Player ratings

Analysis and player ratings: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Daniel Studio

A disappointing week was capped by a 3-1 loss to Toronto that was every bit as bad as it sounds. Even though TFC has significantly improved over the course of the season, the extent to which they were able to commit men forward against a compressed Union defense told viewers everything they need to know about how the 2015 season has gone for these clubs.

Since this match has very few implications, let’s focus on the most notable aspects of the Union’s setup and performance.

Deep defending

Philly was pinned back from the opening whistle. Yet the team, and Andrew Wenger, were impressively compact for most of the match. Toronto mainly tried to move the ball to the right then push it back inside where Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou were stepping inside the half and looking for Giovinco behind the midfield. The Union’s response was to send one defensive midfielder to the ball and letting the other drop centrally to sit in passing lanes.

TFC did not force the ball through the center, but instead tried to shift the defense around and attack from the left once they had established possession in Philly’s half. So: Enter up the right, attack the middle, then attack the left. That is a lot of ground to cover, but the Union shifted well.

Issues arose when the home side brought the fullbacks into play, overloading the wide areas when Sapong and Ayuk trailed the play. Philly recognized this threat, however, and the depth at which they defended signaled a belief that Richie Marquez and Steven Vitoria could handle Jozy Altidore’s aerial prowess.

And they did. Although Altidore scored off a cross, winning the ball in the air had little to do with the goal.

Wenger shows the touchline even though he has support central and Altidore can take that corner space.

Wenger shows the touchline even though he has support central and Altidore can take that corner space.

Wenger as a left back

Jim Curtin likes Andrew Wenger. Pundits and analysts like Andrew Wenger. Unfortunately, opposing defenses also took a liking to Andrew Wenger in 2015, enjoying the anxious winger’s indecisiveness and tame dead end runs.

But for Curtin, there is simply too much talent to ignore. So Wenger has been reborn as a defender on a team desperately in need of them. As a right back against New England, Wenger showed calmness on the ball but positioning issues, often staying a step behind his teammates and making the offsides line a jagged one.

Off a turnover (not his), Wenger is back in the defensive line quickly, and not a step behind as he often was against New England.

Off a turnover (not his), Wenger is back in the defensive line quickly, and not a step behind as he often was against New England.

On Saturday, Wenger moved to the left side of defense with CJ Sapong providing little cover in front of him. Luckily, the newly minted fullback was up against the impressively pointless Robbie Findlay, who demurred whenever he had an opportunity to attack. The real threat came from Jackson, who overlapped well and often beat Sapong upfield. Michael Lahoud offered good cover, but Wenger found himself isolated against Jackson numerous times.

The theme to Wenger’s one-on-one defense was: Play it safe. Jackson attacked with speed, looking to get to the endline. Wenger pushed him that way, using his balance to stay with the right back and keep him out of the center. It was a fun matchup to watch, particularly so because Wenger, for the most part, kept up.

Toronto looked to switch play to the right where Findlay could take on Wenger. Luckily, it's Robbie Findlay so not much happened.

Toronto looked to switch play to the right where Findlay could take on Wenger. Luckily, it’s Robbie Findlay so not much happened.

That “play it safe” strategy worked well against a side that held Bradley and Cheyrou deep and only pushed Osorio into the box to help Altidore and Giovinco. Jackson would get to the endline, put in a cross, Marquez or Vitoria would block it out, and Wenger would clear it. (He had an unreal eight clearances!)

The cost of that conservative defensive strategy was that Wenger tended to grant too much space both around the box and further upfield. Let me note at the outset that this is a fixable issue and should temper but not eliminate the notably improved play Wenger showed in the second game of his rebirth.

Stepping off is a natural reaction for a player new to the back line because there is no natural support. Unlike in midfield where there is usually a line of defense strategically placed behind you, in the back you are relying on teammates to read the game and follow runners to give you cover. Although both Lahoud and Marquez did a laudable job supporting Wenger, the tendency to feel like he was on an island was written all over the converted winger’s positioning.

For example, Wenger would offer the touchline to a defender even when they met at the top of the final third. The Union’s defensive system, like most, is designed to have a deep midfielder slide over to protect the center. The fullback, then, should offer the inside to an attacker because a) that’s where the support is, and b) offering the touchline allows a striker to take that space and pull a central defender out of the middle, rarely a desirable situation.

But when you are playing it safe, your priority is keeping the ball and the man as far away from the box as possible. For Wenger, this clearly meant pushing people wide. And he did so quite successfully, only putting the team in danger when Giovinco’s intelligent runs in front of Marquez were spotted.

