Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 1-0 DC United

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union fans are following a winning team for the first time since 2011.

Almost important: They are following an exciting team. The Union’s counterpress has been suffocating, and their possession game is much improved from a year ago. The result? Even when Philly struggles to score, matches tend to have a kinetic energy which suggests that any moment could be the one in which the Union break toward the opposition net. Now, they have not been particularly good at turning those breaks into big chances, but the prospect alone is enough to hold attention.

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Friday night was different. It was slow, plodding, direct, and messy. Jim Curtin opined at the half — and after the match — that his team was lethargic pressing the ball and allowed D.C. United too much time to pick out passes. Left unsaid is that the home side was wasteful and impatient going forward, and will need to carefully study how D.C. set up against them defensively.

Playing to your players

Philly opened the match playing like a team that expected Warren Creavalle and Brian Carroll to play quick wing combination passes and unleash crossfield balls after escaping pressure. But, um, that’s not what those guys do.

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That is no criticism: Both Carroll and Creavalle are fairly known quantities who have thrived in an aggressive defensive system. They are not quick or elaborate distributors, nor are they particularly prone to darting out to the wings for some slick combos.

"I'm a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my misplaced disdain for the referee after my team gives up a late goal."

“I’m a little teapot, short and stout. Here is my handle, here is my misplaced disdain for the referee after my team gives up a late goal.”

Yet, the Union seemed to think they could stretch the field as though their holding midfielders would be guided by the spirit of Obi-Wan Nogueira and produce wondrous lengthy connections. It was not to be.

So after spending the first half looking to play off the D.C. back line, Tranquillo Barnetta eventually retreated to the middle third to facilitate play and gave the Union a modicum of control over the match as it wore down.

Stretching out the midfield spacing was a crucial mistake for the Union. As D.C. pushed their fullbacks forward to check the Union’s attacking outside backs, Barnetta and Le Toux made excellent runs into the space on the wings. Unfortunately, when Barnetta found the ball, there was often little for him to aim at in the center. Le Toux found Barnetta streaking through the box, but always well-covered.

This all hearkens back to two things Jim Curtin talked about during preseason: Moving the other team’s central defenders around and vertical passes.

D.C. United’s center backs are excellent in the air, and they are generally no-nonsense with the ball at their feet. They are also known to be extremely effective, provided they do not have to stray far from their own box defensively, and they lived up to that reputation on Saturday.

With two heavily defense-minded holding midfielders on the pitch and Barnetta making runs to the wings, the Union were in no position to challenge D.C. in the air. Yet, they did just that over and over.


The visitors also executed their defensive game plan quite effectively.

DC United played a system designed to control the areas of the pitch the Union normally dominate. They aggressively closed down Keegan Rosenberry and successfully shadowed Barnetta when he tried to sneak between midfield and defense to connect with Joshua Yaro.

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Nick DeLeon, who has been a defensive liability, had a strong match — particularly in the first half — closing down passing lanes and recovering to the center when Sarvas was chasing. The outside backs were also very strong, with Sean Franklin showing excellent awareness to isolate Fabinho and force him into crosses in the final third. Taylor Kemp struggled at times as he sought to push on to Rosenberry while shadowing Le Toux, but he was paired with the more conservative Boswell, who allowed Le Toux to take up residence on the top corner of the 18-yard box in the first half.

This leads to Curtin’s second issue.

Vertical passes

Ironically, Joshua Yaro has stood out in recent matches precisely because he can execute hard, accurate vertical passes through midfield with regularity. Yaro’s direct passes are a bit like a closer’s fastball in baseball. A closer can get by with only a fastball and a slider because even if everyone knows one of those two pitches is coming, they remain difficult to hit.

Like a closer, Yaro can pump fastballs into tight areas because he can hit them with pace and precision even though the other team is looking to prevent that exact pass from slipping through their defensive nets.

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But there are only a few good closers in baseball, and everyone else needs a bit of guile and deception to survive. Similarly, the Union need to stick to fundamentals: Angled passes to move a defense around before returning to the center. This season, Rosenberry’s and Fabinho’s technical abilities have allowed Philly to move the ball wide and then back to the channels as they move past midfield defenses. The Union fullbacks are almost absurdly calm under pressure (straying into “too calm,” at times), and this lets them take up advanced positions and play out of pressure.

Yaro and Rosenberry connected far more often against Montreal (L) than against DC. The Union CBs also tended to operate from deeper positions.

Yaro and Rosenberry connected far more often against Montreal (L) than against DC. The Union CBs also tended to operate from deeper positions.

