Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 3-2 Columbus Crew

Photo: Daniel Studio

In April 2015, Columbus Crew executed a comprehensive, demoralizing pounding of Philadelphia Union that exposed so many flaws in Jim Curtin’s team the rest of the league merely did clean up work on a squad that had to stare their own frailty in the face less than a month into the season.

On Wednesday night, the Union used the Crew to show the rest of MLS of what Philadelphia can do to a team that needs to impose a rhythm and flow to succeed. Led by a sensational performance from Brian Carroll and the calming influence of Vincent Nogueira, Philadelphia slowly wrenched control of the match from the visitors until there could only be one winner. If not for weirdly consistent poor decision-making in the final third, the Union could have run away with the result the same way Columbus ran away from them 14 months ago. The Crew’s soft underbelly was exposed as Philly again and again moved through midfield with ease, and the Union’s improved defense remained solid despite the absence of their stud shot-stopper.

It has been difficult to buy into the notion that the Union, only a few months removed from a disastrous season, are among the cream of the Eastern Conference crop. Philly was 0-3-2 when giving up the first goal this season until last night, but they quickly recovered from an early deficit and dominated the final 70 minutes of the match.

Columbus attack, Union adjustments

This was by no means a perfect game from the Union. But it did feature many of the hallmarks of a team that finally understands they must rely on their strategy and tactics — not just all-out effort — to win games.

Early in the match, Columbus wanted to attack Fabinho up the right side, a good strategy since Ethan Finlay would only recognize Fabinho in a lineup if the Brazilian was blurry, having spent most of their time together running past the frustrated defender. The Union, meanwhile, were focused on keeping the Crew’s midfield off the ball, with Barnetta shadowing Mo Saied in the middle and Brian Carroll doing an excellent job sitting in the passing lanes to Federico Higuain.

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Columbus went around the main defensive system by advancing through Michael Parkhurst, which drew Chris Pontius to the ball. Parkhurst would then find Finlay or Hector Jimenez out wide, which would pull Fabinho up and create space in behind. That space, as the Union would soon find out, is where Columbus thrives.

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During the first 15 minutes, when the match seemed quite even, the Crew foreshadowed their opener with moves up the right side that ended with crosses to Kamara in the center (see above). This was particularly dangerous for Philly because they were shading Richie Marquez toward the wing to offer support if Finlay got into spaces inside of Fabinho.

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Kamara’s goal arrived when the Crew were able to get numbers on the wing and catch Fabinho a step slow closing down Finlay. It’s hard to fault the defender’s decision-making though. He has to quickly choose whether to get tight to Finlay and prevent him from turning or position himself to stop the winger on the run. As previous matches have shown, Fabinho should avoid getting into 1v1 matchups against Finlay. To his credit, the Columbus winger read the play perfectly, slipped by Fabinho, and found Kamara, who rolled off Tribbett as the Union center back slipped after being caught between marking Higuain and the big striker. Once Fabinho was beaten, the Union’s defense was in trouble, and Kamara looks like a solid finisher.

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As the match wore on, Fabinho was better at figuring out his spacing, and Chris Pontius was excellent tracking Finlay out of midfield.

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This, along with Marquez’s assistance, effectively closed down the right side of the pitch and made Columbus far more reliant on Higuain.

The Crew had another offensive issue: Keegan Rosenberry was spot-on reading space on the right. This, accompanied by Justin Meram’s odd decision to start and remain very central throughout the match, meant that the Crew struggled to exploit the wide areas that should have been their bread and butter.

In short, Philly’s defense was strong up the center and made key adjustments as the match wore on. That is a sentence that I don’t think I wrote, or even thought about writing, in all of 2015.

Nogueira’s presence

The C-squared partnership in center midfield has been far better than anybody but the most optimistic of fans could have hoped. Remember: The Union are a first place team that has been starting a guy many thought would be retired by now next to a career journeyman who looked destined to live out his days as a reserve fullback.

All that said, Vincent Nogueira brings something to the table that Carroll and Creavalle just don’t offer.