Overall, Wenger-as-defender was a far better player than Wenger-as-winger has been in 2015. In defense, it is possible to simplify the game, and stopping an opposing player is a quick confidence builder. On offense, even a good move can end with a missed shot or imperfect pass, so building confidence is notably more difficult.

Wenger may not stay in defense, but it is heartening to see him build trust in himself because the Union should be squeezing every positive they can out of these final few matches.

ALL Union key passes

ALL Union key passes

The double-deep midfield

Not for the first time this season, Jim Curtin opted to play Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud together, highlighting the duo’s defensive prowess and offensive limitations. To put it plainly: The Union simply cannot generate offense with a midfield that cannot play long passes and a creative player who prefers to collect the ball inside the opponent’s half.

And unfortunately, this is no theoretical statement. The Toronto match was a particularly poor offensive performance because the wings were either playing out of position (Sapong) or playing hide and seek with themselves (Ayuk, who still hasn’t been found). But looking at the Union’s passing chart, it becomes clear that Carroll and Lahoud would not have been able to pick out the wide players even if it had been Barnetta and Le Toux on the touchlines.

Without Nogueira, in the midfield, the Union could not play anything but short passes, and as a result they were consistently closed down in their own half.

Without Nogueira, in the midfield, the Union could not play anything but short passes, and as a result they were consistently closed down in their own half.

Both midfielders offer a square pass first. This means they get even with the ball carrier to give a safe outlet instead of moving a few yards ahead to a position that allows them to turn upfield and move the ball wide. This is less a criticism than a simple statement of fact: Brian Carroll and Michael Lahoud play like defensive midfielders. Expecting something else would be like paying out the nose to add to a well-stocked position and assuming it will somehow make the rest of the team better (that’s a bye-bye burn).


Philly looked like a team that was still recovering from a gut punch. And they are. Meanwhile, Toronto looked like a team that will be extremely annoying but eventually nonthreatening in the playoffs (with a tiny caveat named Giovinco).

For the Union, this was little more than a chance for Steven Vitoria, Fernando Aristeguieta, and Andrew Wenger to raise their stock heading into what promises to be another interesting and confusing offseason. At the very least, Philly has their 2015 goalkeeping position locked down. And in Brian Sylvestre and John McCarthy they have good competition for the number two spot. The frustrating thing is that there are few other spots on the pitch where things look different from the end of 2014. CJ Sapong has emerged as a force in the box, but only in the sense that he can hold the ball and finish from close range. He is a work in progress as a finisher and as a mover between the lines, where he rarely curled into corners as a long option.

Richie Marquez has shown he can compete each week at the MLS level, but it is still unclear (still!) whether Maurice Edu will be next to him or whether the captain will return to midfield (seriously, still!!).

Tranquillo Barnetta was brought in to essentially fill the hole Andrew Wenger forcibly vacated by playing most of the season like a kid at his first middle school dance. Barnetta is an upgrade, but one the Union did not think they would need at this time last year. The rest of the team, subbing Fabinho in for Sheanon Williams, looks a lot like it did at this point last season. The bench is disturbingly thin, ageing veterans are relied on for major minutes (Carroll) or big plays (Casey), and the identity that Jim Curtin so desperately wants to establish remains as elusive as the hardware Nick Sakiewicz even more desperately wanted as some sort of absurd justification for his impressive mismanagement of an MLS franchise.

In other words, 2015 has been 2014 again. Except now the non-Chicago teams that were splitting rent in the basement have spent good money on good players and are aiming for at least a ground floor apartment. Philly cobbled together a tweaked version of the team that captured lightning in a bottle to sniff the playoffs a season ago. But this time there was no perfect storm.

All fans can do is show the players they support the effort, and hope that changes at the top of the club will filter down to field level sooner rather than later.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

Another impressive outing from Blake wasn’t enough to secure points, but it did point to a level of consistency that even Jay Sugarman knows has been lacking in goal. The athleticism and shot stopping raise eyebrows, but organizing a back line that was a mishmash of starters, backups, and wingers was arguably the more laudable achievement.

Ray Gaddis – 4

That swing-and-miss on Altidore’s goal is going to haunt, as will Jonathan Osorio’s footskills.