D.C. United’s aggressive stance on Rosenberry made it difficult for the young fullback to get on the ball in those advanced positions, and the visitors did their best to close down the highway between Yaro and Rosenberry that has been the supply line for so much of the Union’s defense-breaking forward play this season.

Further up the pitch, D.C. let Barnetta run through the channels but funneled him toward the touchlines. The Swiss man responded by looking for vertical balls into the box, hoping to drop them just behind the defense. It never happened because those D.C. center backs are nothing if not big, strong, and very protective of their box.

Philly did a wonderful job forcing Montreal’s central defense to leave the middle, and they need to do the same Wednesday against a shaky and injured Orlando back line. The inability to move Birnbaum and Boswell out of position blunted many of the Union’s best attacks.

The value of the rookies

One noticeable difference in Philly’s game plan compared to past weeks is that they rarely used Keegan Rosenberry up the right side. Rosenberry only advanced into the final third twice in the second half, once when he whipped in a cross that Worra punched out and again when Barnetta lost control of a pass out of play.

Without Rosenberry, the Union were narrow and insistently direct. They dinked balls over the top without success, and they countered immediately, whether they had numbers or not. Against an opponent set up to frustrate them, the Union were easily frustrated, and they abandoned what has worked best over the past few matches.

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When they face Orlando, they will see another aggressive, man-oriented midfield. The only way through is to control the ball, then control space in midfield, and then play to Barnetta (or Alberg) between the lines. Philly can do it well, but they have to trust themselves and be patient.

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Player ratings

Andre Blake — 7

Not a lot to do, but how about that reaction save on Saborio?

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Keegan Rosenberry — 6

Solid defensively (two good 1v1 plays on Nyarko) but very restricted going forward.

Joshua Yaro — 8

Man of the match, if not for…

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Richie Marquez — 9

Solid in the air all night, only got lost on a corner once, and listened to his coaches. How’s that first one feel, big man?

Fabinho — 5

A mixed bag of strong moves and questionable decisions from the Brazilian. His runs up the left provided the team’s only real width, but he settled so often for crosses when the Union needed possession. Additionally, he had one awful touch in the middle that led to a break, and one of the most weirdly terrible clearances you’ll see all season that went right to DeLeon. Not his best showing, but the value was still evident. The injury is worrying.

Brian Carroll — 6

A bit off with his passing and willing to take a long, looping ball because of good D.C. pressure, but still always in the right positions to keep the visitors from getting time in the final third.

Barnetta: Clearly forcing things a bit.

Barnetta: Clearly forcing things a bit.

Warren Creavalle — 5

A bit of an off night for a player who has been coming into his own in midfield. Some forced passes, some unforced errors, and a lack of coordination with Carroll meant that Philly struggled to control the midfield against weaker opponents.

Tranquillo Barnetta — 6

And possibly lower. Barnetta was again the hub and catalyst of the offense … but the offense was notably, um, disjointed? With the center backs in position, Barnetta still looked to attack the center of the defense, and it never came off. Great movement as always though.

Chris Pontius — 5

A bit absent, though still did good work protecting Fabinho.

Sebastien Le Toux — 7

Oh man, this would have been so much lower if he had fluffed that big chance and not lasered in a beautiful cross for the winner.

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C.J. Sapong — 6

Great work nabbing a caution for Birnbaum. While playing on the wing, he fired a great individual effort at Worra. The Sapong-Barnetta partnership needs to grow stronger on the turf, however, if the Union are to become truly dangerous offensively.

The DC center backs did not have to stray far from the middle. This made them difficult to break down.

The DC center backs did not have to stray far from the middle. This made them difficult to break down.


Fabian Herbers — 5

Not a game-changer, but Herbers made strong, deep runs that occupied the defense and won the foul that led to the eventual game-winner.

Ray Gaddis — 6

Doing what he does. No errors, not much going forward. Well done for the second straight match.

Roland Alberg — n/a

Yup, he was there.

Geiger counter — 6

Extra points are always awarded for making Ben Olsen go full-on high school level passive aggressive in the post game presser.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I have to go a bit lower on a couple of these. Geiger counter needs to go down at least one for the yellow on Gaddis when he was being tugged at just as much if not more than he was tugging.
    And Creavalle had a particularly weak game. It seemed like time and again he was laying the ball to the feet of a DC United player.

  2. I feel like early in the season, none of the referees was interested in calling fouls on the opposition no matter what they did to CJ. Lately, it seems to have improved, although it still looks like CJ gets roughed up way, way, way too much.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    Disappointed to not see a clip of Yaro’s secondary assist on the winner.

