Player ratings

Player ratings and analysis: Union 3-0 Portland Timbers

Photo: Earl Gardner

There may only be one benefit to having a bad record: Good teams tend to overlook you. Even with their offense banged up, Seattle thought they could escape Philly with a point with a “B” squad; CJ Sapong disagreed. And Portland looked to do the same Saturday night, dropping Jeanderson and Taylor Peay — who had a combined six minutes of prior MLS experience — into their first starts and giving Andrew Weber his first minutes of 2015 behind them.

For the second time in a row, the Union made a Western Conference opponent pay for taking them lightly.

One way traffic

Make no mistake, Portland was downright putrid. The visitors were lucky not to be behind off the kickoff when Andrew Wenger was an inch away from poking the ball past Andrew Weber. But the Timbers’ utter lack of a plan should not overshadow a truly dominant — and surprisingly confident — Union performance.

The opening kickoff turned out to be a wonderful microcosm of the match that was about to unfold. CJ Sapong won an aerial challenge over Nat Borchers before Wenger poked past Weber. All match long, the Union competed in the air, moved off the ball, and attacked Portland’s woeful outside backs. Cristian Maidana was phenomenal; Vincent Nogueira was better. Brian Carroll hid Gaston Ramirez so deep in his pocket that he may never be seen again. And Sapong continued his frankly stunning run of form by physically overpowering two central defenders who clearly underestimated him.

But, of course, we must start with Wenger.

Andrew Wenger scored

A Russian novel’s worth of post-match analysis has focused on Wenger this season. I have personally written a lot of it. And just to be clear: It has not been fun. Cracking the knuckles and picking apart the game of a guy who is so incredibly, frustratingly, and obviously trying to think his way back into top form instead of letting his natural talent take over is not an enjoyable activity. And the opportunity to so repetitively critique a guy who really is playing poorly — not just getting picked on, actually playing the game poorly — is not one that happens often in the life of someone writing about sports or someone playing sports. Usually, the manager will sit the player down for a while, or someone else will emerge to pick up the slack, or a deflected shot will take an unlikely path into the goal and take the monkey off the back as it nestles in the back corner.

None of that has happened with Wenger. Instead, Jim Curtin has written the local kid’s name down on his lineup sheet again and again and again. And each time, Wenger has actually –as in, his barren streak has not been mostly bad luck — failed to deliver.

Before scoring on Saturday, Wenger had gone an almost inconceivable 638 minutes without a shot on goal. And since he last hit the frame, Wenger had attempted more than one shot in a game only once (he took three shots on Saturday: All on goal and two hit with a technique and crispness that has been astonishingly absent).

So yes, I have been critical of Wenger all season, but only as critical as his play has deserved.

And it is with joy and relief that I can switch from critique to praise.

The relief is especially salient because it looked like I would be asking all the usual rhetorical questions about Wenger after the first half. There was the opening play that he almost tapped past Weber, then the 10th minute shot-cross from Le Toux that skimmed by Wenger’s back post run an instant before he arrived.

An entire highlight reel could be put together with nothing but clips of Wenger showing up at the back post just in time to feel like he missed his chance to score. Instead: Head in hands, lips drawn, stolid jog back to position.

And on the other end, Diego Valeri, shuffled out to the right for reasons only Caleb Porter knows, began to take advantage of the huge swaths of land Wenger left behind as he pushed forward to track long balls off of Sapong’s head. After staying wide and taking on Fabinho early, Valeri drifted into the channel and found the space to dink crosses toward Fanendo Adi and, eventually, combine with Gaston Fernandez through the middle. It all looked like another match in which Wenger would try too hard to join the offense and get punished for a defensive lapse.

But then it wasn’t.

Diego Valeri struggled to influence from a right-sided role.

Diego Valeri struggled to influence from a right-sided role.

Near the half-hour mark, Wenger began to move off his flank and pop up first in the center then out on the right. He was hardly influential, but he was at least active and trying something new. The movement had a downside as Valeri almost immediately began to isolate Fabinho and become more of a hub for Portland’s offense.

But the Union as a team were so dominant that leaving Valeri alone was a risk worth taking. After all, Adi, Fernandez, and the near-invisible Rodney Wallace, were the only Timbers in the same time zone as the Philadelphia final third for the majority of the first half.

The risk paid off in the 69th minute when Wenger drove hard at Ridgewell, cut onto his left, and laced a clean strike into the far corner.

