Player ratings

Analysis and player ratings: Union 3-0 Crew

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Sitting in front of reporters following his side’s 3-0 drubbing of Columbus Crew, Jim Curtin went into specific detail about what has changed about the Union’s mentality over their recent run of three wins from four matches:

The best thing we’ve done in the past four games has been winning back the ball after those first 5 seconds where we lose it in the attacking third. If we don’t win it then we step back and drop but we’ve been able to pick off a lot of balls in that five second period and get at teams. So I was proud of that. The guys executed well and we put in a really good performance.

In his first full season in charge of Philadelphia Union, Curtin has certainly faced the frustration of:

  1. struggling to design a winning game plan and
  2. conveying his designs to his players in a manner that they can effectively execute.

So now that the Union are playing with confidence and quality, Curtin is the first person deserving of some hearty applause.

Let Sergio have it

With Wil Trapp injured, Tony Tchani rested, and Michael Parkhurst suspended, the Union knew that Columbus would be lacking the tools to execute their typical precision passing game out of the back. Yet instead of seeking to press numbers forward to challenge MLS debutant Sergio Campbell and rarely used Kevan George, Curtin preached patience.

It paid off.

Dropping into a deep 4-4-2 defensively, Sebastien Le Toux and Andrew Wenger worked hard to get back, bracketing Vincent Nogueira, and Brian Carroll. With outlets limited, Federico Higuain was frequently forced to leave the attacking half of the pitch in search of touches, and link up play through the center of the park was hard to come by. Whereas Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay had feasted on wide open space up both flanks when last these two teams met, they found none on Wednesday night.

Disjointed and unable to make space for themselves in the manner they are used to, Columbus dropped deeper and deeper to receive the ball, further playing into Curtin’s hands. Sitting in two organized banks of four, the Union were happy to concede possession and allow the Crew’s most dangerous players to get on the ball — provided, that is, that they were in their own half with a wall of bodies in front of them.

Carroll’s turnaround

In the first half against DC United on May 17, Perry Kitchen and Markus Halsti were all over Brian Carroll in the Union midfield. Philly’s disorganized high pressure system left them short on numbers in the middle of the park, and DC were able to complete simple passes around them, advancing comfortably past the midfield stripe and leaving Carroll to engage in a number of 1-v-1 battles against DC’s physical midfielders. He was beaten, badly.

At 33 (he’ll turn 34 this summer), Carroll no longer has the pace or lateral agility for such individual, athletic battles. Yet, as he has proven ever since that clumsily played and choreographed first half, there is still a place for him within a specific setup.

Jim Curtin’s move to a more condensed defensive system has paved the way for Carroll’s recent renaissance. With a tight, organized midfield line behind a striker, and Chaco Maidana — who can alternately pressure the center backs and deep-lying midfielders — Carroll no longer needs to be a mobile midfield savior. Sitting comfortably in front of the back four, he can do what comes most naturally to a veteran midfielder: Read the play in front of him. Earlier in the season, players like Higuain might have had their way when it came to receiving the ball in a position to challenge Carroll on the dribble, but that is no longer an option now that the Union can reliably control space through the middle.

Over the last three and a half matches, the work ethic shown by all Union players to rediscover their defensive shape as quickly as possible after the ball is lost has allowed Carroll to spend less time putting out fires — though he continues to do that with aplomb — and more time ferreting out angles and channels, constantly adjusting and improving the Union’s defensive shape and limiting opponents’ ability to pass through it.

All about the fullbacks

Yet, for all the midfield organization in the world, space can still be found when outside backs are not on the same page with their supporting winger. Fortunately for the Union, not only has Fabinho found the best form of his Union career, but Sheanon Williams has also put together his best displays of the season in recent weeks.

Their formula on Wednesday, taken somewhat from their rivals down the highway at RFK, was to put the clamps on the wide duo of Finlay and Meram while, secondarily, providing a platform to attack. With simplified defensive roles for the Union’s own wingers, no longer are the fullbacks called upon to play defense all the way to the touchline. Instead, they can pinch in to the edge of their 18, keeping touch with their respective center back to deny any channels of running or passing through the back four. When Columbus did manage to advance, it was a simple case of staying on their marks’ inside shoulder, knowing full well that they had defensive support above.

