, there are so few individual performances that crackled with enough electricity to lift the entire team’s energy level. Sapong brought it on Sunday, and it was damn fun to watch.

Zach Pfeffer – 6

Credit Jim Curtin with the perfect response to Jesse Marsch’s decision to pull Dax McCarty for Dane Richards. New York’s biggest asset was its midfield, and Marsch emptied it to try and attack the Union down the flanks. A fine idea. A mistake, but a fine idea. And Curtin pounced on the mistake by adding another technical player to his midfield and extending the Union’s possessions off turnovers.

Eric Ayuk – n/a

Geiger Counter – 5

A mostly competent performance by Baldomero Toledo got wonky when the official started going to his book. He carded Sapong for what appeared to be a routine aerial challenge, then let Ouimette hug-tackle the Union striker without a booking. Moments later, Ouimette took advantage by hauling Sapong down a second time and finally earning what should have been his second caution.

38 Comments

  1. soccerdad says:

    great stuff, love reading your analyses. You are quite knowledgeable.

  2. pragmatist says:

    One quick note on Sylvestre. The biggest gripe with MacMath was his apparent lack of command of the box and his inability to organize his backline. Sylvestre may not be a World-Cup-caliber keeper (luckily, we haven’t had to find out yet), but his organizational ability is something this team has sorely lacked since the days of Mondragon.

    • Beyond question. He is a solid keeper. Definitely glad for him as the more he plays the more likely he will stay in the top flight league, as this pretty safely seems to be the place for him… whether as a starter or back up.
      .
      Opportunity meeting excellence.
      .
      Sometimes you just need a break….

    • I agree with you. Unfortunately, and in true Union fashion, he’s the one keeper that is not actually on our roster long-term, yet has been the best this season. We have Zac, draft Blake, sign M’Bohli, start McCarthy and after ALL that it’s the guy we got on a loan that might be the key, at least until we see Blake.

    • Petejust s says:

      One of the things I’ve noticed about Sylvestre is that he looks absolutely cool. I know it’s not possible to really tell how calm someone is by his appearance alone, but he looks like a keeper who keeps his composure, even when things get dangerous.

      edit: Not sure what happened to my name up there. Wow!

    • Can we please find out what his contract situation is at this week’s presser? The more good games he has, the more I imagine Carolina’s price tag for him will rise…and that is scary for us. I said it at last year’s Open Cup game against him, and I’ll say it again. We need to sign this guy now.

  3. There are two things I enjoy reading each week.
    .
    This analysis and Rainer Marie Rilke.
    .
    That sir puts you in very very esteemed company.

  4. First, congratulations to the squad and Curtain for grinding out two very important results after what is perhaps one of the longest streaks of injury, bad luck/calls/breaks, cardings, and mental mistakes. My Mother was in the hospital so I watched the game later on DVR not knowing the result and it was fun to watch a good result, and to see players putting in good/very good performances as a team and individually. Thanks for a bit of cheer Union during a pretty stressful weekend!
    I will probably get skewered for my next comments, but I played D-1 college soccer and feel Brian Carroll gets too much crap for not being a flashy offensive player. I see him doing the hard, dirty work of closing channels, giving support, making tackles, and organizing team shape. As a counter to some other opinions, I will compliment him for the work. Nice effort from Fabinho too. Likewise I would be a little more kind to the shift Casey put in. Is he the same 20 yrs old that played at Mainz? No, but he put some good work down out there on knees that have seen a lot of surgery. I would have given him a 6 or 7 at least for the space he made and his target forward activity…Sapong is a MACHINE, great shift, welcome back. I thought Pfeffer played a 7 if he wasn’t barely off. Curtain gets an 8 from me for the right line up, tactics, subs and the RESULT!

    • pragmatist says:

      Your Brian Carroll comments are dead on. The problem is that people were skewering him because of sloppy turnovers and blown defensive assignments. In the past few weeks, he’s cut those out of his game and turned back the clock. If he keeps it up, people will lay off.
      And you will be hard-pressed to find a single Union fan (or and MLS fan, for that matter) that roots against BC. One of the true class acts of the league. So I hope he keeps the strong performances going.

