Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: NYCFC 3-2 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union got whupped for 50 or 60 minutes on Saturday. There is no other way to say it (well, there are actually a million ways to say it).

New York City FC not only pressed hard on Philly’s soft spots, the home side also executed at an alarmingly high level against what has been one of the stronger defenses in MLS this season. Though Jim Curtin said David Villa was the best player on the pitch by a mile, it was rookie Jack Harrison who shined brightest on the ball. Harrison’s positioning, combined with team-wide confidence on the ball and quick switches of play, doomed the Union to a road defeat. Philly did not help themselves by executing their press poorly and giving David Villa too much respect.

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In short, the match was a combination of one team playing extremely well and another playing like they just found out a franchise cornerstone was gone forever.

Quick switches

Notable from the outset of the match was the way NYC spread the ball around the back, making Fabian Herbers chase. Herbers, for all his qualities (which are many), remains a bit naive in his pressing. This should not be surprising; few strikers in MLS are consistent at both forcing defenders to play quickly and understanding how and when to back off and let play develop. CJ Sapong (along with Dom Dwyer, Kevin Doyle, and Bradley Wright-Phillips) is one of those strikers. The nuance of Sapong’s pressing is often missed, but many Union fans saw it quite clearly when it was absent on Saturday.

Jason Hernandez and Frederic Brillant spread as wide as the Yankee stadium pitch would allow, and dropped as deep as necessary to make Herbers chase as they moved the ball. The rookie striker, and quite a few of his teammates, fell into the trap.

Ironically, the trap was very similar to a tactical twist Jim Curtin developed in Philly with Andrew Wenger.

NYC’s center backs moved the ball side to side until Herbers committed forward. Another switch then opened space that either Chris Pontius or Sebastien Le Toux stepped forward to fill. At this point, the defenders were so deep that the Union had two players at or below the box, and a decision to make about whether to close space by moving forward as a unit (and leaving a lot of green space between the back line and Andre Blake) or staying put and leaving space in front of the midfield.

Often, there was no consensus. The midfield pushed forward while the defense stayed deep, or the wingers pushed on while the central midfield hesitated to cover. This was an issue from the opening whistle, as the Sky Blues announced themselves with a fine move up their left after Sebastien Le Toux pressed high and left space behind.

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A similar scenario released RJ Allen to literally run from ten yards outside his own box to ten yards outside the Union box while encountering as many Union players as Tyrannosaurs.

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Moments later, Allen would waltz through a hesitant tackle from Ray Gaddis, draw Richie Marquez deep enough to hold Frank Lampard onside, and set up the Englishman’s opener.

Be comforted: NYC did not find the Union out in any long-term sense (I hope…). Instead, they just perfectly exploited Philly’s tactical missteps for about an hour.

Herbers’ high pressing, and the way it drew the team forward, was one issue. But the Union also gave far too much respect to David Villa, who warped the visitors’ back line by drifting wide then darting deep. When Villa stayed high, Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez both stayed very deep and remained extremely close together. The result was that the center backs struggled to cover the wide areas behind their fullbacks and were slow to close space when stepping forward. It’s easy to criticize the center backs in hindsight, but it’s also fairly clear that the early goal and Villa’s audacious fifty yarder were in their heads.

How does this all tie in to a Curtin-devised tactical twist? Remember back in 2015 when Andrew Wenger proved dangerous by staying high and driving at defenses from a wide position on the counter? Patrick Viera was able to produce something similar by pushing Jack Harrison high up the pitch on the right, pinning Ray Gaddis deep and opening an enormous swath of real estate between the fullback and Chris Pontius.

Below, you can see NYC play around the Union’s pressure and allow Pirlo time to pick out Harrison, who is streaking away up the right side.

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The clip above highlights the second aspect of NYC’s attack that troubled Philadelphia: the speed of play. In the match preview, one moment was highlighted when Frank Lampard allowed the Sky Blues to play quick passes in midfield and destroy Real Salt Lake’s shape. A very similar scenario unfolded late in the first half of Saturday’s match. Brian Carroll chased his man forward instead of handing off to Warren Creavalle. Meanwhile, Lampard intelligently drifted into a hole behind the Union midfield, creating a very uncomfortable situation for Richie Marquez to snuff out.

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The Union have been extraordinarily good at keeping their opponents out of the kind of rhythmic ball movement that NYC fell into throughout the first hour of the match. Falling behind early, however, seemed to introduce a minor level of panic that led Philly to play too aggressively in both defense and attack.

Defensively, it is notable that the Union had zero successful tackles in the first half hour of the match, and did not record a single successful tackle in the opposition half all match. This would be bad for any team, but Philadelphia is specifically built to take advantage of turnovers in the attacking half (remember Alberg’s first against Harrisburg?)

In attack, the Union were constantly looking to play through the lines, a sharp contrast to NYC’s patient buildups. Philly struggled mightily to get the ball forward, and had even more problems bringing Keegan Rosenberry into play upfield. Partly, this was because Tommy McNamara was keeping a close eye on the fullback. But it was also because the Union midfield was myopically looking forward instead of cycling play and forcing a well-organized defense to move.

Curtin said that removing Warren Creavalle at halftime was not about Creavalle, but about wanting more attacking power in the side. This may be true, but it is also true that Creavalle did not have a very good half with the ball. He created no connections with Tranquillo Barnetta, and on one occasion canceled out a wonderful tackle with a subsequent throughball that looked like it was thrown by Mark Sanchez.


Patrick Viera may have assumed Jack Harrison would be facing up against Fabinho, a fullback who has struggled with speed this season. Instead, the No. 1 overall pick was lined up against one of the better one-on-one defenders in MLS. Furthermore, Gaddis could match Harrison for speed.

