Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Earthquakes 1-2 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union keep you guessing. A week after New England left them chasing ghosts, the Union traveled to San Jose and snuck out with a win.

And here’s the rub: Philly did it by playing exceptionally organized defense on the road. Sure, the Quakes were missing a few important players, but that does not in and of itself explain how the Union flipped from spacious, chaotic defense to a tight unit in one week.

Let’s look at some of the other causes.

Barnetta is already deep in the box here, but he reads the line stepping and darts in behind (click to play).

Barnetta is already deep in the box here, but he reads the line stepping and darts in behind (click to play).

If Cristian Maidana is the artist, Tranquillo Barnetta is the scientist. Maidana’s creative instincts find angles others don’t see, and his passes are weighted with that unteachable softness that lays them up for a finish.

Barnetta, on the other hand, is slower to recognize the perfect pass, more methodical and patient in his movement and passing. Not blessed with blazing speed or size, he has to be one step ahead of the defense to find space enough to turn and pick out incisive passes. It’s a slower, less exciting form of creativity, but it offers benefits. With Barnetta spreading the field, the Union were more likely to have multiple bodies in the box for crosses (though this fact did seem to make them quite cross-happy). Barnetta’s patience and willingness to stay in the congested areas of the pitch allowed the wings to get forward, pulling the San Jose wingers deep and allowing Ray Gaddis and Fabinho to play outsized roles in the opposing half.


Penalty? (click to play)

But the bigger difference is defensively, where Barnetta takes up positions based on the team shape rather than whatever is happening closest to him. For the first time in a long time, the Union had an extra man in midfield. As a result, their opponent struggled mightily to move the ball from the back to the front, relying heavily on their least efficient option: Marvell Wynne.

In order to penetrate Philly’s pleasantly organized lines, San Jose had to move the ball quickly across the back. They mainly did this through long skip passes from Clarence Goodson to Wynne. When Matthias Perez-Garcia or Fatai Alashe checked short for Wynne, Vincent Nogueira or Michael Lahoud would follow. Barnetta, meanwhile, dropped deeper into midfield, meaning San Jose could not quickly switch fields and move straight up the Union gut.

It is a minor positional shift from the attacking midfield position, but it made a huge difference.

Not quite as much space between midfield and defense as last week.

Not quite as much space between midfield and defense as last week.


Last week I criticized the Union’s defensive spacing. Good news: It was much, much better this week. The pre-emptive backpedaling that might as well have left a red carpet in its wake was replaced by coordinated movement, with the entire defense sliding over when a fullback pressed. Additionally, Lahoud and Nogueira were excellent in front of the back four, neutralizing Chris Wondolowski and pushing Perez-Garcia to the wings where he was only sporadically effective. Whereas last week the midfield duo was out of sync – meaning they were often much further apart than a compact defense should be – Michael Lahoud continued his growth as an intelligent player by remaining largely central, breaking up play and collecting loose balls to keep the Earthquakes pressure minimal.

Seriously. This is much better.

Seriously. This is much better.

It should be noted that the defense stayed closer to the midfield most of the match, making Lahoud’s job a tiny bit easier than Brian Carroll’s last week. The change in approach was intriguing because the defense looked so comfortable from the start of the match. Perhaps it was simply that they rarely had to deal with players running at them and grew in confidence. Perhaps the coaching staff drew up the tactics differently. Perhaps John McCarthy used different persuasive messages to encourage his defense to step up than Andre Blake used a week ago. There are many possibilities.

And, of course, the truth will only be clear in the coming weeks when the Union defense is tested by more efficient offenses.

Matias Perez Garcia, the main creative threat for San Jose, was forced to play in deep positions.

Matias Perez Garcia, the main creative threat for San Jose, was forced to play in deep positions.

Wing defense

The final key to the newly discovered defensive soundness was on the wings. Sebastien Le Toux and Eric Ayuk were not the game-breakers they have been in the past (and Le Toux, for all his hard running, could have seen yellow for a cringe-worthy dive in the box), but their defense was fundamental to allowing the Union to counterattack effectively and take pressure off the backline.

Whereas Le Toux and Ayuk show the thrill of a child when taking off upfield to latch onto an expected Maidana throughball, playing with Barnetta seemed to temper their more vertical tendencies. Accordingly, they could be found in a line with Lahoud and Nogueira on defense, quickly closing down Cordell Cato and Shea Salinas and giving Fabinho and Gaddis a bit more of a security blanket on the edges.

Dread Pirate Casey

A more positionally sound attacking midfielder, a more compact shape, and better defensive work from the wingers contributed to the Union’s fine defensive display. But none of that won them the match.

Conor Casey won the match. Well, Conor Casey and some exceptional balls into the box won the match.