Over the past few matches, the Union have struggled to build longer possessions that move a defense around. They win the ball in midfield and immediately look to find Tranquillo Barnetta to start moves toward the opponent’s goal. All well and good, but this is a team that excels at counterpressing, and to do that you need to have the ball for a bit before you lose it again. Below, Nogueira’s confidence and patience on the ball helps the Union bring more players into the attack and stay out of tight spaces.

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Additionally, Nogueira slows the game down when the Union collect the ball off of their pressing. Against Colorado and Orlando City, Warren Creavalle was excellent on the press but showed a propensity to look forward immediately after winning the ball. Nogueira is more comfortable holding the ball and resetting the offense, which allows the Union to control the pace of the match.

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Special mention must be made of Brian Carroll, who was the glue that held the whole thing together on Wednesday. As good as Nogueira was on the ball, he fell asleep at times defensively, which is understandable for a guy coming off an injury playing in a pressing system.

Carroll played as if he had been at the Crew’s practices, reading Higuain’s movements, tracking Meram’s forays into the center, and making Columbus extremely one dimensional. If the Crew couldn’t generate offense off of crosses, they were at sea.

Radical rookies

Last season, Cyle Larin won the Rookie of the Year award running away. Nobody else should have received a vote. Fatai Alashe and Matt Polster came in second and third respectively, both earning credit for doing the dirty work in midfield on bad teams.

Think about that: Out of all the players chosen, the best three were Larin and a couple of guys who grade out as Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle if they don’t hit sophomore slumps.

Now think about this: The Union have four rookies playing important minutes who are already as good as or better than Alashe and Polster. Fabian Herbers hasn’t started a match and has played a quarter of the minutes of 2015 No. 2 overall pick Khiry Shelton, but he’s putting up similar, if not better, shots numbers. Keegan Rosenberry is everything you want in a MLS fullback. Ken Tribbett and Joshua Yaro have been every bit as good as Jonathan Campbell, the only other player out of the SuperDraft with a case to be on the ROY list.

Jordan Morris will likely win the award because a) MLS really likes Jordan Morris, and b) he’s quite good at what he does on a mediocre team. But it’s important to remember just how many inexperienced players the Union are relying on for key contributions. If CJ Sapong’s ankle twist turned out to be serious, Fabian Herbers could step in and very few would question the decision. Herbers has a long way to go before he can exert the type of influence Sapong has on a match, but the fact that he can even put himself in the conversation based purely on cameos is impressive. (Just look at his workrate and movement below.)

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One final note

As good as Nogueira was with the ball, it’s important to note that the Columbus midfield was a mess defensively. An absolute mess. On Pontius’ goal, both Trapp and Saied stayed so deep in the box that they couldn’t step to the Union winger in time to make a difference. Repeatedly, the Crew were caught with nobody between the attacking players and a three-man back line with a midfielder awkwardly caught between two central defenders.

Contrast this with Colorado, where Michael Azira probably sits five yards in front of two central defenders in the cafeteria, walks five yards in front of them on the way to the movies, and dances five yards in front of them when the team recreates scenes from West Side Story.

In short, Philly was good on Wednesday, but Columbus made it very easy for them to look good, too. Given all the space they had in transition, the Union should have created a few more good chances than they did. Ilsinho, in particular, was more unselfish than he needed to be.  

Player ratings

Matt Jones – 6

Though he was beaten in the air by Meram in a play that could have changed the game in the second half, Jones was largely solid, and his aggressiveness was key to keeping Kamara off the board when the striker got in behind Tribbett.

Keegan Rosenberry – 7

Locked up the right side of the field for large portions of the match, plus he got forward to show just how dangerous he can be in the final third. Both of his blocked shots looked to be going on frame, and you can see below how he creates space for the winger on his side.

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Ken Tribbett – 7

Nice save. And a very nice pass to Sapong that led to Pontius’ goal.

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Richie Marquez – 6

A difficult match to grade for Marquez without knowing what his instructions were. He often cheated towards Fabinho to help with Finlay, but this left space in the middle for Kamara to attack.

