Four games, five big picture thoughts

Photo: Paul Rudderow

A month ago, coming off a drubbing by FC Dallas, I would have been very surprised to learn that the Philadelphia Union’s Friday night game against Orlando City would be seen as a clash of two Eastern Conference up-and-comers.

By stringing together three solid performances, the Union have started to turn the narrative surrounding a moribund franchise, and head into a nationally televised game with a real chance to “make a statement early on in the season,” as Jim Curtin put it yesterday.

Heading into tomorrow night’s match, here are five tangentially connected thoughts about what we’ve seen in the first four matches.

Missing Michael

Though Earnie Stewart’s moves so far have been largely very shrewd, the Michael Lahoud trade sure looks terrible so far.

Warren Creavalle was serviceable in two games next to Brian Carroll, but his moment of madness against Chicago probably cost the Union a full point. Now the Union set to face Orlando City with the fragile pairing of Vincent Nogueira (who hasn’t played since the opener with a lingering ankle injury) and Brian Carroll (who is older than most, but not all, of the dinosaurs).

It would be nice to have a reliable CDM to put in there right now to spell Carroll — who can’t possibly play every minute this season — or to provide any sort of cover on the bench. Meanwhile, Walter Restrepo looked less than impressive in the preseason and is yet to make the gameday 18, spending his time with Bethlehem Steel.

Though there may be other ancillary benefits that prompted the move (salary cap relief?), thus far Lahoud seems like too high a price to pay for a player that is surplus to requirements in a crowded midfield.

How do you solve a problem like the midfield?

I have no doubt that Carroll will get the start next to Nogueira tomorrow, but the prospect of Jim Curtin sliding Roland Alberg into the more advanced (“8”) role in the deeper midfield pairing is intriguing to me.

What I really liked about Alberg against Chicago was his strength on the ball, frequently fighting off one or two Fire defenders and unafraid to use his size advantage to win 50-50 balls. Pairing him with Nogueira would give Alberg the responsibility of receiving the ball in the heart of midfield and getting it to the attacking quartet by any means necessary, a task to which his combination of technicality and physicality should be well suited. It also gives the Union the chance to put their five best healthy midfielders on the field at once: Nogueira, Alberg, Tranquillo Barnetta, Chris Pontius, and Ilsinho.

The tricky thing, though, is what this would do to the defensive shape, especially with the still-maturing pair of Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez at center back. Against a high-flying attack like Orlando City, prudence may mean that starting Carroll is a necessity — even at home.

The importance of being C.J.

With each game, it becomes more and more clear that C.J. Sapong is the most irreplaceable member of the Union. No one on the team can even remotely match what he does with his physicality and high pressure in the lone striker role.

If the Union needed a spot starter, I would think Sebastien Le Toux is the optimal choice — he can at least match the high pressure of Sapong, and you’d think that the creative players in midfield could adjust to his more vertical runs out of the center forward spot. Fabian Herbers is the other option but he doesn’t look quite ready to me.

At some point this year Sapong is going to pick up a knock or just wear down, and how Curtin deals with that situation will reveal a lot about this team’s playoff potential.

Substitution solutions

The manager has largely pushed all the right buttons this year, but his substitution pattern against the Fire didn’t help matters in a difficult set of circumstances.

Creavalle was sent off in the 47th minute, and the Fire scored four minutes later. Fifteen minutes of ineffective soccer would pass before Curtin chose to introduce Barnetta and Le Toux. Restructuring the team in light of Creavalle’s absence should have happened much more quickly, especially with Alberg at less than full match fitness.

On top of that, Curtin made essentially the same substitutions he’s made in every game so far — Le Toux in, a backup CAM in, Herbers in — suggesting a certain unwillingness to adapt.

Now, the Union were dominating before the sending off, and there is an argument to be made that the ten men on the field deserved a shot at responding to the Fire goal. But it is somewhat worrisome, to me, that Curtin seemed inflexible and slow to react when the situation on the pitch changed dramatically.

The Union are fun again

I’ve focused, probably more than is charitable, on the negatives of this last week. Let me end, then, on a positive note: it’s nice to care again about this team.

There’s a difference between saying “this is my soccer team, so I care about them,” and “this is my soccer team, and their play is exciting, so I care about them.” The last two seasons felt very much like running out the string — sure, there were a few memorable moments, but mostly I recall slogging through game after disappointing game.