Steven Vitoria – 6

The big man gets a goal by attacking hard on a set piece. His bounceback second half has been heartwarming, but it hardly justifies his large salary. In all likelihood, Vitoria will be a good guy passing through Philly on his way to a role on a lower tier European bench. His positioning has improved over the course of the season, and his confidence in the tackle has grown as he took on more of a leadership role in back next to Richie Marquez. It is very possible that Vitoria shows up again in MLS at some point later in his career, but it won’t be at his current cap hit.

Richie Marquez – 4

That own goal was an unlucky one, and Marquez was oddly unchallenged the rest of the match as Toronto looked to back Jozy Altidore up against Vitoria or attack Wenger wide. The tools are all there for Marquez, who has shown off his speed over the last month and continues to look like his ceiling is a high one. Playing with a consistent goalie and central defensive partner is a necessity for the young center back next season.

Andrew Wenger – 6

See above. Wenger looked so much more confident as the defender in a one-on-one than he has the attacker in 2015. The quick feet, acceleration, and change of speed that make him such a frustrating underperformer were all there to see, and his calmness under pressure was a welcome addition to the back line (though, at the same time, that calmness makes his misplaced passes all the more frustrating).

Michael Lahoud – 4

Lahoud put in another strong, physical performance under constant pressure from some of the better offensive players in the league. And he was probably lucky to leave without a caution after a number of lunges were either executed perfectly or evaded the eye of the wildly inconsistent Ricardo Salazar. When playing with Brian Carroll, though, Lahoud needs to be more of a distributor or the Union never get out of the back. He wasn’t and the Union didn’t.

Brian Carroll – 4

Through 70 minutes, Carroll was an aggressive pest in an impossible position. He tried to press high to prevent long crossfield balls that isolated Andrew Wenger, but he also needed to cut out balls through the center that allowed Giovinco to run at the defense. Um, notgonnahappen. Carroll checks the effort boxes, but he needed to be more of an organizer and less of a catalyst to help a midfield with a teenager and a striker lined up wide.

CJ Sapong – 5

It has been difficult for other teams to stop CJ Sapong when he gets a head of steam through the box. So the Union did it for them. Sapong has shown flashes of quality on the wing this season, but he has not been a threat on goal from the wing. Nor has he been a particularly good defender when the team is pinned back (he sure can press though) which made the decision to push Sapong wide seem experimental, desperate, or just plain weird.

Eric Ayuk – 3

Did he play? Really?? In this game??

Cristian Maidana – 4

Inconsistent set pieces (though that assist was quite nice) and a lack of precision from the creator exposed the Union’s struggles in and reliance on transition offense. Maidana was off the pace, and that’s how a team takes zero shots inside the box for 65 minutes.

Fernando Aristeguieta – 4

At times, Aristeguieta seems like that guy you play pickup soccer with who works hard, gets to the right places, but just doesn’t have the touch to make anything happen once he’s there. Aside from his goal against New England, Aristeguieta was a one-dimensional threat most of the season and didn’t show the speed or touch to replace what Conor Casey gave the Union during last season’s strong run (specifically, distribution and ball retention from an advanced position).


Vincent Nogueira – 5

The team’s best midfielder on the night, but his competition was not strong. Nogueira was restricted from switching fields, but he worked to get forward more than usual.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 6

The only Union player able to create enough space to switch fields, Barnetta also had the team’s only key pass from open play. Trying really hard to see that as a positive…

Sebastien Le Toux – 3

Two for seven passing, zero for three in the offensive half. Le Toux was definitely feeling the effects of Wednesday’s match.

Geiger counter – 4

Ricardo Salazar called another riddle of a match. He let some clear fouls right in front of him go unpunished, then acted galled that rough tackles occurred moments later. Philly probably benefited from the referee’s inconsistency, but it remains a lot easier to play soccer when you know what the man in the middle is going to call and what he’s going to let go. With Salazar, that is rarely the case.


  1. Can we please cut Wenger and get it over with? I REALLY don’t want to go through another season of “Hey maybe this player who has been mostly bad his MLS career can reinvent himself in a new position!!!”

    We’ve been through it before.

    I don’t want to be that team that tries to make miracles. Can we please grow up and find a good winger and LB somewhere else? LEt another team flounder around with bad players.

    • funny James… I thought he equipped himself quite well against TFC….and I agree with Adam’s assessment…and I take in to account my own conformational bias regarding Andrew…particularly as it relates to OB. But I ask you this one very simple question.
      Is it possible…that it hasn’t been Andrew Wenger’s fault? .
      Seems to me just as likely that he has been mis-cast into the role of offensive player by the club (and he actually was a bit successful which raised all our expectations) when in fact he never should have been asked to score goals in the first place. A club with an astute eye may have realized two years ago he was our solution at LB.
      Andrew Wenger could be a very very good OB in this league…he has all the tools….. just don’t let him shoot a PK in a Cup Final. PLEASE. EVER. again.