Casey did the one thing that Fernando Aristeguieta has not been able to do recently: Put balls on frame. Aristeguieta had nine shots in just over 100 minutes of action in August. Only one made the goalie work. Casey came into a match in which a long, tame roller from Nogueira was the only Union shot on target and promptly deposited two balls into David Bingham’s net, breaking a 400+ minute shutout streak for the San Jose keeper.

It was the little things that allowed Casey to break the 70 goal mark for his career. On the first, he snuck away from Clarence Goodson to get a clear look at the ball when it wafted past the defender’s head. On the second – which was far more difficult to do intentionally (and it was intentional) than it looked – Casey simply made a brilliant run, recognizing that any touch from such a position would trouble Bingham behind him.

Casey has a well-earned reputation as a big body who does the dirty work up front. On Saturday, he showed the beautiful side of his game.

The Union still need Nogueira getting forward into this empty space.

The Union still need Nogueira getting forward into this empty space.

Dare I…

I think Dom Kinnear is one of the best coaches in Major League Soccer. Give me a team brimming with talent and I’ll tap Bruce Arena to coach them. But give me a team of moderate talent that can only succeed if a bunch of oddly-shaped pieces suddenly click together late in the season? Dom Kinnear every day.

But what in the world was the Earthquakes coach thinking on Saturday?

Cordell Cato sleepwalked through the entire match after logging 58 minutes the night before for Trinidad. Matias Perez Garcia spent the entire match auditioning to be Cristian Maidana’s understudy. And I’m fairly certain Quincy Amarikwa spent more time practicing facial expressions he would use if introduced at a WWE event than participating in the match going on around him.

It is quite possible – even probable – that Kinnear figured he could isolate the Union fullbacks and let Salinas and Cato serve balls into the irrepressible Wondolowski all evening. Any coach with a MLS Live account would do the same.

Koval was a very careful passer.

Koval was a very careful passer.

But when Philly successfully snuffed out that plan, it was surprising to see that San Jose had nothing else to fall back on. Tommy Thompson was the only potential sparkplug for the midfield, but Kinnear chose to pull of Perez Garcia for the young creator, meaning both ineffective wingers played the full ninety while rarely troubling a pair of fullbacks that haven’t had a day off since, and I’m ballparking here, 1973.

Kinnear can be forgiven for reverting to the 4-4-2 that has provided middling results for his squad this season. Little about the Union suggest a need to dominate the center of the park, and even with only two players in there the Quakes were still collecting quite a few loose ball recoveries.

There were probably two factors at play, one which Kinnear was helpless to solve and another he should have seen coming. First, Victor Bernardez went down with a hamstring injury. JJ Koval is many things, but he is not yet comfortable as a central defender. Moving from midfield to defense is like getting out of a hot shower in winter only to discover that you left your window wide open. The chill of being without another line of defense behind you can make even the most fluid midfield passer a bit more conservative and careful in their decision-making.

Koval was careful and conservative, and he took the telltale second touches that indicate a player adjusting to a new role. This considerably slowed any momentum San Jose gathered as they moved the ball side to side, and it also meant Marvell Wynne had less time to make a decision when he roamed into the Union half.

The second factor was Philly’s ability to pressure Goodson and force the ball off of his feet. Kinnear may have seen the time afforded to players like Michael Parkhurst in the past and assumed his team could build through Goodson. But hard work from CJ Sapong and Barnetta made that impossible, thus eliminating the long crossfield pass that could have given Cato or Salinas space to operate.

To counter the Union’s pressure, San Jose would have had to drop Fatai Alashe deeper into the back line, adding another body so one of the central defenders would be free and have time to pick out passes. Alashe did this sporadically early, but, notably, he hardly dropped deep at all once Koval joined the back line.

What’s next

Who knows? This was a smash-n-grab win against a weakened opponent, but it was also the Union’s first come-from-behind win all season (you read that right). Philly can only scrape their way into relevance by focusing on a defense-first strategy with a bit more precision in the offensive end. To do this will likely require Barnetta, Le Toux, and Nogueira to play big minutes in the matches leading up to the US Open Cup final, and it means finding a way to integrate the creativity of Maidana without putting this fragile defensive balance at risk. Additionally, Matt Doyle suggests Curtin will have to decide whether Maurice Edu gets to walk back into the back line when he’s healthy again (hint: he does).

The Union are a team without an identity. A surprising win on the road teaches us as little about this squad as the previous week’s disappointing loss at home.

Expect a similar lineup against Columbus next week. But don’t set any expectations for the result. At this point, predictions are just shouting into the void.

Player ratings

John McCarthy – 5

Rarely challenged, and a little bobbly, but overall a good performance. That ugly early punch knocks him down a notch.