Ignore the horrific shape that somehow allowed the Union to execute a 3v3 breakout from a short pass near the midfield stripe. Instead, focus on the fact that 25 minutes earlier, Wenger had the chance to sprint behind the defense as he and Maidana started a break up the left wing. Rather than darting toward goal or sticking close to his playmaker for a quick one-two exchange, Wenger was caught in two minds: First he aimed for goal, then he cut off his run and stuck with Maidana, then he reconsidered and half-heartedly turned toward goal again. It was a microcosm of Andrew Wenger’s confidence issues in one mazy, indecisive move.

Scoring a goal may not fundamentally change the trajectory of Wenger’s season. But then again, it might. And that’s a lot more hope than I had 48 hours ago. The Union were counting on Wenger to carry a major part of the goalscoring load when the season started; they have struggled mightily without regular offensive contributions from their two primary wingers. If Sebastien Le Toux — who rocked the woodwork Saturday — and Wenger can rediscover their combined form in the second half of the year, Philadelphia will suddenly look a lot more competitive in the Eastern Conference.

The Union midfield played compact defensively but pushed upfield to attack, supported by Carroll's cool pocketing of Gaston Fernandez.

The Union midfield played compact defensively but pushed upfield to attack, supported by Carroll’s cool pocketing of Gaston Fernandez.

Bad Timbers! Bad!

Seriously bad. Epically bad. Confusingly bad. There may be no single adjective that can wholly capture how comically underprepared and uninspired the Portland Timbers were on Saturday. Caleb Porter’s tactics were either poorly defined or horribly executed, with the front four totally without support and the central midfield (and fullbacks, and Rodney Wallace) spectacularly ineffective.

Will Johnson and Jack Jewsbury played so deep that Gaston Fernandez was patrolling forty yards of space on his own for large portions of the first half. Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace stayed wide and high even though their fullbacks rarely got forward (Taylor Peay) or seemed determined to emulate Fabinho: The Early Years (Jeanderson). It was an unremitting mess. And it was made worse by the equally unremitting excellence of Cristian Maidana, Vincent Nogueira, and Brian Carroll.

Though Maidana’s three assists and Nogueira’s brace deserve praise, Carroll’s performance was equally stellar, if not as challenging as might have been expected when a top team from the west comes to town. The deep, deep positioning of Jewsbury and Johnson simplified Carroll’s role. There was rarely a second runner attacking Philly’s box, and Portland’s obsession with width meant they could not complete short passes around the final third to move the Union defense around.

The Portland midfield rarely got out of the middle third, with Johnson and Jewsbury reduced to shielding the backline and hoping the fullbacks or Fernandez could generate offense.

The Portland midfield rarely got out of the middle third, with Johnson and Jewsbury reduced to shielding the backline and hoping the fullbacks or Fernandez could generate offense.

Carroll tracked Fernandez, forced him to play the ball wide so he could not combine with Adi, and followed the playmaker’s run into the box. It was all so… simple. Yet Carroll did it with such efficiency and consistency that even as Philly rushed forward, the Timbers’ counter was only able to generate a single chance: A well-struck free kick from Valeri.

Confusingly, Portland played with deep central midfielders but still attempted to push fullbacks high when building out of the back. As Sapong, Maidana, and Nogueira pressed to prevent Jewsbury and Johnson from turning upfield with the ball, the fullbacks remained too far from their respective central defenders to offer an easy outlet. Over and over the Timbers buildup broke down before it ever reached a playmaker like Fernandez or Valeri.

Porter adjusted at halftime, bringing Valeri into the acres of space in the middle third of the field. But Rodney Wallace remained high, wide, and toothless. It is surprising that Porter was so determined to keep Valeri on the right. Adding a player to the mix who could have cut inside and forced Carroll to step out of the center would have at least made defending somewhat difficult for Philadelphia. As it was, Adi’s head was the only real danger from a tactical setup that was, frankly, embarrassingly ineffective.


During the very low lows that characterized much of the first half of the 2015 season, it seemed like Union fans were living on scraps of positivity. Not so on Saturday, where the entire Union midfield and CJ Sapong were excellent, both wingers were dangerous, and the defense was largely unimpeachable.

But all of the warm feelings generated by such a convincing win should not overshadow the frustrating lack of execution that marred an otherwise brilliant first half display. Philly was extremely unlucky to hit the crossbar (Wenger), but a miss the frame from ten yards out (Sapong), a softly hit shot from a bouncing cross (Maidana), and the total absence of a threat from numerous set pieces point the way forward for a team that is capable of executing with much more precision.

Given the absurd amount of time Union players found in the Timbers’ final third, it is nearly unbelievable that the home side did not score until the 69th minute. Time and again, good moves were undone by a sloppy final ball or a run to the back post that arrived too late. These may seem like minor gripes during a season in which the Union have looked ready to set some ignominious pass completion records, but it speaks to the progress the team has made that they are spending enough time in the opponent’s final third to make poor final passes.