      • Speaking of confirmation bias I think Curtin has a bad case of it with Wenger. He sees that size and speed and just believes he must be able to put it together.

      • He has been mis-cast. That is the point. We are blaming Andrew for being played in the wrong position.
        that’s like throwing me a set of left handed golf clubs and saying ‘go get em’… after I pipe a drive down the first fairway by some sheer whim of fortune and timing.
        Andrew is a good player he just isn’t a good offensive player. The guy was an All American defender in college. Matters maybe just a bit.

      • Well Wenger has shown flashes too so it’s not like he is always terrible. It has been mentioned here before that his personality seems to suit being on d better which I agree with. Plus he wouldn’t get thrown like a rag doll like Ray did on the Altidore goal so there is something to size and speed.
        Anyway, his teammates seem to like him so I see no reason to not bring him back as the 4th ob next year. The qualification being that they bring in a new starter at ob and let Gaddis/Fabinho/Wenger battle it out for the other spot.

      • El Pach believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow Wenger will run faster, stretch his arms further . . . And one fine morning—

      • Yes, Wenger has been miscast from day 1 in MLS, when the debate was center forward or center back. He has yet to play CB in MLS.

  2. And Ray could be a 3 considering the first goal came when he turned his back in the wall and the deflection went in.

  3. Boy when your team has 6 or 7 fours….it just doesn’t bode well no matter the circumstances of 120 minutes three days before. That game was terrifyingly bad.
    A team with SOME philosophy could have at least garnered offense and possession….even with the best players sitting the bench… Good grief. The whole team but most notably CJ Sapong kept dribbling into trouble which is so american…there were at times – not 2 not 1 but NO support angles and options for the player with the ball. Holy Shit Union. So Bad.
    One team on the ascendency…..the other team one rung above hell … as I like to say.
    Turns out today I’m a bit surly today as Rita’s is all out of Wild Black Cherry and maybe do feel like using a medieval torture devise on the coach and players after all.
    F.R.E.E.D.O.O.O.O.M – – – from this season please.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Now el P, think about causality with those numbers and their creation. Yes, I know scientific discipline is reserved for that which sustains your family and succors your patients, that soccer is instead passion. I have committed many more homicides in my mind during games than there are referees on the planet, but in my mind’s eye only.
      Adam is human, so is Eli when he subs in. When we lose, the numbers are lower. Number follows performance. Performance is the determinant
      Imagine a few years from now when the guidance people summarize any child as a student. You will scream to yourself that there is more to the kid than the single letter label. Statistics destroy information. In a quiz average, a fluctuation between A’s and F’s is a very different pattern than steady consistent C’s. Both count as 75 in calculating a GPA, however, and as such individuality is destroyed.

  4. It really feels like the season is winding down and we all remain gutted by the cup loss and no one knows what the long off-season will bring but probably a stuttering string of twitter rumors and MLS rule tweaks and probably a whole lotta snow so it wouldn’t be the worst thing if PSP left the photos of Julie Stewart Binks up for a few months…

  5. Adam – you gotta start grading the coach. Curtis deserved a 1 for this match: didn’t use any young guys – used Sapong as a winger which we all know he doesn’t excel at – is so enamored of Wenger that it clouds his strategic thinking – starts 2 dmids and then wonders why we can’t score – clearly doesn’t have the team up for this game – makes no adjustment ever except to change formation to 3-5-1 at the end of the game when we’re behind (like duh my 2nd grader knows to push guys higher up the field, but WHICH guys neither my son not Curtin seems to have figured out).

    • Which young players is he supposed to play? Do we even have 1 that isn’t on loan or healthy?

    • Eric Ayuk called. He wanted to remind you he started the game (no, really!) and he’s still a teen.

      • @John – Exactly why I didn’t focus on him the way I did when Wenger pulled his Houdinis this year. Ayuk looks to be a great barometer of the Union’s ability to develop players they believe in.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Did not see the Toronto game, only the goal highlights.
    What Adam describes about Eric Ayuk reflects what we have all seen from him recently. Not for a second am I commenting on the rating for the game [see 1st paragraph], I do think we need to remind ourselves that the young man is 18 or thereabouts, and is just finishing a 34 game season. I worry that the league has figured him out, but he may well also be tired.
    Apropos of nothing on the topic, a day or two ago, I erred in thinking that Jay Sugarman held an undergraduate diploma from Swarthmore. He holds it from Princeton instead. My error, my apologies.