When executed properly, as it was on Wednesday night, Columbus was limited to two basic options in order to get their attacking players into the game:

  1. A precise pass directly to a winger’s feet. With Nogueira and Carroll winning the central battle, that was easier said than done.
  2. Bail out, dropping out of shape into their own defensive half for a simple touch on the ball and a breather from the offensive pressure.

Between the strong inside pressure of the fullbacks and the passive double team offered by both retreating wingers, there was no space to cut into on the inside. Both fullbacks knew that Higuain was under too much pressure to play the inch-perfect ball that would have been required to send either winger away down the line.

Player Ratings

Brian Sylvestre – 6

The match was still scoreless when Sylvestre extended to full stretch to palm away Aaron Schoenfeld’s back post header in the 27th minute. Without that moment of excellence before the Union attack clicked into full gear, perhaps we are not talking about a dominant, statement win.

Sheanon Williams – 8

Williams is often prone to overly combative displays, especially against aggressive wingers like Meram, but he maintained his composure Wednesday and marked the Columbus wide man out of the match. As Williams’ form has returned in recent weeks, so to has the attacking part of his game, which was on full display in the 58th minute when his scything run into the box allowed him to set the table for the Union’s final goal of the evening.

Maurice Edu – 7

Stepped up extremely well to start the break that led to the Union’s opener. Likely would have rated a point higher if not for his aerial struggles in the box, especially on set pieces.

Richie Marquez – 7

After only four MLS starts, it is already hard to imagine a time that Marquez was behind Ethan White, Steven Vitoria, Austin Berry — and even Aaron Wheeler — on the depth chart. No longer. Marquez has earned his starting spot and will be difficult to displace, even when Vitoria returns from his long injury layoff. Against Columbus he was again in total control at the back, both powerful and commanding in the tackle while displaying calm and comfort with the ball at his feet.

Fabinho – 8

Tasked with reversing his fortune from the last time he lined up opposite Ethan Finlay, Fabinho got the better of the Columbus winger. While still a gambling, heart-in-throat style of defender, Fabinho managed to win all the tackles he needed to while pushing forward with the renewed confidence he has shown over the last few weeks.

Vincent Nogueira – 8

Finally fully healthy, Nogueira has returned to the peak of his metronomic powers in the heart of the Union midfield. The diminutive shuttler joined Carroll in building a wall across the center of the park. While in possession, he kept Mohammed Saied and Kevan George chasing shadows. Toss in a well-taken, chipped goal, and it was a top performance from one of the main players on whom Curtin relies to make his team tick.

Brian Carroll – 7

As mentioned above, Carroll played simply and effectively, closing down passing lanes and limiting the looks Columbus had going forward. On the steam of Carroll’s recent performances, Michael Lahoud will struggle to displace him and his flourishing partnership with Nogueira.

Sebastien Le Toux – 8

The classic Le Toux game. Both Carroll and Williams spent much of the first half frustrated at the confusing and ill-disciplined run selection of the winger, but, in the end, Le Toux was in the right places at the right times to grab another goal and add a fine assist. While his movement often bamboozles both defenders and teammates alike, Le Toux deserves praise for buying into the current Union defensive structure.

Chaco Maidana – 8

Passing charts for the no. 10s: Maidana (L) v Higuain (R)

Passing charts for the no. 10s: Maidana (L) v Higuain (R)

Put on a master class in creating space, finding space and altering the speed of play to improve the effectiveness of his teammates. Kept the ball rolling when he needed, but was also extremely clever to delay entry passes when required in order to allow his teammates to race into more advantageous positions, which he did expertly to slip in Le Toux for the Union’s opener. Additionally, he chased high up the pitch for a full 90, making life that much more difficult for the Crew defense, not to mention Steve Clark, whose error Maidana pounced on to set up Nogueira’s chipped goal.