Additionally, the Union’s inability to create chances off of set pieces was troubling on a night when Portland was often willing to concede corner kicks. All too often the Union not only failed to threaten the goal from corners, they couldn’t even put bodies near the ball. Maurice Edu continues to sniff out Maidana’s set piece deliveries, and Richie Marquez has been far more threatening than Steven Vitoria ever was, but as a group the Union still lack the movement and aggression needed to make set pieces count.

It is interesting that the Union face Toronto FC next since the Canadians have often relied on tactics that will seem familiar after Portland’s PPL Park faceplant. Giovinco and Jozy Altidore are massive upgrades over Gaston Fernandez and Fanendo Adi, and Michael Bradley is much more of a box-to-box player than either Jewsbury or Johnson. But on the whole, Toronto’s strategy (and they will be without Altidore and Bradley) will be to get the ball to Giovinco in dangerous areas and move off of him. [UPDATE: Jozy Altidore announced on Twitter on on Tuesday morning after this post was published that he wouldn’t be with the US team for the knock rounds of the Gold Cup.] The Timbers left their off-the-ball movement on the west coast, but TFC is unlikely to follow suit. Philly’s defense will face a much tougher test from the expensive Toronto roster, but if the offense can play with anything like the speed they showed on Saturday they can annihilate a very beatable defense.

Through the first 70 minutes of the match, Vincent Nogueira hardly put a foot wrong. The midfielder sprayed balls around his own half and found Maidana in the final third to keep the Portland midfield from executing anything close to an effective press.

Through the first 70 minutes of the match, Vincent Nogueira hardly put a foot wrong. The midfielder sprayed balls around his own half and found Maidana in the final third to keep the Portland midfield from executing anything close to an effective press.

Player ratings

Brian Sylvestre – 6

He continues to make all the routine plays look routine, and his strength in the air has made Union fans forget the expensive flapping of Rais Mbolhi. Sylvestre may never do the spectacular, but his consistency has been a pillar of support behind the developing Edu-Marquez partnership.

Ray Gaddis – 7

Look, there are effective ways to attack Gaddis. But posting a speedy winger high up the pitch is not one of them. Speed moves don’t work on Gaddis. And it takes a fullback far more skilled than Jeanderson to find the space in front of the back line and pull Gaddis away from his mark. Caleb Porter’s deployment of Rodney Wallace made zero sense; and Gaddis had zero issues covering up Wallace and forcing Jeanderson to shoulder a creative load he was not prepared to handle.

Maurice Edu – 7

There are games where Edu tries to convince us it’s all too easy for him. The excessive dribbling that ensues can be mildly, and sometimes wildly, frustrating. But then there are games like Saturday when Edu is so much smarter, quicker, and more focused than an eight-goal striker that you daydream about the possibilities of an Edu-Brooks partnership in red, white and blue. By playing his own role instead of trying to play both defense and occasional midfield at the same time, Edu gives insight into just how simple the game is to him compared to the rest of the players on the pitch. He can effectively cover for Gaddis without cheating outside and giving the striker room to operate. He can retreat as fast as a striker can run forward. He can track a shifty midfielder or a big body with equal ease. Nothing spectacular on Saturday from Edu, and that’s exactly what the Union need.

Richie Marquez – 6

Marquez was fooled by a Fabinho touch and let Adi get behind him in the 14th minute, but great tracking from Gaddis prevented a scoring chance. The rest of the match, Marquez played quickly and simply (simple was a good theme for the entire Union defense) and was only beaten once in the air when Adi twisted low to put admirable power into a poor cross.

Fabinho – 7

All of the Union’s good work could have been undone by their Brazilian left back. But, once again, Fabinho played a disciplined game and was rarely caught upfield when Valeri received the ball for the Timbers. Looking back, it seems as though Caleb Porter must have been supremely confident that Fabinho’s penchant for the forward run would grant Valeri space on the right wing. The Brazilian’s admirable restraint meant Valeri was pressured far from goal. The Argentinian has many qualities, but one-on-one attacking is not among them. Though his influence grew as the match progressed, Valeri was never close to the threat he can be, and that is largely down to Fabinho’s newly discovered defensive intelligence.

Brian Carroll – 7

Carroll was excellent, but he will rarely have an easier assignment. Fernandez or nobody was all the Timbers sent up the middle. Caleb Porter is a good coach, but his tactics on Saturday remain difficult to understand.