    • John Ling says:

      best wishes to your mom, KMac. Hope everything is OK.

      • Thank you Mr. Ling you are a class act sir. All went well! Union fans never cease to amaze me…you all rule!

  5. pragmatist says:

    Based on past comments from Curtin that he doesn’t like to change things after a positive result, I’m curious what the lineup will look like, especially if Gaddis is healthy. I would think Williams heads to the bench (and who saw that coming 2 months ago?)
    And with Mo available, does he replace Ethan, while keeping Marquez?
    Does CJ and/or Aristeguita start? Or did Wenger and LeToux truly turn a corner?

    This may be the first game of the year aside from Week 1 where there are actual options, instead of “Who is able to walk?”

    • …and no sooner do we have most of the squad back than we have a stretch of 3 games in 8 days, yet again. So Curtin is going to have to be very savvy with player management. BC cannot play 90 minutes in all 3 of those games. In fact, I’m not sure the fullbacks can either. So I would expect to see Gaddis, Williams, and Fabinho getting some work over the next 2 weeks. And Mo is going to have to play CDM at least one of those games, which will mean Marquez with Vitoria (or White) for at least one of those matches.

  6. When was the last time a Union keeper had back to back shut outs?

  7. Not trying to be a jerk here, but I want to see this exact style of game played again, and again, and again… this, and only this, will show me that Curtain has what it takes. A game here, and a game there doesn’t mean much. Repeating this performance will show me that he has some chops and that he understands how to manage the team he has.

    • yes this is absolutely the case and curtin definitely knows this. that is why he has been so even when answering questions after both wins. he knows that it is good to be winning but that is way too early to really celebrate

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      That game plan works against a high pressing front six, like Pink Heiffers. Against side less committed to high press all over the field, there is less space for the counter-attacks
      .
      Also, not giving up the first goal is crucial for a number reasons, so the opponent cannot bunker, so that we do not have to chase the game, among them.

  8. The ref swallowed his whistle. A 5 is far to kind. If Pfeffer was off sides it was by half an inch. I don’t know how much Walton is getting paid but its not helping.

  9. Adam, when you predicted a draw, I said you were being absurd, so I am now offering my public mea culpa. My only defense is, who could have foreseen a string of individual performances like this???

    I guess this team is actually capable of putting sh*t together. Now as to whether they WILL…

  10. FAB
    .
    EEN
    .
    YO!
    .
    PSP gives him a 9/10. MLS puts him on Team of the Week.
    .
    What’s next, dogs and cats living together … mass hysteria!

  11. I’m sorry but I thought Chaco stunk up that game and a 7 rating is too generous. He had some bad corners, very slow to the ball, and kicking the ball right into the feet of opposing players. Give me a break! For a guy with his skill set he should be consistently getting around players and putting pressure on defenders. Not to mention he should have put that ball in the back of the net. (Granted it was his right foot) I just expect more out of him especially with the team struggling. Thank God for CJ Sapong!

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Chaco seems to be the kind of guy who you expect to influence the game on a continuous basis, then he doesn’t, but just does a few things really well… and you’re kind of like – well, I’ll take that. I think if you put him on a better team, he’s invisible quite often.
      .
      He’s an above average player on a bad team so he looks like a great player.

    • pragmatist says:

      I won’t argue the rating, but I will defend the idea that a player like Chaco may be invisible for 80 minutes, but there will be 10 minutes of sublime play.
      When we played NYCFC at PPL, I was sitting next to a David Villa fan. He couldn’t care less about NYCFC, just the player. We both agreed that Villa is the kind of player that just needs 1 touch to change a game. It may be the only touch of the game, but he’ll make it count.

      Chaco is obviously not at that world-class level like Villa, but he is as close to that type of talent as we have on this team. And when he pulls those plays off, they are very impressive. And keep in mind that for most of his time here, he’s played superb passes into forwards who can’t finish.

      If he worked on his own scoring, he’d make the leap into one of the best in the league.