Here, there’s a sense of excitement, that a Union player might do something truly amazing in a game. (And not in the sense of “wow, it’s truly amazing how stupid that tackle attempt was,” either.)

Every special touch Ilsinho does, ruining the lives of the poor defenders in his way, causes gleeful joy. Every incredible Andre Blake save, expressing the young keeper’s off-the-charts athleticism, prompts the same feeling. Heck, every subtle touch by Keegan Rosenberry that keeps the play going down the wing has a certain excitement, the excitement of watching a young man playing beyond all expectations so far.

This team might crash and burn — as all teams from Philadelphia must, in time — but so far it looks like they’ll be fun as hell in the attempt. And that’s more than any of us could have asked for six months ago.


  1. Stop with the Lahoud revisionist history. He’s a faster Brian Carroll. CDM is the only spot we are 3 deep at already.

    • I think this comparison is unfair to Carroll. Lahoud seems like a great guy and gave us some decent minutes, but he’s not half the soccer player Brian Carroll has been in his career.

      • They meant for this team right now.

      • hobosocks says:

        Even then I think Carroll is largely superior to Lahoud. He at least moves the ball relatively quickly (albeit in a negative direction). The number of times I watched Lahoud slowly try to pick out a pass last season while the defense steadily closed in left me with early gray hairs.

    • not to hop on the bandwagon here, but i wouldn’t say lahoud was immune to moments of madness. in one particular case i remember him giving up a pretty key pk unnecessarily (i think he may have also been sent off for it). i don’t know that lahoud or creavalle are any more or less prone to those bone headed moments than any other player

  2. I believe that Laohoud was not traded, rather he was loaned to the Cosmos for the year.

  3. Lucky Striker says:

    Enjoyed the article.

    Had not a single argument with any particular topic.

    • pragmatist says:

      Unfortunately including: “This team might crash and burn — as all teams from Philadelphia must, in time”
      But as the Grateful Dead say, “I may be going to hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride!”

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Or as Ilsinho seemed to say to the Chicago defenders last week, “There may come a day when I will dance on your grave” 🙂

  4. I disagree a bunch with Creavalle (and yes, Lahoud was loaned to the Cosmos). Creavalle has been a little erratic but valuable in the four games he’s played this season. He’s been a reliable defensive presence and was instrumental in creating some nice chances for the Union so far. Lahoud had some good games last season, but Creavalle has shown a little bit more quality, I think.
    And what I think has been brilliant so far this season is the midfield additions to this team. This team has the depth in the middle to handle Creavalle’s suspension. Having to decide how to play Alberg, Barnetta and Noguiera in your central midfield is a nice problem to have. I’d love to see Alberg and Nogs in the 6 and 8 role on Friday, but I suspect Curtin is going to stick with Carroll.

    • Agreed. I think Creavalle has been significantly better than Lahoud–not that that’s necessarily saying a lot. Yes, he probably lost us the Chicago game, but Lahoud had his own crazy tackle red cards.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    Carroll Noguiera is a recipe for disaster. Vincent will drop deep. Carroll will be an 8 and the offense will bog down. Noguiera Carroll is not good. At all.

    • Except that this isn’t what happened last year in practice. Carroll’s staying deep encouraged Vince to go side to side or push up. That pairing is where some of the best games from last year stemmed from.

      • Happened in game one against Dallas though when Union couldn’t find the ball.

      • hobosocks says:

        Fair enough.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Not questioning your observation at all. That said, the Dallas game exposed weaknesses in Anderson’s game as LCB. Might Nogueira have chosen, or been detailed, to concentrate on covering that?
        Anderson no longer starts, Marquez does.
        You are right to raise the concern, my own instinct is to start Nogueira at #6 and Alberg at #8, but I doubt Curtin is allowed to improvise like that at the beginning of the game under the philosophy, vision and plan of Curtin and Earnie, which have done good things for the franchise so far this season.
        #6 & #9 are the two weakest positions in the organization right now, although #9 has more depth at the Steel level.

      • Can Nogs play a game similar to what Creavalle has done from that #8 spot. Seems to me that Alberg would fit there. Nogs always stays so deep that putting him at the #8 is still going to create the same spacing issues we have had in the past. He really does position himself as a #6 a lot. At least to my eyes.