Fabinho – 5

Got roasted once and it was costly. Otherwise, a good match in which he didn’t settle for crosses. A wonderful run to create space on Pontius’ goal.

Brian Carroll – 9

Did you notice that Carroll only had two incomplete passes all night? Of course not, because he’s Brian Carroll. Goals and saves win plaudits and awards, but if there was justice in the world BC would be nominated for MLS Player of the Week. He was in the right place pretty much all of the time. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he intercepted the mashed potatoes at Federico Higuain’s dinner table later in the evening. 

Vincent Nogueira – 8

Yes. Exactly what the Union needed from the Frenchman, who brought patience to the offense and allowed the team to control the pace of the match.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 7

From the defensive effort to the willingness to get into the box, this match was an object lesson in why the Union felt they could move on from Cristian Maidana.

Sebastien Le Toux – 7

Dude is quietly having a very good run after starting the season as an energy sub.

Chris Pontius – 8

After a series of anonymous offensive performances, Pontius had a goal and an assist and still did all the dirty running Jim Curtin loves. Also, Pontius’ ability to win long aerial balls has been surprising and essential to the Union’s success all season.

CJ Sapong – 6

Had a chance or two to get his name on the scoresheet but got the ball stuck in his feet. Still, he gave the Columbus back line fits all night with his strength.


Ilsinho – 7

An assist, and he had a few chances to score but chose to pass. When teams give the Brazilian space, he’s almost impossible to stop.

Warren Creavalle – 7

Very, very good after coming on for Nogueira. He was all over the midfield and made the tackle that led to Herbers’ match winner.

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Fabian Herbers – 8

The goal was the icing on a very strong showing for the rookie.

Conor Casey – 10

A brief cameo, but it’s nice to know Casey can still contribute to the Union cause even when he’s wearing a different jersey. Plus it gave us RosenFace, which is unquestionably the best part of a great season for the Union.

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Geiger counter – 7

Robert Sibiga was quite friendly to the Union, letting a few calls that probably should have been body fouls go unpunished. Plus he was kind enough to let Union fans give Conor Casey a standing O.


  1. I feel Fabinho deserves even lower. After he got burned he seemed to lose confidence and start to punt the ball often.

    Jones deserves lower too. The second goal he didn’t react till the ball was by him and it was a totally save-able distance from his body. Plus he flapped at corners like 2 or 3 times?

    That little touch Carrol has in your first gif, I don’t think I ever would have though he could make it. I’m not sure how difficult that touch is for a player but wow if all of our players were capable of that we could find so much space.

    Warren C put on a clinic as to the type of sub he can be. He immediately started to win tackles, get the ball back, and (most importantly) lay it off to someone who can use it better than he would.

    • Section 114 (Formerly) says:

      Agreed on Fabinho. He was doing all sorts of Fabinho things and he HAS to foul on that play once he got toasted. Just put your body in to him dude!

      • He did, just not well. Ref played the advantage. You can catch it in the clip above.

      • As always, we’re very harsh on Fabinho here. I’m ok with a 5. He continues to make intelligent runs in the attack, he absolutely attempted to foul on that play once he knew he was beaten, and I agree with Adam that he should be stepping to Ethan Finlay and trying to prevent him from turning. He arrived late and the rest is history. But he and the rest of the defense adjusted to that. lose a point for the error, 5 is fine.

  2. Rosenberry’s reaction is hysterical and priceless… couldn’t tell, did he start laughing right after the ref turned around?

  3. Matt Jones was rusty, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. We’re also looking to compare him to Dre, which is very unfair. I think the rating is a point or two too high, but we won. Moving on.
    BC remains a guy who I see as a good neighbor. He’s quiet, keeps to himself, works hard, and carries himself in a mature manner. I would mow his lawn when he’s on vacation. I would take his kids to soccer practice. I would steady his ladder as he puts up Christmas lights. BC should go down in this team’s early history as a rock in some very unsettling times. If and when we lose the Bimbo sponsorship (I love the money just can’t wear the logo), I’ll absolutely get a BC jersey.
    Everyone looked great on the night. Fabi was burnt but that’s him – Fabi’s gonna Fabi. Noggy adds immense stability to the middle of the pitch and his absence is sorely visible. Herby took that shot like a seasoned striker.
    Well deserved break coming up, boys. Drink a beer, go swimming, relax – you earned it. Some of you should be on the US squad this tourny but we won’t argue that here and now.