  7. I think you summed up the Wenger situation quite well with this couplet: “In defense, it is possible to simplify the game, and stopping an opposing player is a quick confidence builder. On offense, even a good move can end with a missed shot or imperfect pass, so building confidence is notably more difficult.”

    Wenger’s problem is that he is a head case. It seems that the performance pressure of being an offensive player is just too much for him. On defense, the psychology may suit him much better. Let’s face it: good left backs are difficult to come by in MLS. Seeing if he might work there is not a bad idea. The Galaxy converted Robbie Rogers to LB, and he’s been terrific. Sometimes it works.

  8. If Wenger was an All-American defender his confidence, in that position, should already be there. It sounds like he simply needs to be taught to play at MLS level. We’re back to Curtin. If he can’t teach that, what can he do? Don’t quit on him; teach him.
    Also, figure out what the hell to do with Edu right now and adjust the roster accordingly in the off-season. Wenger and Marquez in the middle for the next ten years sounds exciting.
    prepare them to do that.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      To be a center back Wenger would have to have a chance to learn to read the game at MLS speed.
      Bethlehem Steel FC here he comes.

  9. You guys are watching a different game than I am. Wenger is lost. He stands in one place and waits for the ball. When he gets it he struggles to do anything with it. He’s not a soccer player, much less an MLS player. He’s better suited for the NFL where there’s a lot of standing around between plays and each play is scripted. He could run routes as a tight end or something. Just don’t make me watch his freakin’ “development” anymore. He’s lost to me after that PK. And Curtin is lost to me after putting Wenger in for the last few minutes of the Open Cup game (during which he did NOTHING) and PK’s. Let’s get a real sporting director who can hire a real coach who can play real soccer players.

    Honestly, if any of us were sporting directors would we choose to let Curtin continue to sit passively by and let the team lose games late, or would we recruit and hire an experienced and accomplished coach? (Maybe the delay in hiring a sporting director isn’t that we haven’t found the right one but that no one wants a job where the owner has promised to keep on the coach who’s in over his head.)

    • Ben, I take it you’d prefer a manager with experience. Maybe a manager with BPL experience. So let’s take a look at a manager, in his first year in MLS, with BPL experience. Owen Coyle. I’d think you’d agree, that Toronto has more talent than the Union. Jozy, Bradley, Giovinco, all more talented than every Union player, arguably save one or two. So what has Coyle done? Well, they are barely going to make the playoffs. What they do when they get there is anybody’s guess. So, for now it’s immaterial. So let’s go from the standpoint of everything else being equal, and trade managers. Do you think Coyle could have done remarkably better with this Union team? Red cards, injuries, DUI, etc., all included? C’mon. Regardless of experience, no manager, except maybe Sir Alex, could have done anything with this team this year, under the circumstances Curtain had to put together squads.
      I’ll say it again, I have no idea what kind of coach Curtain will be. This season was too screwed up. I don’t have enough information to make a judgement. But the worst thing they can do is to make a change, just to make a change. There’s been too much turn over here, with not the right kind of leadership. Bringing in a foreign manager, just cause he has a name you heard of, will do nothing to advance this club. In fact it will stagnate for another year while the new manager gets used to MLS, if he actually does. Add that to hopefully a new Sporting Director, with El P’s VPP, and the team is set back even further while they try and figure out who fits, and where. To all these options, I say no thank you.
      The only way I think they could get rid of Curtian without another major setback, would be if they hired Petke. He has the experience, and seems to be a good coach. I’d be all for it. Otherwise, Curtain needs to stay. He’s grown since the start of the season. He’s learned. The players like him, generally play hard for him. Let’s give him a fair shot, with a SD that works with him, and then see what he does.
      Since the start of the franchise, the only continuity through those years was Sak. Now he’s gone. The remnant is now led by Curtain. He at least gets what Philly is about. He knows what we want and expect from our teams. You get rid of him, you risk losing the players. You risk losing Maidana and Nogs. And then they are right back in the cycle. No thanks.

  10. folks, how can we demand decisions from management, when we don’t agree on anything. twenty or so people with 20 opinions about problems and a similar number of solutions. one thing that seems least valid:keeping curtin simply to provide continuity; he is either capable or he’s not. another thing seems certain; wenger is a player; let’s agree he’s best at defense and move on from there. we’re making sports management rocket science
    ‘ it ain’t “

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