Vincent Nogueira – 10

The Portland midfield was a mess, but part of the reason Jewsbury and Johnson were pinned so deep was the breathtaking speed of play from the Union’s shuttling French midfielder. Nogueira made one incomplete pass in the entire first half, and he was not shying away from the long, Hollywood balls over the defense. Given time, Nogueira transitioned Philly from defense to offense so quickly that Chaco Maidana often found himself below the opponent’s eighteen yard box with time to look up because the defense had yet to rotate over. Nogueira can quarterback a midfield as well as anybody in MLS, and Saturday he got the time and space to prove it. Oh yeah, and he threw in a few driving runs for good measure, notching a brace as Maidana played provider.

Cristian Maidana – 9

Notably, Nogueira got high enough in the center to allow Maidana space in the channels. The Argentinian took full advantage as he teased the Portland defense with change-of-speed moves and disguised passes that left Jeanderson and Peay grasping at air. Andrew Wenger’s goal was set up by Maidana’s nifty pass around Jeanderson as the Brazilian flew in to close space. It was a difficult pass that Maidana made look easy.

Sebastien Le Toux – 7

With Wallace pushed so far up the field he was almost on a flight back to Portland, Le Toux had the freedom to gallop around the pitch at will. The Union spent much of the first half moving up the left side and switching the ball as they entered the Timbers’ final third. Le Toux was often the recipient of these long crosses, and he picked out good passes into the box, though there was a distinct lack of crispness to his deliveries that should hopefully disappear as the injury rust fades.

Andrew Wenger – 8

Wenger’s goal may overshadow the near-perfect performances of his teammates in midfield. And that’s fine. It has been a long time since the local lad scored, and with Eric Ayuk the only winger to emerge behind him, Wenger needs to prove he can be a consistent threat for the Union going forward.

CJ Sapong – 8

I cannot say enough about how fun it is to watch Sapong flex his muscles against bigger, broader opponents. The Union striker’s unique combination of strength and speed, when combined with smart movement and endless work, more than make up for his average finishing. Over the past two and a half months, Sapong has similar numbers to the elite strikers in MLS, and that despite missing the first half of May. Even when he doesn’t show up on the scoresheet, the pressure Sapong is putting on opposing defenses is evident.


Zach Pfeffer – 6

100% passing from a wide position is nice to see. Pfeffer came in and showed he can be an effective part of a possession game alongside Nogueira and Maidana.

Sheanon Williams and Fred – n/a

Late cameos after the match had already been put to bed.

Geiger counter

Jose Carlos Rivero – 3

With Portland asleep from the outset, this should have been an easy one for Rivero. Yet, both of the cautions he handed to the Union can be questioned without much of a home team tint to the argument. Edu appeared to keep his studs down as he won the ball off of Valeri in a crunching but fair tackle, and Sebastien Le Toux’s foot was kicked by the Argentinian when Rivero carded the Frenchman.


  1. Great analysis as always. It’s amazing to watch when Nogueira and Maidana are so on and in synch. I was amazed that they kept having the room to operate. How much more fun is it to write the analysis when the team plays so well?

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    When rating Rivero, don’t forget that Le Toux’s yellow came just after he neglected to call a foul on a hip check into Fabhino which should have been a foul and probably a card the other way.

    • yeah what up with that? Rivero made a diving motion with his hands. I don’t know how he can accuse a player of diving when there was that much contact. And if he thinks it’s diving, he is obligated to issue a yellow card, no?
      what a putz

    • agreed

    • I only saw the highlight board replay, but I actually thought that Fabinho dived looking at it. As for Le Toux, he was very lucky not to be yellow carded for a bad foul earlier and was given a last warning then. Having given a foul he almost had to book Le Toux.

  3. Kingkowboys says:

    Wow Nogs gets a 10! That’s history right there. There has been maybe one other 10 handed out in the union’s history?
    Great performance overall. I hope we have rounded the bend and can be dangerous the rest of the year. Playoffs seemed gone 2 months ago but there looks to at least be a tease for the rest of the year.

  4. I didn’t watch the match, but watching the highlights, the thing that amazes me was that Nogueira was in the box. Twice. How did that happen?? Nogueira NEVER gets into the box. Was it just the additional Union pressure on the wings left him the opportunity to advance? Or did Curtin maybe give him orders to get into the box?

    • Dr. Union says:

      Now this could be a stretch, but I think Nogs may have gotten in the box more because of Edu’s yellow card. When Edu got the yellow he stayed home more at the back not making his untimely runs through the middle. When he doesn’t do this I feel Nogs trusts that he can leave some space in the middle of the pitch to make a run here and there cause Edu and Carroll are still sitting back. I could be wrong but when Edu stays home more in the match I feel Nogs pushes higher and higher as the match progress if the Union have kept the score tight.