Andrew Wenger – 5

Decision-making remains just one of the problems for a player who clearly is not lacking when it comes to the physical tools it takes to play soccer at the MLS level. While undoubtedly more threatening than he has in past matches, Wenger should still have done much better with his chances in the final third, especially playing against the Crew’s fourth string right back.

Fernando Aristeguieta – 4

His early returns set the bar so high for the Venezuelan that he continues to struggle to meet them. His chemistry with Wenger and Le Toux is still lacking, though his effort to try and work with his wide men cannot be faulted. Had Gonzalez correctly whistled for a penalty when Emanuel Pogatetz fly-hacked the striker’s left leg, perhaps his performance would have been remembered differently.

C.J. Sapong – 8

Provided tenacious energy up front that put Columbus under consistent threat. Whether he was closing down defenders or crashing the box, Sapong looks to be enjoying his soccer now that he’s back with the Union. With Maidana looking capable of opening up a defense at any moment, Sapong’s quickness and precision in the box have proved to be exactly what the Union have needed over the last few games. When NYCFC limps into PPL Park on Saturday night with one of the league’s worst back lines, Curtin will likely turn to Sapong from the opening whistle.

Zach Pfeffer – N/A

The game was done and dusted when Pfeffer came on for a brief jog around the park.

Eric Ayuk – N/A

Might have provided some late game highlights had he been able to do more than stare at his feet when on the ball. His youthful limitations are much more visible now that the Union are playing well around him.

Geiger Counter

Jorge Gonzalez – 3

How is that not a penalty? How?

Preferred Lineup for Saturday’s match vs. NYCFC


Sylvestre; Williams, Edu, Marquez, Fabinho; Carroll, Nogueira; Le Toux, Maidana, Wenger; Sapong

Ray Gaddis may be healthy and ready for selection, but against a backline as porous as NYCFC’s, Curtin would do well to stick with the red-hot, rampaging duo of Williams and Fabinho.


  1. The Black Hand says:

    Ridiculously low on Wenger.

    • That is the right score for Wenger, unless he gets a point for not dribbling the ball over the goal line. He just can’t get it in the net. Curtin’s claims that they need a good Wenger to win are apparently not true.

    • John Ling says:

      I agree. I thought Andrew Wenger finally looked like the player from last season, and even the pre-season, who gave opposing teams fits. He was aggressive offensively and finally took people on off the dribble. Did well to get into space several time – his missed header in the 2nd half is the easy one to remember, but I also recall a few times when Wenger was in good position and the cross went over his head or was too close to the keeper or fell short or whatever.
      And, as Curtin has been saying all along – he played well defensively. The difference is, this game it didn’t look like Curtin was covering for his player. Wenger really did well on the defensive side of the ball.
      I think Wenger earned a much better number this game. I’d call his game a 7, but we can split the difference and call him a 6, I guess.

    • Agreed. Wenger is your constant left footed threat. He’s got the rare commodity and doesn’t have to be as good as a righty because just his presence on the field changes the opponent’s defensive posture. Add to that constant 1 on 1 runs and you have a special player that forces opponent’s into defending uncomfortable positions and therefore not generating attacks as vigorously from those areas. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t deliver a Ronaldo-like performance from the left wing, but better than a 4.

      The same reason Fabihno doesn’t have to be as good as Gaddis. The left foot is the magic one…

      • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

        A few things. Wenger is right footed and struggles when it comes to hitting crosses and shots with his left.
        Additionally, Columbus man marked him with their 4th string right back without too much defensive help from a rookie centerback making his debut. He had 2 shots, neither of which were on target and completed none of his 3 crosses. He did have one key pass but that did not arrive until after the score was already 3-0. Further, when getting into the box, he attempted 4 passes. The two that were to runners in the box were incomplete, while the other two completed passes left the box. I’m not saying he was bad, but in a match where Maidana, Le Toux, Sapong and Nogueira were a big part of creating or scoring goals, Wenger again wasn’t, even though he gave Chad Barson some 1v1 problems.
        Also, I gave him a 5.

