“Welcome to Earth:” Union defense, wide play, and Fabinho

Featured image: Paul Rudderow

This past Saturday marked Independence Day, which reminded me of the film, “Independence Day”.

My favorite part of the movie is when Will Smith punches the alien in the face and says, “Welcome to Earth”.

In a lot of ways, Philadelphia Union fans might feel like the alien. They feel like they’ve been punched in the face. A team that had good potential to qualify for the postseason struggled out of the gates this spring.

The last few weeks have been much better, however, with six wins in the last 10 games across all competitions. Injured players are returning to full health and the overall performances have improved.

We’re now 19 games into a 34-game season and the Union has 5 wins in the last 10 games, or a 6-10-5 record with the pair of victories in the U.S. Open Cup, which includes the draw that was won on penalty kicks.

And while it’s true that the team is just four points out of a playoff berth, the clubs that trail in the Eastern Conference have four and three games in hand, respectively.

That’s the key statistic right now: “points per game.” Philadelphia’s PPG of 1 is better than just one other team in the league. With the quirky nature of MLS scheduling, it only makes sense to look at PPG at this point in the season.

Here are a few other numbers to look at:

Goals for: 22 (1.16 goals per game)
Goals against: 32 (worst in the league)
Goal differential: -10 (worst in the league)
Home goals: 11
Home goals against: 10
Home goal differential: 1
Road goals: 11
Road goals against: 22
Road goal differential: -11
Shots: 209 (12th overall)
Shots on goal: 78 (7th overall)
Percentage of shots on goal: 37.3
Corner kicks: 98 (4th overall)
Penalty kicks: 0/1

Most of these statistics will skew a bit higher than their true value, simply for the fact that Philly has played more games than most other teams. That goes for “goals for,” “shots,” and the like.

The number that jumps out the most is the “goals against” column, which has really been the killer. Over the course of 19 games, 32 goals allowed is a ratio of 1.7 goals against per game.

Photo by Earl Gardner

Philadelphia’s defense hasn’t been the same since this guy played alongside Carlos Valdes, Jordan Harvey, Sheanon Williams, and Faryd Mondragon. Photo: Earl Gardner

In 2014, the team allowed 33 goals through the first 19 games, which included a 4 to 1 loss to Los Angeles and 5 to 3 loss to New England. There was also a pair of 3-3 draws in there as well. John Hackworth was let go after 16 games.

In 2013, the club allowed 29 goals through 19 games, and in 2012 it allowed 20 goals through 19 games.

You see the steady decline in defensive performance since the 2011 playoff season. That team was built around a strong defensive core and remains the most successful team in franchise history.

Winging It

Philadelphia still isn’t getting enough production from the flanks.

Andrew Wenger’s struggles on the left have been well-documented, and Sebastien Le Toux only started to improve a few games before his recent injury. We’ve seen a bit of Zach Pfeffer in a wide role in addition to Eric Ayuk on the right.

As it stands, here are the contributions of Wenger and Le Toux in MLS play this season:

Wenger: 19 games played, 17 starts, 1,320 minutes, 0 goals, 2 assists, 22 shots, 5 shots on goal

Le Toux: 16 games played, 14 starts, 1,264 minutes, 2 goals, 4 assists, 20 shots, 10 shots on goal

and combined:

35 games played, 31 games started, 2,584 minutes, 2 goals, 6 assists, 42 shots, 15 shots on goal

The biggest issue is probably the shots on goal statistic. If you do the math, Wenger and Le Toux are averaging one shot on goal for every 172 minutes of play. That’s extraordinary.

For comparison, here’s what the Union have from Ayuk and Pfeffer (Zach has played both central and wide positions)

Pfeffer: 16 games played, 8 starts, 739 minutes, 2 goals, 0 assists, 23 shots, 8 shots on goal

Ayuk: 15 games played, 6 starts, 581 minutes, 2 goals, 1 assist, 7 shots, 3 shots on goal

Those numbers aren’t amazing, but they are similar to what Wenger and Le Toux have produced, in about half of the time. It’s clear that Philly just isn’t getting enough out of these wide positions right now.

Looking around the league, here’s what you get from some other wingers who play in a similar 4-2-3-1 formation:

Ethan Finlay (Columbus): 18 games played, 18 starts, 1,476 minutes, 5 goals, 10 assists, 26 shots, 12 shots on goal

Kekutah Manneh (Vancouver): 17 games played, 13 starts, 1,148 minutes, 4 goals, 1 assist, 48 shots, 14 shots on goal

Andres Romero (Montreal): 13 games played, 11 starts, 989 minutes, 3 goals, 2 assists, 22 shots, 8 shots on goal

Finlay is currently enjoying a breakout year and Manneh is a solid player on a great team. But even Andres Romero, who has only played 989 minutes, has better production than the Union’s wide players.