    • Curtin did comment coming into the year that he wanted to Nog and Maidana to get more goals. I imagine it is somethings he pushed for more of.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Nogueira’s comment credited Brian Carroll’s good play with allowing him to get forward more. And Adam’s point that Johnson and Jewsbury were extraordinarily deep also enables Nogueira to be up the central channel.

  5. This is an excellent and fair assessment of the game and players. I still have only joy. Well written.

  6. Jim Presti says:

    Gaston Fernandez – typo

  7. Dr. Union says:

    So I agree with Adam on most of his ratings but am slightly confused. While you say for most of the match Wenger was his typical self, as he was the last 19 games and I agree, he got a rating of an 8, why? Ok so the kid gets a goal and we all hope he turns a corner and starts playing better, but while scoring gives him a bump in performance I do not think he had a very good game. He was out of position on several occasions including the goal, he made poor runs most of the game and blew at least three opportunities to score back post had he just made the run. I mean I am by far any expert, but 8 seems generous. I’m fine with giving it to him cause he needs a break, but a goal does not make him a savior for this team. There is still need on the left wing for a competent consistent player to produce quality service and contribute on the goal side of things.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Dr. Union – Ah, the benefits of not revealing/not having a methodology! At my most objective, I agree with you. He had an up-and-down game and probably, all things equal, would have earned a 5 or 6 if he had not scored. Three shots, all on frame, is a good enough return for an average rating, even with the trio of late arrivals at the back post (at least one of which can be forgiven because it came off a rocket from Le Toux). So start with a 6, add one for scoring, add another for good vibes, and that’s where I’m at.

      In the end, I’ll admit that I do not have a hard-n-fast method for the ratings. More than most, I probably give more weight to how a player affected an outcome rather than how successfully they performed what I assume to be their role. So a game-winning goal, all by himself, when the game looked like it could very well end as a one-sided draw, carried more weight for me than if Wenger had scored a late consolation goal in a 5-1 defeat.

      So I don’t just let my emotions guide my ratings, but I do adjust the weights based on how I think a game or a play influences the specific match or player in a more general/global sense. I hope that helps explain why I’ll defend my 8 while also believing that your arguments are 100% valid.

      • pragmatist says:

        You could argue that because of his struggles, his goal carried more weight than if someone else had scored it. Breaking his drought released pressure for the entire team, not just Wenger himself (although it was to a much greater degree for him, obviously).

      • This was at least an “8” performance for the Union as a whole. Andrew’s goal was a fantastic individual effort which totally ignited the team; I was sure we were gonna score again…the 8 is deserved!

      • Dr. Union says:

        Ok yeah the reasoning makes sense then. I was leaning more towards the 6 range, but as I said he’s had a hard enough time so no sense with the tougher grade. However, I do hope they look to find someone more consistent for that spot and left back. Time and time again everything is pushed down the right side. Examples all three goals in this game came off the right side of the field.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Yeah, but the game winner against DC in the Open Cup was down the left side. (I don’t remember the first goal from that game well enough to say where it came from.)

  8. Couldn’t get to or watch the game. Giggled like a school girl scrolling through twitter after it was over. Well done, boys, well done.

  9. Also credit to Pfeffer for his driving run with the ball just prior to the 3rd goal.
    It was aggressive and lead to a 4v4 on the right that allowed for the 1-2 to get in on goal.

  10. Christian says:

    SOB deserve a 10 for the Epic Troll on Timber Joey. A game filled with great play may have been out shined by the man holding a plastic chainsaw toy cutting Bimbo Bread. Well done!

  11. Nat Borchers earns at least a 5 for that beard. Wow.

  12. Totally agree with the high marks for Sapong and Edu. They convincingly won their one-on-one battles with key Timber opponents (Borchers and Adi). Neither showed up in the stats but both knew their roles and did a great job.

  13. Awesome stuff! I don’t recall ever seeing many 9’s here and certainly never a 10. Both are well-deserved! That game- second half, especially- was such a pleasure to watch! 🙂

  14. I know we don’t “rate the coach” here, but it has to be a good sign for Curtin that after all the opportunities this team must have had to snipe at one another behind closed doors, when a guy that rightfully earned the ire of the public scored a goal, the whole team – bench and all – celebrated along the endline.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Well said.

    • Jim is a very methodical, even keeled guy. In any sport, that’s a great trait for a head coach to have. It shows consistency and confidence, which then trickles down to the players. The first 2 months of the season were rough, but Curtin stayed true to his belifes, didn’t panic, and now we’re reaping the benefits. Who knows how this will end this season, but it’s sure a heckuva lot of fun right now.

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