      • Dr. Union says:

        Agree this rating to me was spot on. This is exactly what I thought after watching the game. And if he is gonna play the wing he needs to start finding people on crosses especially if he’s not gonna put the ball in the net.

      • Ger Neale says:

        Well if Wenger is right footed then I stand corrected and would like to add a few thoughts:
        1) He’s not bad with his left which probably explains why he’s out there more than we’d all think.
        2) This would explain the Fabihno dedication, who is certainly a lefty.
        3) The Union need more threat from the left even if it’s prospect.

        5 was about right vs Columbus. Haven’t watched the NYCFC replay but I’m guessing it wasn’t a great outing for Wenger.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I would flip-flop Marquez and Fabhino. I thought Marquez had a monster game covering for Fabhino when he got caught upfield. Plus Wenger and Fabhino deserve a point off for both trying the throw the ball in at the same time. (Shouldn’t Fabhino have been looking for Wenger on the throw?)

    I know the coach doesn’t get rated, but I thought he should have taken Nogueira off the minute they went up 3-0 given that he is in yellow card jeopardy.

    • I have to agree on the subs. At one point I turned to my brother and asked “He does realize that he has two more subs, right?”

      Especially with a game on short rest, and not a deep bench.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Having nothing to do with the short week, I made the comment about taking Nogs out to my wife and the people who sit near us as soon as we stopped dooping, and it was all about the card situation.

    • He should have taken off both Nogueira and Maidana, and maybe Le Toux, around 10 minutes earlier than he did. Maybe he wanted to make sure the game was well in hand? But the game was well in hand.

      Curtin said in his press conference that he doesn’t think the 3 games in 8 days is a big deal because of the minimal amount of travel. I think he’s going to put out largely the same lineup on Saturday, so I guess we’ll find out if he’s right.

    • Speaking of the subs, I’m genuinely happy to see Curtin giving young players a chance in sheltered roles since that is what, allegedly, our team philosophy is. Pfeffer is getting a shot to become a valuable bench piece at multiple positions, and Curtin hasn’t been afraid to turn to Ayuk. I do wish he’d get McLaughlin in that rotation though. I don’t think Ayuk is showing that much in his usual 5-6 minutes off the bench that he should reflexively be the late game wing sub. Jimmy looked good at Harrisburg last year, and he can’t start developing until he gets those first MLS minutes. We could have 3 young guys with some promise learning the speed of the league at a nice, easy pace.

  3. could it be that the improved wingback play relates to the strong covering play by Carroll and solid centreback play by Marquez? Not to diss the outside backs, but defending the middle of the defensive third better is usually the starting point for strong defence and if the outside backs are constantly pulled in, their outside duties become difficult if not impossible.

    • Eli Pearlman-Storch says:

      It’s a good conversation for sure. Good play by outside backs makes life easier for central players and vice versa. Fortunately right now both groups are stepping up their respective games, which makes it harder to tell who is making who better.

      • my thinking evolves from marquez and carroll being the more recent additions and williams and fabinho having been previous “problem” areas.

  4. Again with the late substitutions. With another game on Saturday Pfeffer and Ayuk should have come on right after the 3rd goal. There is no reason for Curtain to wait.

    I agree with the 4 for Nando, whatever his skills are they don’t turn into an asset for the team, very frustrating.

  5. soccerdad says:

    booyah. another dead on storchy. Well done

  6. ebradlee10 says:

    Eli, you’re a great writer…the descriptive words you include are beautiful…flourishing…combative displays…Powerful and commanding…and my favorite…peak of his metronomic powers.

    Well done.

  7. Marc Zumoff says:

    Hi Eli,

    Very much enjoying the education. Thanks.

    Marc Zumoff

    • Hey nice game to call for your first U game…pretty sweet. Just imagine if you had the call for the game in Columbus; not very fun

    • Hey Marc, great turn in the booth for you as well. I caught the replay last night and was very impressed.

      • McMohansky says:

        Same here! Always enjoy Mark Zumoff calling the sixers, and boy was that a welcome fill-in.