Ray Gaddis – 8

A strong rebound performance from Gaddis, who shut down Shea Salinas and served in a gorgeous assist for Casey’s first. The fullback is doing his best to embody the Union’s up-and-down season.

Steven Vitoria – 7

While Richie Marquez was busily involved on the ball, Vitoria took a back seat and focused on his defending. It paid off, as the big man had one of his best all-around performances in a Union jersey. His positioning was strong and his aerial game finally looked suitable for his size. The passing? Lots of long stuff. And why won’t he pass to Gaddis?

Richie Marquez – 6

Still backing off a bit too much when Perez Garcia or Wondolowski drove up the middle, but overall a very good show from the young man who is locking down a spot in the first eleven going forward.

Presented without comment (click to play)

Presented without comment (click to play)

Fabinho – 2

This is mostly a rating for the handball because I still can’t believe what I saw. Some day we will look back on that play and laugh. I hope.

Michael Lahoud – 7

Excellent supporting man work from Lahoud. In the past, the Sierra Leone man has had a tendency to sprinkle rash tackles or jaw-droppingly weird passing choices into good overall performances. On Saturday, he simply applied pressure then dropped back in front of Wondolowski. His passing was mostly simple, though he did find Le Toux with longer looks a few times.

Vincent Nogueira – 6

Efficient. That’s the best word for the Frenchman, as he stayed deep and moved the ball whenever the Union gathered it. Nogueira needs to (needs to) get into the box more often. Especially with Barnetta ahead of him, Nogueira can gamble a bit more.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Hard work defensively and some nice movement and passing to top it off. A fairly complete performance from Le Toux, who continues to look like he is finding top form after a lengthy spell in the doldrums. The point off is for the dive.

Eric Ayuk – 6

Nothing special, nothing awful from Ayuk. The best defensive performance of his career during an outing in which he showed he isn’t simply a fast break/quick feet artist. Ayuk’s reading of the game with Barnetta in the center – drifting wide instead of going vertical – was a nice takeaway from an otherwise quiet outing.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 7

His best performance by far, but still well below where he needs to be. In order to justify the Union’s investment in him, Barnetta needs to be a gamechanger, not just a better brain on the pitch. The final ball continues to elude him, as do his shooting boots.

CJ Sapong – 5

Lots of energy but not much end product from Sapong, who often found his channels gone with Barnetta in the middle. An adjustment is coming, and it may mean Sapong has to do more of his work in the channels.


Conor Casey – 10

I mean, he just came on and won the game. First there was nothing, then there was Casey. Brilliant cameo.

Andrew Wenger – n/a

Warren Creavalle – super n/a

Geiger counter – 3

Ismail Elfath lets a lot of pushing and shoving go (including a Marquez push on the Fabinho handball play) and the players did a good job keeping their tempers. Specifically, CJ Sapong kept a cool head despite not getting a single call on Bernardez, who ran through his back at every opportunity. Should Elfath have called a penalty for Sapong when Koval ran up his legs? Probably. But the first contact was innocuous enough that it was a tough one for the referee. Should he have called the penalty when Bingham slapped Nogueira’s legs without hitting the ball? Um, yeah.


  1. It was an invigorating win, very exciting. Great for Casey and great to see the U rally in the 2nd half for once. But I have no idea what to expect this Saturday.

  2. adam, did you get a chance to read matthew de george’s recent article about this game? do you agree with his conclusion about curtin?

  3. Fat Uncle Phil from Urkel says:

    They won, so I’m already at the laugh at Fabinho’s stupid blunder phase. No idea WTF was going through his head on that one.

    Gaddis is decent at that little flat, early cross. He almost tossed one into Barnetta a few games ago, but i got kicked into the Delaware. If he can just add a little bit more going forward…ah, its painful…

  4. Shouldn’t Sapong and Nogueira each get an extra point for the penalty they drew?

  5. Two comments/opinions:
    1) I find it a little weird that when making a comparison between Maidana and Barnetta you say that Barnetta is ” Not blessed with blazing speed or size..” when they are listed within an inch height wise and Barnetta is clearly faster and fitter then Maidana. I agree with the style of play being slower going forward with Barnetta but it was just weird for that to be pointed out when talking about the differences in the two players.
    2) Call me crazy, but I think all signs are pointing to Maidana being pushed out of Philly. Think about these facts:
    i) Maidana was brought in by Hackworth not Curtin.
    ii) Curtin had Maidana on the bench to start the season.
    iii) Curtin has repeatedly talked about getting more defensive/dirty work from Maidana to the media during interviews. He even criticized his fitness levels a few times.
    iv) Curtin said they were seeking green cards for Fabinho and Nogueria – no mention of Maidana.
    v) Curtin signs Barnetta, says he sees him playing centrally in the intro presser and Barnetta says that is where he likes to play.
    vi) Union attempted to sign Bedoya, who while playing on the wing most often internationally, played mostly at central attacking midfield for Nantes.