Fabinho on the wing against DC United. Photo: Paul Rudderow

Fabinho on the wing against DC United. Photo: Paul Rudderow

Fabi to the rescue?

I was intrigued by Jim Curtin’s substitution in the U.S. Open Cup win over DC United. When C.J. Sapong was sent off, Andrew Wenger was moved up top in a makeshift 4-4-1 formation. Antoine Hoppenot was an option off the bench, but Curtin decided to put Fabinho in at left midfield and play Cristian Maidana as a “false 9.” The Maidana/Fabinho combination ended up creating the game winning goal.

Here’s what Curtin had to say about Fabinho on Monday after training:

“I think Fabi is a guy who gives you some versatility. He’s a guy who played a lot in Australia as more of an offensive winger, then they kind of converted him to a defender, and he kind of gave up too much I think. But he has that (midfield ability) in him. The one thing that has improved over these past few games is that he hasn’t made the critical error that maybe he was previously making. That’s just mentality and intensity for the full 90 minutes. His 1v1 defending has been much better, all of the individual battles where he’s stepping in at the right time. He’s not giving up the fouls and he’s winning the ball cleanly. He’s a confident player right now. Confidence goes a long way in this game. You could see him as a guy, if he’s not starting at left back, which he’s definitely earned the right to be a starter at that spot, but he could be a guy you plug in at that spot. He gives you a bit of defensive cover as a midfielder, but he can also get crosses in and can strike a ball pretty hard, as you’ve seen in the past two games. The goal against DC is obviously the one everyone will remember, because it’s a game-winning goal. But you think back to Montreal, the ball he hits outside the box is struck well. So he gives you a bit of an offensive presence. I’m happy with how he’s playing. Between him, Ray Gaddis, and Sheanon Williams, we had the rotation going and now we have to make a tough choice. I’ll look at the matchups and make the best choice against a Portland team that’s playing really well right now. I’m happy for Fabi, though.”

Here’s a formation that might work, assuming you stay with the 4-2-3-1. The idea is to get Fabinho forward from his left midfield position, where he can whip balls into the box. Ray Gaddis plays behind him to provide defensive cover while Sheanon Williams is free to get forward on the right flank.



  1. I like the idea of sitting Wenger in favor of Fabinho (if last year someone told me I’d be typing that sentence this summer I would not have believed it). I also like the idea of a 4 4 2 diamond with fabinho at left back, sheanon at right back, carrol at the bottom of the midfield, then pfeffer and nogueira, maidana at the tip and sapong and aristiguieta up top.

    • I like that idea. Williams and Fabinho are both guys who get up into the attack, which you need in that formation. My reservations about it are: 1) Can Fernando and C.J. play up top together? They only tried once, and got into each other’s spaces. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t work it out, but they might be too similar. Playing Le Toux up top with Sapong might be better. 2) Even if you take my suggestion, this lineup (when compared to the one Kevin has listed) essentially involves dropping Ray Gaddis in favor of Zach Pfeffer. I like young Zach, but I’m not sure that’s putting our best XI on the pitch.

  2. It seems pretty clear to me that based on offensive numbers, Pfeffer should be at LW and Ayuk should be at RW. Let the vets earn back their place in the lineup as subs and spot starters. Fabinho should rotate at LB and as a sub LB/LW.
    This team would be so much better without Sak’s meddling in the GK situation, which soaked up the money we could have paid Okugo. I don’t know who in the organization didn’t rate him enough to keep him, but that mistake has left a huge hole in this team. Carroll can’t be our CDM forever.

    • One wonders what might have been had this team started the season with Okugo and MacMath on the roster.

      • Dr. Union says:

        Had they been on the roster this team would easily have been in the 7-10 win column. I mean the lack of a quality goalkeeper easily lost this team 9 – 15 points I would say. And Okugo was what this team needed to start the season with Carroll as the backup coming in late in games to help kill off the match. Its just a shame this organization has no vision.

    • Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. Nobody will disagree that the team could use Okugo, but he wanted plenty of money, and even if he’s worth it, that means we would’ve been unable to sign somebody else — presumably either Aristeguieta or Vitoria. Of course, both of them have been injured too often to help much, but that was not predictable, and both were considered solid and promising signings at the time. So I think it’s more complicated than you’re making it seem.