    • Yessir. It’s been acknowledged by every outlet but no one is including a clip or gif.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Guys, I know! I have this gif but it’s on my laptop, which became more of a metal dinner tray while I was cutting up gifs this weekend. I’ll add it soon.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Ok, it should be there now.

      • My lord, that is a phenomenal ball.

      • old soccer coach says:

        yes, it was live, too!

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Thanks, Adam. I really appreciate it. I love Sarvas thinking it’s going to Gaddis and thinking that he’s got things covered before the ball goes by him to LeToux. Sarvas then turns around to see LeToux in acres of space and just throws his hands up in the air while Jeffrey tries to close Seba down. Tremendous.

  4. HopkinsMD says:

    +1 for letting the clip of Seba include the collapse to the ground. Made me and my boys rewind and laugh a few times.

  5. I’m starting to think Alberg and Curtin have personal problems. No way his quality wasn’t needed until whatever minute Jimbo threw him on. He’s insulted no doubt.

    • pragmatist says:

      I can’t speak to that dynamic, but Alberg has also made some boneheaded fouls when he’s played. It’s possible that Curtin wants to him to become more accustomed to the MLS officiating (if that’s even possible) so he doesn’t get tossed regularly. Plus, he is probably one more sloppy tackle away from earning a reputation that won’t go away easily.
      Like everyone else, I’d love to see him earn 90 minutes. But first place has earned a level of trust in the coach and GM that they know what they are doing.

      • scottymac says:

        How do you become more accustomed to officiating when you’re eating shrimp in the clubhouse?

    • old soccer coach says:

      I had a hint during the Alberg cameo that the foot speed now developing in the league this May may be challenging him. It was one glimpse one time, so I may be quite wrong. I need more observations.

    • We haven’t seen Alberg play much, and in shoprt stints at that, but I have seen nothing great from him when he has been out there. Now there is without an adjustment period coming into a new league/new country, but he hasn’t really shown anything yet, other than being a European player, that has made me think he’s good/ready.

  6. philpill says:

    I read the ratings plus the commentary about playing a style without the players to play it as suggesting 1 of 2 issues. Either JC should change tactics or the U need more pieces. But the players are mostly doing their jobs. JC won’t change because it’s against his nature and because he’s already shown he can manage this group to a higher place in the table in late May than anyone would have predicted. De George reports that Edu is kicking a ball 20 yards in practice today. JC says Blake will miss CLB only. Witout Larin, OCSC is much less dangerous and so is COL without Jones. Results in 2 of 3 and Mo back after Copa would be a great spot to start the last half. Pontius needs to get his groove back after 2 uninspired games. And put Herbers on wing, not CJ. He faded in SKC outside after all.

    • old soccer coach says:

      Kicking the ball 20 yards is not 90 minutes MLS game shape.

      • I believe the team said it would be about 3-4 months out for Edu in the very beginning March when the stress fracture was announced. That would mean a reasonable timetable for Edu being available for selection could come sometime between mid June to early July.

      • philpill says:

        No idea whether he is still on that timetable – or why the club wouldn’t volunteer a status report.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Probably won’t be match fit until maybe late July.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    For the author, the word~ Disjointed. For me, the word~ Onion.
    If you can’t control the middle of the field, especially when the other team is purposely giving it to you by closing down the OB… I’m out. If you can’t have Noguiera or a complementary player next to Carroll…. then play a diamond mid-field and add another forward. His reliance on the 4-2-3-1…. made for a god awful game- that yea! they won.
    I’da rather a 1-0 2-0 defeat and a willingness to try something different than C+C Music Factory in the 6 and 8….. of a 4-2-3-1 that clearly wasn’t able to produce a watchable game.
    Excellent analysis as always… Would love to sit by and watch your process.

    • old soccer coach says:

      wouldn’t we all!

      Now that would be a loyalty points reward worth the points! Kibitz Adam Cann as he works up his pregame tactical analysis.

    • philpill says:

      Big Ern told Smallwood the aim is the Cup, not making the playoffs. Wondering if the Plan may’ve shifted to “win now” with the improbable start. The associated revenue uptick may help Jay – or other investors – to spend in the transfer window. If so, JC will not be experimenting – until forced to.

    • I am not sure the plan is to have a flexible system. I believe Earnie said in the beginning that he wanted one system to stick with and find players that fit within said system. Is it the 4-2-3-1? It may be because that is the formation that they are sticking with. I think they just need to find depth at CDM who can really connect defense to offense (easier said than done, I know).

    • I agree this was not a pretty game to watch, but Creavalle had a bad game on O, much worse than he has the rest of this year, and I thin that led to the quality. I don’t think changing formation matters if the players are the same. Of course it’s hard to complain about the midfield visual quality when our starting 6, 8, and 1 wing are all out due to injury.

  8. whatever tactics are used the Union will have trouble scoring if both Carroll and Crevalle are on the pitch at the same time. Neither one advances the ball or offers offensive support. It is hard to score with just 4 players in the offense.

    And, as usual, the substitutions came too late. For most of the 2nd half it looked like the Union was playing for a tie.

  9. I’m hoping as Keegan Rosenberry’s game intelligence grows he can begin to identify the moments when Yaro is going to play the vertical pass… to his midfielders… as I am unsure the manager is training to this close attention.
    Had he been more prepared like in the first video “This is not a passing lane “and slid up the line as Yaro was developing his idea ( as it should be set tactically designed by the manager) he would have provided an immediate one touch outlet for Creavalle and the play could have continued to develop instead of dying– maybe Herbers shows into the channel and someone moves into his space and DC could have been exploited in any number of ways from one well thought out movement by the OB.
    It’s all right there on the video and yes this is a fair expectation from me and yes I see this exact movement over and over and over and over again in europe…cause they are smart and well trained players… doesn’t make me a euro-snob…. Building out of the back is one thing but there are like five other phases of play too….as I recall studying.

  10. Just a word of caution. Adam and many others might be Fooled By Randomness. Maybe you are looking for patterns that are not there. There is a baisic concept in any game of defending and attacking to try to score. Most of this game was random soccer, plain and simple. Much less than meets the eye and certainly less to analyze than was written. Sometimes as a pundit, you can just shrug your shoulders and hope for something better next time.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Who’s to say definitively which of us is suffering from a case of confirmation bias.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Dr.K – That’s a very good point. If I enter a game with the goal to analyze it, I’m going to find things to analyze. And a whole lot of what happens moment-to-moment in a soccer match is maybe not random, but definitely some unsystematic error (so, yeah, random for now).

      That said, when two teams come into a match with well-practiced tactics, there’s probably going to be something there to look at. Like whether Rosenberry being left out of the offense was more on the Union looking to go forward too fast or due to DC’s defensive pressure.

      I’d guess that even in a match where both teams execute their gameplans to perfection, and a perfect analysis is done on the match, only a few major themes are going to be apparent. Most of the dynamic action in the match will still escape analysis. But I’d still say it’s worth using historical trends and known tactical goals to examine the match rather than dismissing it. One method could send you down the wrong path, but it could also give you a lot of useful info. The other method guarantees you learn nothing.

  11. A random vertical pass looks good on a clip, and I agree with Mr. P that it takes structure and some planning to make it more than random. This was not in evidence in this past game. Players like Rosenberry need structure in order to improve. Not fair for him to try to identify something random. It will cause him to be cautious. The rhythm we desire and love to see on the field is built on structure, not desire to play a certain way. Its still music, Bach or Glass. One is just easier on the senses.

  12. Ben Olsen as a disdainful teapot….


    Best. Line. Ever.

  13. Can we start using Obi-Wan Nogueira regularly? Please?
    In more pressing matters, we need an alternate engine to drive the offense when he’s not in. The most common call from this past game (and the one I’ve been trumpeting) is Alberg getting some time. Other than game fitness, I struggle to see a reason not to give it a shot. When Edu is healthy we’ll have to give him an opportunity as well. What other options do we have? Drop barnetta deep and put alberg higher up? Run Leo fernandes back out? Say screw it altogether and Call Ayuk back from BSFC and run him around? There are no wrong answers if its trying to move away from that double pivot.

  14. Adam, a bunch of these ratings are too high by a point or two — Creavalle, Carroll, and Pontius for sure, maybe Barnetta and Le Toux as well (though your comment on Seba is on point). There is generally a “result bias” in the ratings — inflated when we win, deflated when we lose. The final game result may or may not reflect individuals’ level of play, as per Dr. K’s comment abou randomness.

  15. James Stretch says:

    Can someone teach Curtin how to handle Subs; he leaves them way to late. This game was crying out for an injection of offense in place of one of the holding midfielders and, as usual, it took him till the 87 minute to make the most obvious of changes. The first two subs were like for like out of necessity so while earlier than normal they don’t count. I am pretty confident that this lack of ability to mange his subs has cost the team points already this year and will continue too going forward if he doesn’t figure it out. I was going insane in my seat at the game screaming for him to make a change with the game there for the taking at the 70th minute when such a change could make an impact.

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