    • In the grand Philadelphia tradition, I can see Maidana getting shipped out of town…and then being the player responsible for knocking us out the playoffs for the next 5 years as he takes his new team to the Cup.

    • Normally I would take Barnetta or Bedoya over Maidana, but it is hard to argue with his assist numbers, especially given how poor the team has played this year. There have been games where Maidana looks tired or disinterested, but then boom he delivers the key pass and the U are on the board. The problem is, can he & Barnetta co-exist in the middle together, when that is clearly where each of them belongs?

    • CPfeif – You’re not crazy, I think you’re onto something.

      Didn’t Curtin also tell Maidana before the season started that he expects him to score 6-8 goals this year?

    • I was wondering how Maidana fits into a line-up with Barnetta and Nogs; that is alot of central playmakers and not alot of finishing. Barnetta is much more willing to run into the box.

    • Been here awhile, never posted, but CPfeif, I totally agree with your point #2 and have been thinking the same thing for awhile. While this probably won’t go over well with some I can’t say I disagree with Curtin on this either. Maidana has to be a very frustrating player to coach as he gets so hot and so cold. I believe Barnetta was brought in here to replace Maidana and what we saw last game is closer to the style/shape Curtin wants to play. I think a lot of our lack of possession and poor defending can be traced back to Maidana killing our team shape by always going to the wing leaving the center absent of a central Union playmaker and not checking back to get the ball increasing the space between him and the CBs forcing the midfield into no mans land. While he is obviously not the sole or biggest reason for our issues I do think it’s a totally different team when he’s not playing, one that maintains a much stronger balance/spacing.

      Barnetta has already shown the desire to stay central more which helps threaten the middle of the D while allowing the wingers and fullbacks to get more involved. He still gets wide to combine with the wide players but not every time and doesn’t seem to commit as far wide as Maidana did. He also makes runs into the box which have been sorely missing from our attack and has shown much better positioning when we don’t have the ball than I think Maidana ever will. That said I Maidana brings a lot of positives too but I have a feeling he’s not in the long term plans.

    • if his stock is high i’m fine with trading to get some serious $$$. we need vision beyond what we have on the pitch now. if they have their sights (bedoya apparently was an almost, not a dream) on something as good or better in the pipeline, then so be it.

    • I completely agree. Thought crossed my mind after Saturday’s game. I think Curtin feels he has to have more of a goal scoring threat at that number 10 spot. Maids a doesn’t have that instinct. To be fair, we haven’t seen it from Barnetta yet either, but I think the potential is there.

    • You’re not crazy. Good observations.

    • Here’s a question.
      Do you want Chaco playing for us, or against us?
      I’d rather he and Barnetta stay, get a full off-season in and work on ways they can complement each other. Plus, it is nice to have depth in key positions.

    • I find that notion very disturbing. Maidana has been a higlight in a disappointing season and it looks like he could have a bright future. Maybe Maidana could be the left side forward in a 4-3-3 with Aristigueta in the middle and Sapong on the right? That would give the Union a midfield of Edu(or Carroll or Lahoud)/Nogueira/Barnetta. Moving Maidana into a striker position would release him from defensive responsibilities and let him create. He would have to prove his willingness to get into the box, though.

  6. Atomic Spartan says:

    Based on his history, it is foolish to expect Quillo to score. But given what he is starting to do as he rounds into form, that should be good enough. As the farmer said to Babe, “That’ll do.”

  7. Could a Nogueira-Barnetta-Maidana midfield triangle work? Nogueira’s the hard worker who breaks up plays, then finds Barnetta to do the box-to-box work, while Maidana drifts around to the wings and the middle and sets the table. In theory it would be one of the strongest midfield trios in the league, but I’m just not sure it can work in that incarnation. If Barnetta’s defensive presence continues to grow it could become a true 4-3-3 instead of the 4-2-3-1 they currently employ.

    • I think that the only way that those three can work in a midfield is in a diamond with Maidana at the top, Nogs and Barnetta as the shuttlers and Carroll or Lahoud holding.

    • Could be a tight diamond, with RCM & LCM instead of true outside mids. All 3 are so talented and can operate with the ball at their feet, and move around and find space, that I think it could actually work.

      • Yes, this. Play a diamond-like formation with 2 strikers. Or, a 4-2-2-2, with Barnetta and Maidana in the attacking mid positions. They each commonly drift out wide when there’s space, so there would be width.

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Adam, first come from behind win, in the league, yes? There was one in open cup play was there not? At New York Red Bulls down a man, wasn’t it? Or am I forgetting a key detail ?

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