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    Perhaps I am too use to seeing Blake stop shots that no keeper in the league gets, but I really felt Jones should have gotten a hand to the second Columbus goal. Moreover, he is horrifying in the air. He mistimed his jump on the corner that Columbus put off the post and he allowed a number of balls to have a second bounce.

    For me, I am more comfortable with McCarthy out there as our backup. Jones looked very rusty.

    • Agreed on the second goal. Jones was moving to his left, even though the only open part of the goal for Martinez to shoot at was to Jones’s right.
      I’m still hopeful it was just rust, so I’d keep Jones in net as long as Blake is gone. McCarthy gets the Open Cup run. And the Red Bulls.

      • My big Jones complaint was how slow he was getting down for shots. All 3 that got past were low burners very near him. Tribbett saves one, and if it wasn’t for Andre Blake I’m not sure I expect any union goalkeeper to save the other 2. But I couldn’t help but ask: Does Andre get those? Answers: I don’t think so on the first, 50/50 on the second.
        Really though, the rest of it is pure rust. Some things are only done well when repeated. A lot. Goalkeeping is one of those things. Get him some reps and he’ll be fine.

  5. Broseidon says:

    Just a little food for thought after not seeing Blake in goal. IF Andre Blake were to be purchased for big money by another club somewhere in the future, what would the idea of bringing back Zach Macmath sound like? any thoughts?

  6. Barnetta deserves an extra point for on the Herbers goal being even with 3 Crew players when he passes to Ilshino (not even at midfield) and out running all of them to get us a 3 on 2 break. Talk about wanting it more than the other team.

    • I noticed this too. Not sure if they just quit on it or he really did want it more – prob both. His game has been something special since he came back from injury. A true #10. His defensive work is what I notice – he never quits on the ball

  7. Whoscored stat line:
    Player A: 4 shots, 3 on target, 4 key passes, 81% pass completion, 57 touches
    Player B: 2 shots, 1 on target, 5 key passes, 82% pass completion, 56 touches
    Without cheating and looking it up, guess the two players.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Player A – Barnetta
      Player B – Pontius
      I didn’t cheat.
      Also, RosenFace is a great call… HA!

      • 1/2 correct

      • I’ll agree A is Barnetta, and I want to say B is Mr. Brian Carroll. But that completion percent seems low for him.

      • 1/2 correct again

      • Just looked it up and… WOW. I’m genuinely stunned.

      • A) Barnetta
        B) Le Toux
        (I don’t remember Nogs taking a 2nd shot)

      • We have a winner!
        I bring this up because Le Toux is officially having a sneaky good year that has really not been talked about. It could be a whole article in itself.
        What are the common thoughts about Le Toux? 1) He runs all day and works his butt off. 2) He has a heavy touch. 3) He is more of a vertical threat and less of a possession guy. 4) He is streaky.
        This season though, he is something different (which I’ll revisit in the next paragraph). Le Toux, at least statistically, is playing comparably to Barnetta!?!? On the season, Barnetta has 2 goals, 2 assists, averages 30.5 passes a game, averages 71.3% pass completion, and 2.3 key passes per game. Meanwhile, Le Toux has 2 goals, 4 assists, averages 27.9 passes a game, averages 72.3% pass completion, and 1.9 key passes per game. Also, keep in mind that Le Toux rarely takes set pieces and corners anymore – Barnetta does. Le Toux is playing consistent, is more involved in possession then past seasons, and is creating chances.
        So why is this not being talked about and where is it comes from? To me, I think no one is noticing because the team is so surprising that there are a lot of things to notice and since we thought/think Le Toux is a known quantity, we just assume he is doing what he has always done. But, at least to me, we are seeing Le Toux 3.0 (first a striker, then a winger who plays like a striker, now a true winger). I think this comes from 2 major sources: 1) Earnie – players have more defined roles now and know what is expected from each position and 2) Rosenberry – also according to whoscored, the Union are attacking a lot more up the right side likely because how comfortable R’berry is in possession that gives Le Toux more opportunities on the ball.