      • Dr. Union says:

        While I agree there could have been complications I think ultimately not loaning MacMath and loaning out Blake would have been the better option even if Okugo wasn’t signed. Cause then you at least know you have a competent veteran keeper on the roster regardless of who works out. And while Vitoria supposedly had promise I don’t see what they saw in him other than size he was a definite bust and if his loan is up I would let him go to free up space in a heartbeat.

      • i agree with a lot of this but if you rewind the sak gk meddling and subtracted mbohli we would definitely have more than enough money for okugo

      • But did Okugo play in a little tournament in Brazil?

      • I agree about hindsight and the complexity of putting a roster together. The Okugo contract situation was apparent for 2 years leading up to the end of last season. He wanted quality starter money. Orlando felt he was worth it, and the Union organization did not, despite my feelings to the contrary. There are several moves that might have been made/avoided to clear out the cap room/salary bill to re-sign Okugo.

    • Okugo can’t even start for Orlando. Seems to me anything he wanted was to much. Could the team use him for depth? Sure. But he wasn’t the second coming. He can’t even start for Orlando. Yes, I said it twice.

      • To be fair, Orlando is better than us. We could use him.

      • This is a sad scary thought isn’t it.

      • A4U…. So you’re saying Carroll and La Houd are better options to start then Okugo? I tried to stay away from this conversation but just couldn’t.

      • Pachy, I said the Union could use the depth. Right now, the way Carroll has been playing, I’d rather have Carroll. Lahoud was playing really well before he got hurt. Both have played better defensively this year than I’ve ever seen Okugo play at CDM. If this were still the start of the season I would have said I’d prefer Okugo. And I would have been wrong.

      • Fair.
        You Me and Amobi.
        There’s an after school special somewhere in the works. Do they even make after school specials anymore.

      • They are working on a Union sized budget. I don’t think they can even afford a producer. There’s been a search for over a year…

    • The Little Fish says:

      Okugo is sitting on the bench for ORL for the last eight games…?!?!?

  3. In reference to the above comments. Since we are so cash strapped (poor) and in need of serious reinforcements everywhere, why not trade Blake for a package of players. I’m sure he has potential, but he hasn’t played squat for us in 2 years. If he’s as good as stated, he’ll probably leave when that contract is up anyway. Since he gets called up for Jamaica we need a solid backup even if he does stick around. I have as much confidence in Sylvestre as anyone else we can put in or have since inception not named Mondragon and he comes on the cheap. Thoughts?

    • pragmatist says:

      Do you trust this front office to actually get quality in return? Especially for a guy that has played twice in 2 years?
      It’s a good idea, but this organization would screw it up royally.

    • I doubt any team would offer anything of significance until he shows something at a high level. It’s all speculation right now.

    • As Kev said above nobody’s going to want Blake until there’s more than just speculation about his abilities at a high level. The way around this is to do a loan swap with a predetermined purchase option should the trade prove equitable. I would say DC is probably a good candidate. They need someone to replace Hamid because he’ll most likely be leaving soon, and I’m pretty sure they have an above-average stable of center backs.
      But yes, I think you have identified our best asset in terms of trade value vs. current value to the team.

    • hopefully he’ll have a really good gold cup

  4. Great One says:

    There’s a couple problems here. Gaddis is the RB , remember? Also, Wenger seems to be bullet proof right now. The concept is a good one, but it doesn’t seem plausible at the moment.

  5. Wenger has been so poor/unlucky, it’s hard to prove he should play that left wing position ahead of a Roomba. Anybody is likely to be an improvement there. I say that liking Wenger and hoping he can find something — some run of play to justify his role on this team. So far, I have’t seen it since pre-season.

  6. I live in the world of words…love words…. bend them and make them my bitch to exact meaning for living in this world… and I wish I could put to words how it makes me feel when I see Steven Gerrard holding the Galaxy jersey and smiling for the cameras or how I see Frank Lampard sitting with a NYCFC polo shirt fielding questions or worse how I am going to feel when my favorite player of the last 15 years Andrea Pirlo trots onto the field at Yankee Stadium and know…know … I mean KNOW this team I root for because they are mine not because I asked for them but because they were given to me…and we stand NO chance of a player of such pedigree walking from the tunnel of the River End. There are no words. Just an empty space where MLS Philadelphia excellence should be. We are a have not and I whole heartedly hate it.

    • The Union will be bought out before 2020. We’ll have our star, just wait.

    • But the Union are competing in a different way! They are building through their youth system! Just wait. In another six years we will get a half decent player who won’t start on a horrible team. Aren’t you just thrilled about that prospect?

    • Great One says:

      This times 10. All of our other arguments and debates really come back to this fact, that we will never truly compete for anything but mid table, with the hope of a lucky run.

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