  6. My thoughts on your thoughts:

    1. Lahoud was loaned, not traded. Clearlyin training they saw enough that they liked in Creavalle (including his positional versitility) to feel that keeping 4 true CDMs (Edu, Carroll, Lahoud, Creavalle) was surplus. It’s hard to argue with that. Edu coming down with a long-term injury was not forseeable, and they still have 2 backups for him. So, even though I wish we had Lahoud right now, it’s very much Monday morning quarterbacking.

    2. Neither Alberg nor Nogueira is a TRUE CDM. Putting them both out there, with our young backline, including 2 guys at CB with a grand total of 1.2 years of top-level professional experience between them, strikes me as a recipe for defensive disaster. We need to have Carroll for this game. Then we can have Nogueira/Creavalle for a while.

    3. Yes yes yes, we do not have a good option to replace CJ at this point. Herbers seems quite promising, but plays a different game. And Le Toux is certainly a good backup striker, but not as the sole guy up top. We really need to find another striker, even if it’s a backup to CJ (rather than a big-name DP to start ahead of him). If CJ gets injured, we might have to change formation and play a 4-4-2 with Le Toux and Albers up top (and Herbers backing them up).

    4. I think all of Curtin’s substitutions were exactly the right ones. They just came 8-10 minutes too late. He does have a habit of waiting too long to sub.

    5. Andre Blake alone makes this team more fun to watch. Ilsinho breaking defenders’ ankles is just gravy.

  7. hobosocks says:

    The main thing that confused me about the subs in the last game was the formation didn’t seem to adjust when we went a man down. Pontius pushed in more centrally farther up the field, but it seemed that BC was largely left to hold down the midfield on the defensive end by himself, which he just can’t do at this point.

  8. I don’t want to be too negative but I still get back to the formation and tactics. When you rely on the 4-2-3-1 in this league; you rely too much on talent that is not good enough. If we played a 4-4-2, you wouldn’t need the Creavalle, Carroll, Lahouds and even Edus (still feel Mo is past his prime) of the world.

    Instead you have six competent players to rotate among 4 mid positions. Barnetta, Alberg, Ilsinho, Pontius, Nogueira, and LeTuex. I would have brought in another striker (keeping Herbers as well). These are just my thoughts but to see anyone longing for Lahoud and watching Carroll every week is sad.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Having watched the first seventy-five minutes of the Steel game at Goodman stadium, at times I was dissatisfied with Walter Restrepo’s defensive instincts for the flank midfield/winger position in the 4-2-3-1. He did not automatically instantly fall back when possession was lost. That tendency is probably why he’s playing down, he was a defensive presence at times, he scared everybody worrying them that he might have given up a penalty, but it was a good clean tackle. So he does not ignore defense, but he does not track back when the play is twenty yards in from of him, and that cost the steel on FC Cincinnati’s first goal. People seemed to assume that Taylor Washington would deal with the long ball to which he had his back, and he did failed to do so. His error, but he had only one team in cover in case of failure, Restrepo and Akinyode were tardy in providing cover that turned out to be needed.

  10. Where the **** was the editing and proof reading on THAT waste of pixels?
    Unacceptable for the high quality standard this site has consistently provided.

    • You see, fellas? This is how you write constructive criticism. Hyperbole, cursing and capital letters. I applaud you for your bravery.

      • Uh…When was Michael Lahoud traded? And who was he traded for? So, that trade looks terrible because…It never happened…? Please.
        Each week, this site earns the excellent reputation it has because thoughtful contributors churn out smart, high quality (statistical/analytical/opinion) content that helps readers better understand and appreciate the nuances of the game.
        That (glaring and repeated) lack of accuracy in the content does not support the credible reputation this site has earned itself.
        My “criticism” (I would file it under “complaint” m’self) was more fact based than the first “thought” of that article. It’s not “hyperbole” if it’s true.

  11. 1. Creavalle has been referenced by numerous general-coverage MLS podcasts in the past couple of weeks as being one of the most surprising players so far in MLS this season. He made a mistake in the Chicago game, but I disagree that this makes him worse than Lahoud. Overall, he is an upgrade.

    2. Disagree. Nogueira, if you play him, HAS to have a stay-at-home defensive midfielder. He cannot play with anyone other than Carroll or Creavalle. See the Edu/Nogueira pairing in previous games.

    3. Agreed.
    4. Easy to say after a loss in Chicago that the subs were bad. His subs in the other games have been timely.
    5. Yep.

    For being “big picture” there sure are a lot of anecdotal, Chicago-game-only conclusions made here. Seems a bit too reactionary to me.

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