      • Le Toux has been pretty good this year. There have been a few times were he has drifted central and split 2 defenders to get Sapong on goal. I don’t think I have seen him do that before.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Great observations, CPfeif. If you don’t mind, I may cut and paste it en masse into a section of my next column. That deserves some eyes on it.

      • Never a problem Dan, I love the content you and everyone else contributes to this page.
        Looking a little further into things now, his passing accuracy and average passes per game have not really changed much since last year but his average key passes jumped from 1.2 to 1.9 this season. Also, speaking to him being more consistent this year, he has not gone more then two games in a row without at least a goal or assist.
        All-in-all, the reason why this team is in first is because every player is playing pretty well right now so everyone on the roster deserves a little love.

  8. 1) It’s rare that I disagree with you, Adam, but I saw this game from section 127, and in the first half, Higuain practically pitched a tent in the space between the CBs and the midfield. Time and again Columbus got him the ball there, and he turned and ran at our defense. Somebody shoulda been there, and clearly that person is BC. Often he was higher up the pitch than Nogueira, which should rarely happen. In the second half, BC adjusted and was all over Higuain. So, I saw half of the superb performance you did, but not all of it. Am I really that off-base?

    2) Yes to the several commenters above about what a great season Le Toux is having. People seem to notice it when he flubs great scoring chances (which unfortunately happens regularly), but forget the fantastic interplay that leads to goals regularly (hence 4 assists). And to CPfeif, I think the reason for this is very simple: we have guys around him now who can play this way (Barnetta, Nogueira, Rosenberry, Herbers, Ilsinho) and it’s bringing out the ability that he couldn’t use much before.

    3) I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Union match in which all the subs played so well. Herbers was excellent, Ilsinho brought fear, and Creavalle was an absolute beast.

    4) I was gonna saw that I knew Casey could still contribute to the Union, but Adam beat me to it.

    5) The paragraph about Michael Azira made me LOL. Nice writing!

  9. Who blew their defensive responsibility on that last goal? Most likely BC or Marquez. Or both. Warren was nowhere to be found on defense. Too high of a rating for Warren and BC IMO.

    I was telling a Brazilian friend that BC only passes sideways and backwards. Was true for the most part. Killed me when BC looked up, had a winger WIDE open, then turned away and passed sideways instead. Yes, BC is having a good year for BC, but that’s it. He is a great guy to have off the bench, not starter. Edu come back soon!

    CJ deserves a lower rating. Not enough from the striker position. He needs to make stuff happen like Herbers did. Just doesn’t have it in him IMO. Has the other qualities, but not the most important one, Killer instinct and finishing.

    • IMO CJ is tired. That’s not an airtight excuse. It doesn’t explain every game prior but a pass and a nice rating of 6 is reasonable given his running and number of minutes.
      BC is BC. I don’t expect greatness, nor should anyone but for his cost and the fact that he is a very consistent leader, and known entity on a team leading the east with a game winner in his pocket I am fine for now with him starting or on the bench.

      • philpill says:

        CJ was exhausted, hurt and had to take himself out. He should’ve been given the night off in COL. He’s our leading scorer and we have no proven like-for-like.

  10. The Little Fish says:

    Again I was hoping to see Alberg get a start, or at least 30+ minutes off the bench. But, again I cannot argue with the Coach’s decision since JC got it right….again! Herby’s goal was majestic. CJ Sapong will be “strong like bull” after the break. Loving this season. Lord knows we fans deserve it!

  11. OMG, I just opened my peanut butter jar and found the face of Jesus in the swirls. Ha, ha, ha, ha.Sorry you religious freaks, stop trying to sound scientific, and go back to your ridiculous miracle searching to try to prove to yourselves you are not waisting you life on something that dos71&#82ne;t exist.

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