  12. Fabinho put in his best performance for us. loved all the “who is the guy wearing the Fabinho jersey?” really, though, he was great.

    CJ looks like a fighter. should be a great option if aristeguieta starts.

    with health and other issues keeping an “A” team from gelling, i like going into this condensed stretch with options. this “B” team did a fine job.

  13. Dr. Union says:

    Once again agree with most of the ratings here however Wenger and Williams ratings are again too high for me. Wenger as usual did very little in any aspect of the game. I mean no he didn’t dribble out of bounds but he was invisible and not in a good way like taking care of the dirty work like Carrol and Le Toux. I give Wenger a 4 still don’t understand his repeated starts. Williams was out of position all first half he was getting pulled closer and closer to the touchline and further from White. Each time balls were being played into the channel between them while none ultimately ended up hurting the Union you got to think that the amount of space he is leaving and his positional awareness also drops him to probably a 4. As you said Fabinho excelled at tucking in and only going out to get Lloyd Sam when he absolutely needed to cut the angle down. Williams has yet to learn this skill and should’ve by now, especially playing next to White.

    • Can’t agree more about Williams and his rating. He gets a four for me. Constantly out of position. Becoming more of a defensive liability each match.
      .
      Great article and in-depth analysis by Adam. (Again)
      .
      And by Again, I don’t mean I’m surprised. I mean, its surprising how lucky I am to get to read something like this about the Union. Keep it up Adam.

  14. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Sylvester; Williams, Fabinho, Marquez, White; Edu, Nogueira, Maidana, Wenger, Le Toux; Sapong.

    McCarthy; Aristigueta; Carroll; Pfeffer, Ayuk; Gaddis ( let him heal); probably McGlaughlin

  15. I’ll echo the kudos for Adam and his analysis that he brings every week. A couple (small) things on Pfeffer that concerned me. One, was the very physical foul he committed just outside the Union box that he further enflamed with some talking and pushing. You’re up 2-0 at that point, and you can’t afford to do anything stupid to jeopardize it. You have to walk away. Either Carroll or Maidana ended up getting a yellow out of that. The second issue was defensively he got caught milling around the middle of the field a few times, leaving a lot of space behind him. He hustled back into position, but it was still dangerous. He is a young natural middle player, so I’d imagine both issues can be solved with playing experience and age.

    Also, Fabinho was excellent but I still saw him flat whiff on at least 2 high-wire sliding tackles. It’s funny, on the broadcast it was a close-up of the NYRB winger about to accept a pass when a blue gold blur (with 2 feet up) goes rocketing through the picture, cleanly miss, and it’s off to the races for the winger. The difference in this game is that those misses didn’t lead to anything. One in particular I remember had Carroll already taking 3-4 strides to the space Fabinho was leaving and Carroll ended up playing left back for a bit while Fabi recovered. Carroll was very good.

    Eh, I’m just nit-picking though. Great to see the guys rewarded the last 2 weeks for all their hard work. Players and coaching staff certainly stepped up their game right after the fan protest, will we see that from ownership?

    • Dr. Union says:

      This while its not the best option is why Carroll has to play because he does know how to cover those gaps. Unfortunately, when Edu plays CDM he is to far out of position to make a recovery like this for Fabinho. However, if Carroll is there to clean things up Fabinho defensive liabilities at times can be swallowed up.

      • Agreed. I do worry about how Carroll may hold up at this point, but he plays his position simply and that’s what this team needs at this time.

  16. Why is it that when we win ratings are 5+ and when we lose they are 6-. There have to be people playing that well in a loss, or that bad in a win… but everything seems to be based on the final score.

  17. The Little Fish says:

    I think the ratings are fair. Can’t wait for this weekend. Keep that train chugging along. Sapong, Sapong, Sapong…!!!

  18. Kudos to BC for another strong performance. While he’s taken a beating for what he doesn’t do very well, there is always a place for a smart, savvy player who knows his role and allows others to succeed in doing theirs. He’s a true professional and a solid asset off of the bench or in spot starts.

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