  8. Eli, spot on this week. Well done.
    I’ll take two 7’s every week from my CBs. The more I see Richie Marquez’s play the more I think he has a similar game to Geoff Cameron. Let’s hope his strong play continues. The only thing I can think of that would have caused Vitoria’s selection over Marquez was the unknown. Curtin must have wanted time to see him on the pitch. Outside of that Marquez is a clear selection over Vitoria. With White, there is no excuse other than Curtin was wrong. Dead wrong. Marquez should have been a starter game one.
    Aristeguieta out. Sapong In.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Hindsight is twenty-ten, very pleasantly so! 😉
      It might be possible that, as in MLS itself, the quality of play in USL is improving by leaps and bounds, and that older impressions of it still influence MLS perceptions. Further, those who played D-1 college have doubts about D-3.
      Jim Curtin is strongly loyal, not a bad thing. The characteristic may have slowed his willingness to look at Marquez and Sylvestre. Sadly, as important as character is, it usually does not bridge significant comparative deficits in athleticism and technical skill. Give him credit that he is willing to admit error, as that can be very, very hard to do.

  9. John Ling says:

    Subs came way too late. With the team in the middle of yet another 3-in-8-days scenario, the offense gave Curtin the perfect opportunity to get some players a bit of rest. Either removing Noggy to save him from picking up a yellow (or another injury), or removing Brian Carroll in order to give the old man some rest something should’ve changed in the middle a lot sooner. I actually would’ve left Wenger on the field, and gone with Pfeffer and Fred for Nogs and Carroll.
    As I said above, I think Wenger looked a lot better this game. The ball didn’t go in, which of course is the ultimate goal. But he was dangerous again. I said it above, so I’ll leave it there.
    I agree with those who say to flip-flop Fabinho and Marquez. There were a handful of time Fabi made his all-or-nothing diving tackles; the only difference was that he was on the “all” side every time this game.
    Sylvestre’s distribution out of the back was better this game, but he still needs to work on it. A few more kicks directly out of bounds, and to me that’s simply unacceptable for a keeper at this level. Other than that, though, Sylvestre is a great story for this season.
    I’m going to miss the Manchester West match – my father will take my daughter. I’ll follow online via the ESPN app as much as possible…
    Lastly, as I like to do after matches… Thank you, Zach Pfeffer, for coming over and signing autographs for the kids hanging out – first in the area between the benches, then in the area by Section 101. My daughter still loves it when a player comes over and gives her 30 seconds to sign an autograph, say hello, and so on. Kudos, Zach!

    • I only counted one kick out of bounds, are you sure? I thought his distribution was much better this match.

      • John Ling says:

        I thought there were two, but you could be right. I’m at a convention and killed an awful lot of brain cells last night.
        His distribution was absolutely better. I just don’t think it’s “good enough” yet.

      • I was going to count the passes that landed out of bounds but after one I stopped counting because they were winning and I was so happy. He appears to be a real gem of a keeper and I don’t know why the Union haven’t locked him down. How hard could it be to buy him? The owner of the Railhawks just posted a $5 million bond. I’m sure he could use a few bucks right now…

      • John Ling says:

        Yeah, I think they need to nail him down, too. McCarthy was a nice story but I don’t think he’s ready for this level. Blake remains an unknown – here’s hoping he heals well.
        I wouldn’t be at all upset with a goalie group of Blake and Sylvestre, with McCarthy as #3.

  10. Fat Uncle Phil from Urkel says:

    Is Fabinho on steroids? I’m just asking. Not accusing. He probably has to be. Unless some sort of Voodoo magic is involved. Or the selling of his soul to a malevolent being in some fashion. Whatever he is doing…well done.

    Chaco and Noggy raise the gameplay of everyone around them from front to back. They have played 4 games together this year. Record: 3-1-0.

  11. Hello everybody,

    Philly fan from germany here and i am getting into Union at the moment too. Just want to say, that i am excited because of the quality of your reports and (tactical) game analysis. Even in Germany there are only a few sites which you can compare to the phillysoccerpage and the quality of the reports. Keep it up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *