Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Rapids 1-1 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

If any curious souls noticed that the MLS conference leaders were staging a showdown and tuned in to catch the action, they surely had plenty of stereotypes about American soccer confirmed.

Philadelphia Union and the Colorado Rapids both logged a lot of miles on tired legs, and each team left with a point because it would just be plain mean to give out zero points even if that’s what the combined shooting deserved.

CJ Sapong's rough second half.

CJ Sapong’s rough second half.

A bit of perspective

Let’s start by putting this match in perspective. Colorado was missing two important contributors that largely distinguish them from the squad that taught 2015 the meaning of offensively challenged. The Union were missing a key cog of their own in midfield, and they were playing something like their fifth game in four days. Thus, circumstances conspired to make what was already likely to be a defensive battle a slog that barely left the middle third of the pitch.

Now, back to that shooting, or lack thereof. The Union just didn’t shoot. They scored with literally their only shot inside the box that wasn’t blocked. Perhaps they simply felt bad shooting at former teammate Zac MacMath. More likely, sluggishness made it difficult to find space in a compact Colorado defensive shape.

The Rapids took an impressive 13 shots, though only the goal and a long sighter were on frame. Actually, “on frame” is the wrong terminology to use on a night when the home side hit the woodwork so often you had to wonder if they were hoping to unlock an extra life.

Overall, both sides exhibited the strong defenses they have ridden to the top of their respective conferences. But Colorado also showed some of the excellent ball movement that has characterized their 2016 success, while the Union looked not even a shell of the attack that has been so successful at catching opposing back lines on the break.

Union 2nd half defense: Very little in the opponent's half.

Union second half defense: Very little in the opponent’s half.

Same side as always?

After the match, Jim Curtin reiterated that Philly plays the same game no matter who they play and where they play them. While that may always be the plan, circumstances conspired to ensure that Saturday’s Union looked nothing like the counterpressing teams that have caused opponents such fits this season.

An important caveat about counterpressing is that it requires a team to retain and then lose the ball. Immediate on-the-ball pressure, executed without sacrificing defensive compactness, then forces turnovers that enable a swift counterattack before the other team can reset. Or, at minimum, force a long ball.

The Union saw very little of the ball, and when they had it, they still sought to attack as if they had won it back in a good position with Colorado retreating. Oddly, Philly seemed to be pushing forward with less patience as they won the ball back in deeper positions. This led to the team’s best attacking threats struggling to connect passes as they were squeezed out of dangerous zones by Colorado’s incredibly well-organized midfield.

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But even as Tranquillo Barnetta and CJ Sapong failed to exert any offensive influence, they displayed consistent defensive effort that allowed the Union to maintain solidity even as they see near-constant pressure.

Behind them, Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle were even better.

Last season, Creavalle’s minutes would have gone to Michael Lahoud, a player who similarly excels at closing down the ball with speed. When the Union played with Lahoud and Carroll in midfield, the center of the park was often well-protected, but an accurate outlet pass was as rare as a 76ers win.

Creavalle’s partnership with Carroll has not suffered from the same difficulties for a number of reasons.

  1. Keegan Rosenberry, Ken Tribbett, and Joshua Yaro are all far superior passers to anybody the Union could run out in the 2015 back four.
  2. Tranquillo Barnetta opens up in central zones instead of on the wings like his predecessor, Cristian Maidana.
  3. Creavalle has proven to be very aware of space on counterattacks, moving so the first ball off a turnover can be short while still opening up the field. When Creavalle hits his passes, the Union transitions can be dangerous despite the use of a very defensive double-pivot pairing.

Lately, however, Creavalle has been missing his targets.

Let this take nothing away from Creavalle’s defense, which has been stellar. The balance between Creavalle and Carroll, with Barnetta closing down deeper-lying players from behind, has often made the center of the park an inhospitable place for teams that try to work exclusively through a playmaker.

But to relieve pressure, Philly needs to be able to hold possession when they win it, and this means playing smart, simple passes out of pressure once the ball is won back. Carroll operates almost at a dichotomy: If he is pressured, he gets the ball as far away from his goal as he can. If not, he finds the simplest option and looks to reestablish himself in the center.

Creavalle is more likely than his partner to hold the ball under pressure and to look for a more ambitious pass. Those are laudable qualities, particularly in a player who did not spend a ton of minutes in midfield over the past few seasons. But on a team that works so hard to win the ball back, there must be an understanding that the ball is precious, because if the break isn’t immediately on, possession is when the team rests, and the opposition has to chase.

Colorado midfield first half: Cronin and Azira deeper.

Colorado midfield first half: Cronin and Azira deeper.

Mirror midfields?

Another note Curtin touched on in his post-match presser was how these teams mirror each other in midfield. It’s a particularly important point because it will ring true again on Wednesday when the Union face a resurgent Columbus Crew side. In fact, the Crew and Rapids are perhaps more similar than Colorado and Philly.

Both Michael Azira and Wil Trapp sit at the base of the defense and move the ball quickly, forcing the defense to chase and shift. Philly, with Vincent Nogueira in the side, try to pull teams in to the sidelines then switch play and attack. Without Nogueira, the Union often end up becoming more vertical in their attack, looking to move through the lines quickly instead of building possession.

Constant compactness

A final interesting note from Saturday’s draw focuses on how compact Colorado remained all match despite shifting forward in search of the winner in the second half. Throughout the first forty-five, the Rapids were unsurprisingly conservative, a bit unsure how to attack without the dominating presence of Jermaine Jones roaming the midfield plains. This resulted in a whopping four shots – only one in the box – and none of which forced a save out of Andre Blake. Later, Cronin pushed higher as Pablo Mastroeni looked to get Dillon Powers further up between the Union lines. The Rapids’ best opportunities came from Solignac or the oft-anonymous Powers popping up in a pocket between fullback and central defender when the Union lines were stretched.

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And here is the crazy part: Colorado’s lines, on the other hand, were rarely stretched. While that was partially a function of the Union’s inability to hold the ball and move the defense around, it was also because the Rapids were just impressively organized in how they moved as a unit. Despite having two lumbering-type central defenders, Colorado was willing to push their defensive line up the pitch to keep the entire formation tight. This meant Tranquillo Barnetta had very little time on the ball and the Union wingers were chasing hastily laid out through balls without much success.

Colorado midfield second half: Cronin pushed forward.

Colorado midfield second half: Cronin pushed forward.

In the second half, Philly found a bit more time when Ilsinho came on and stayed close to Keegan Rosenberry, establishing rare numerical advantages that gave the Union a chance to breathe.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

Only one save to make, but Blake was excellent attacking crosses and controlling the box.

Keegan Rosenberry – 6

The rookie struggled at times to track Luis Solignac, who got off four crosses across the box from deep positions. Once again, Philly was unable to make Rosenberry a key component of an attack that desperately needs his vision of calmness on the ball in the final third.

Ken Tribbett – 6

Tribbett was safe with the ball in the first half and more aggressive but less accurate in the second. He struggled to connect the ball into midfield, but that was less on him than on slow movement and strong defense.

Richie Marquez – 6

Another solid display from Marquez. Although he’s still a bit too willing to hoof the ball forward, that is far less of an issue to ding him on in road matches when the team is tired.

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Ray Gaddis – 6

Though one could argue that Gaddis committed inside far too early and left Marlon Hairston with time to cross for Sam Cronin’s goal, the fullback was largely solid and safe with his passing. After spending last season with a case of the jumps when under pressure, Gaddis looks far more composed this year.

Brian Carroll – 8

I mean, come on. Who would’ve guessed.

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Warren Creavalle – 6

Even if he didn’t have the gaudy defensive stats put up in the Orlando City match, Creavalle was again the most aggressive defender in midfield, continually forcing Colorado to recycle play and making Dillon Powers a non-factor. Had the giveaway that led to the Rapids’ goal.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 4

Dude looked tired. One tackle and four recoveries to show for his defensive efforts, three shots without threatening MacMath going the other way. Connected one pass into the final third all night.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

After a strong first half, Le Toux hit a wall, collecting no defensive actions and only four passes in his second half showing.

Chris Pontius – 5

Again, it is hard to criticize Pontius (and Le Toux) when they are working so hard to keep the team’s defensive shape. But in the system Philly plays, the wingers need to be options that allow the team to move the ball forward and rest defensively. Pontius has struggled to do that in recent matches.

C.J. Sapong – 3

An off-game from the striker, who could use the upcoming extended break. In the second half, Sapong completed two of eleven passes. This was far better than the first half when he didn’t attempt a pass until the 30th minute. No shots.


Ilsinho – 6

Looks better than in past cameos, but still a bit off the pace. He was caught upfield on Colorado’s winner.

Fabian Herbers – 7

A shot and a very hard-earned assist for the rookie in short time.

Roland Alberg – 5

Cronin was his runner, though it looked like he tried to unsuccessfully call Brian Carroll back to the center during the buildup to the Rapids’ goal.

Geiger counter – 6

After Wednesday, it was nice to have a match in which the ref stayed out of the way.


  1. I know there is a break coming up, but we need to rest a few guys for Wednesday. Problem is Ilsinho looked so slow defending that playing more than 25-30 minutes would be a liability. If Alberg isn’t fit enough, I’d go with Nogueira in Barnetta’s place, and Herbers in place of Sapong.

    • Barnetta really needs a rest. He has been playing 110%. It felt like he really ran out of gas in the second half against Colorado. I think Alberg is fit enough. Curtin has said he hasn’t gotten to a point where he can have both Alberg and Barnetta on the pitch at the same time.

      • I’m fine with Alberg if Curtain says he’s ready for 60 min.

      • Roger That says:

        I given Curtin credit for putting what he feels are his best 11 out there game after game to chase 3 points, but the wear really started to show in the 2nd half in CO. Agree its time to see Alberg and Herbers get a start. Ilsinho – who knows how fit he is, but maybe its time to find out. Hopefully Nogs is ready to go so BC can rest on his new laurels.
        Good thing the back line are Ironmen.

  2. My god does this team need time off. So does Adam at this point, cranking out the previews and player ratings daily it seems.
    Overall an encouraging result even if it wasn’t matched by the performance on the pitch. I liked CJ dropping deep to receive the ball after getting lost between the two trees (or ents as Scottso called them) in the first half. Forced them to step up and created space to run in behind. We were just far too tired to use it. We probably should have had herbers going the whole match, and perhaps curtin finally takes his cue and rests people. I’d rather have done that against Colorado than columbus, but it’s a bit late for that now.

  3. a great point in Colorado will look smaller if they don’t earn three against Columbus
    I would have preferred to see CJ with the night off so he could come back strong on Wednesday, but this is so easy with hindsight (he did not have a great match)
    in the future, would it make sense to send, say, Herbers and Alberg to Colorado for a week or more, to train, without the rest of the squad, at altitude, in advance of a match like that? it’s only five thousand feet, may not be much for an athlete to overcome, but still…

    • It’s an interesting thought, but you’d need to be comfortable going without them for at least 1 game prior. Given the state of depth in the MLS as a whole, I’d say probably not. But it feels like there has to be a better approach after that game, you’re right (even if we’re now both benefitting from hindsight)

    • Zizouisgod says:

      It’s been medically proven that in order to acclimate to altitude, you need a full two weeks there. Anything less than that and you’re not acclimating. Best to come in the day before or day of, if possible.

  4. Dr. Union says:

    So a few things I’ve been thinking about more and more dealing with the left side of this team. Fabinho and Pontius seem to work great together. However, Gaddis and Pontius do not, both become lost in the game. To me this is the perfect opportunity to try Alberg on the wing with Gaddis. I think they could complement each other well. Its been said Alberg defense is lacking (I don’t particularly see it), but we all know Gaddis offense is lacking thus you leave a lock down defender behind Alberg who likes to high press and can serve balls with his left foot and I think you have a better pairing. When Fabinho is in Pontius is on the wing with Gaddis I say Alberg. Personally I want to see Alberg on the field when he started the year he seemed to be making progress the red and keeping him on the bench has caused a back track in his comfort with the team. Yet to me he still does what he is asked to do I think he deserves a spot start every now and then just like the Nogs BC and Creavalle, just like Fabi and Gaddis, just like Le Toux and Ilsinho, Pontius and Sapong and Rosenberry have been the only ones not rotated on this team if I’m remembering correctly.

  5. I definitely agree that we need some squad rotation, but it’s also pretty clear that Curtin doesn’t have much faith in Fernandes, Restrepo, or Alberg yet. What is hard for us as fans to determine is whether this is justified.

    Restrepo is untested, and Fernandes has overall been underwhelming in his time in MLS. But Alberg has enough of a pedigree that I would just say that it’s time to give him another 60-70 minutes and see what he can do. It’s liable to be better (and less risky from an injury standpoint) than a depleted Barnetta.

    The other guy who has unquestionably performed well enough to earn a start is Herbers. I will be very concerned if he doesn’t start the Columbus game. Again, he’s likely to have more impact than a beaten-up Sapong.

    Le Toux is pretty well inexhaustible, but Pontius also needs a rest. And I can’t believe we can keep putting 34-year-old Carroll out there with this kind of punishing schedule. But resting them will depend upon the health of Ilsinho and Nogueira.

  6. philpill says:

    Blake’s athleticism and size have something to do with those crossbar near misses.
    This isn’t the game to experiment with a 2-week break coming and such a tight table and your clear MVP playing for country. Giving a point to an under-manned COL to maximize the chances of an in-conference win at home could have net 2 important points.
    Tremendous confidence in this team. A disappointing loss Wednesday would leave a bad taste in the mouth for 2 weeks.

  7. From an exercise science standpoint, I’d argue there’s no need to rest players in the last game before a long layoff, unless they have an actual injury. There’s a ton of studies with endurance athletes, showing how if they know the end of a workout, race, etc. is coming they can preform harder. The spring to the finish line for example. Another example, having athletes do intense interval workouts, and telling one group how many intervals they’ll be doing and not telling one group. The group that gets told preforms better, especially on the last rep. Essentially, when the central governor (fancy way of saying the brain) knows the end is approaching it is willing to let the body push harder. This suggests a potential benefit to not resting core guys. They’ll be that much stronger after recovering through the break and better able to maintain the high work rates the team relies on.

    Plus, I think the reason they’ll looked so tired in the second half wasn’t so much accumulated fatigue from playing several games, but altitude. Watch any Colorado home game and the for final 30 minutes the visitors usually look terrible (Salt Lake an exception), even those who sit back and absorb pressure. The thing about altitude, especially in a sport like soccer, is that it can trick you. Sprint times are actually faster at altitude (look at the number of sprinting world records set at altitude), so you feel faster, but endurance is obviously hindered, so you end up hitting the wall hard.

    That being said, I wouldn’t mind seeing Alberg or Herbers get starts.

    • Well, given that Curtin loves to plug the exercise science guys that the Union work with, it would be a safe bet they ascribe to exactly that theory. I’d say we’ll be getting the usual suspects, barring injuries. It’s just impossible to separate how much of the performance dip was caused by altitude and how much was sheer exhaustion. So unless someone trains terribly and/or gets hurt, the only decisions still to be made will be at CB (Yaro or Tribbett), LB (Fabinho or Gaddis), and CM (Is nogs healthy enough?) I’m going to guess we get Tribbett, Fabi, and Creavalle plays one more, but Nogs does make a late game cameo.

      • I should also point out that I’m not necessarily saying he shouldn’t have rested guys, just if he was going to do it, Orlando and/or Colorado was the time. Besides, give a guy a game off now, and it creates an even longer break without a competitive match, so you might be concerned about sharpness coming back, unless you wanted to ship them down to Steel.

        I certainly think you’re right about Tribbett, with Yaro getting an MRI today. Even if it comes back negative, no point to rush him back. He can get time at Steel over the break. Also, agree we see Fabi. I’ll go with Nogs, just because he wasn’t out that long, so he should be fit for 60, was a full go in practice today, and they look so much better going forward with him.

  8. philpill says:

    I find a tension between “two deep” and not playing Alberg, Ilsinho, and Herbers more. Who thinks Pontius, Sapong or Barnetta can play out the second half of the season – and a playoff game or two – at this pace? It’s not just endurance; this is such a physical league. It also tells Alberg he’s still not ready when he might have to come in to spell Carroll, which can’t help gis confidence
    Would sure like an Edu update.

    • Agreed. I think what it comes down to is that they don’t think they’re two deep at every position, especially on the wings. Curtin’s presser before Orlando, I think it was Orlando, he said squad rotation is something big European clubs do, because they have the money to do it. Seems like there are four guys they’re willing to play on the wing. The problem is one’s been hurt (Ilsinho), and one is your striker. They seem to have little faith in Restrepo or Leo.

      Barnetta is an interesting case. He’s played less than some of the other guys, because he sat out to start the season, and he’s only at a 66 minute average for his 10 games. Now, he was injured. Yet, it seems like it was minor. He said he could have played if there was need. If they’re worried about it, they could simply have him run less during the practice week. I think the reason they want to play Barnetta so much now, is because he’s learning a new position. The thinking might be the more games they can get him now, the better off they’ll be later.

      As for Edu, Kinkead said he was chipping the ball off the cross bar after practice, far harder than he’d seen him kick balls previously.

  9. Against the crew-



    Mix it up.
    Rest the old guard

  10. You really found a way to make this whole prseocs easier.

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