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Yet Harrison was still the star of the show, with his American footballesque charge out of midfield that ended with a backheeled assist as the highlight. Harrison supported that play with a litany of fine touches and crosses, and he showed impressive intelligence drifting off of Gaddis’ shoulder and understanding his role in keeping the fullback pinned deep.

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French elephant in the room

Until Saturday, Philadelphia Union had survived matches without Vincent Nogueira relatively unscathed this season. But it’s clear that they are a far less patient and controlled offensive team without him, and that patience is crucial when you play such a punishingly physical defensive system. In other words, if you were looking for a “how bad could it get” game, Saturday was your evidence. Carroll and Creavalle offered little support to the fullbacks, who were less involved than they should be. There was little, if any, aggressive passing out of midfield, which meant Tranquillo Barnetta had fewer chances to turn and run at the defense.

Indeed, Nogueira’s absence was felt.

And it was likely felt in the front office as well, where Earnie Stewart has to decide what type of player to seek out as a replacement. Is there a better balance to be achieved in midfield by finding a holding midfielder with a broader passing range? Is a true box-to-box player needed? A destroyer? Or another Nogueira — somebody who can quickly switch fields, support the wide players, and simultaneously dribble out of trouble and use his arms to indicate that he is none too happy with his current array of passing options.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 5

It’s fairly frustrating when you get scored on by a free kick so good you don’t even move. It moves from frustration to embarrassment when the ball rebounds off the back netting into your waiting hands. Andrea Pirlo is playing HORSE with his free kicks.

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Keegan Rosenberry – 4

The main issue is that Rosenberry was far too uninvolved offensively, but the fullback also struggled at times to work out assignments when David Villa overloaded his side of the pitch. This led to instances where Rosenberry would sit too deep and Ken Tribbett would have to rush forward, creating a hole behind him that NYC nearly exploited (Richie Marquez snuffed out the chance with an impressive and legal shoulder barge).

Ken Tribbett – 3

One of many players who showed well below par on Saturday. Tribbett’s odd pass out of the back led to NYC’s opener, and he often found himself stuck too far toward the touchline, forcing Richie Marquez and Ray Gaddis to rotate so far across that a clean switch allowed NYC to advance forty or fifty yards before meeting a Union defender.

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Richie Marquez – 5

Far from the worst offender, but he played far too conservatively against Villa, allowing the striker to stretch the Union’s defense and create gaps through the channels.

Ray Gaddis – 3

Loving the comfort on the ball, but overall this was more toward nightmare than dream for Gaddis. He lost a half-tackle to RJ Allen in the immediate buildup on the first goal, and he could not contain Jack Harrison or effectively attack the space left behind by the winger’s advanced position.

Brian Carroll – 5

Another below par performer but also far from the bottom of the heap on a rough day.

Warren Creavalle – 3

NYC’s quick early passing turned Creavalle’s aggression into a liability, and the midfielder’s shaky long passing took the edge off a few of his better defensive plays. Still, this seems like a bad day at the office and not something indicative of a downturn in form.

Sebastien Le Toux – 4

Le Toux put in an all-effort performance… which is not as good as it sounds. When Le Toux goes all-effort, he tends to sacrifice team shape and individual positioning. Often, he found himself up against the back four without any link to Rosenberry. Furthermore, his ball chasing would leave the wing open when McNamara and Villa pinned Rosenberry deep.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 4

In a match when he consistently struggled to find space, Barnetta still put in some great set pieces. However, the Union were so poor coming out of set pieces that it takes the shine off those deliveries. Barnetta had trouble getting involved in a slightly deeper role in the second half, but by dropping him below Alberg, the Union were able to put more pressure on the ball in the middle of the pitch, and it helped them climb back into the match.

Chris Pontius – 4

A disturbingly anonymous performance.

Fabian Herbers – 6

Herbers had two of the Union’s five open-field key passes, and he earned a penalty with some neat technique in the box. Yes, his defensive pressure was far below what CJ Sapong offers, but this was quite a nice return on the rookie’s first MLS start.

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Roland Alberg – 6

Alberg tended to take up more advanced positions, but he had a lot of trouble finding the ball in those spots. As a result, he was forced to come deeper and sit in the channels, acting as decoy as much as anything. The aggression is still a nice feature to have on the pitch, though, and the penalty was well-taken.

Ilsinho – 6

Once the Brazilian entered the match, Philly was finally able to bring the ball up the right side of the field, involving Rosenberry in better spots and attacking with shorter passing. It changed the flow of the match in the Union’s favor.

Walter Restrepo – 5

A good, industrious showing. Restrepo certainly seemed like a more impactful late game sub than Leo Fernandes has been in recent weeks.

Geiger counter – 5

Silviu Petrescu tends to have really good games or really bad games. Saturday was a good one, in that he seemed to miss calls equally for both sides, ignoring a potential penalty for the Union and not sending off Ray Gaddis for taking down a player who seemed to have a pretty clear cut route to goal.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    I would downgrade Marquez and Carroll, especially the former. Among other things, Richie played Lambert onside on the first goal and I believe it was his turnover that led to the third. BC has to share the responsibility with Creavalle for the team having less than 40% possession in the first half.
    Also, with regards to Petrescu, multiple wrongs on major calls (Gaddis, missed PK) that cancel each other out don’t make for a good score. Maybe he should get a 3 for those.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Andy – On Marquez and the first goal, I have trouble blaming him. He absolutely has to step to Allen after Gaddis misses the tackle, and he barely has time to turn, let alone realize he’s the last man and needs to sprint forward, by the time the ball falls to Lampard. You are right about his turnover leading to the third, though. I should’ve weighted that heavier in hindsight.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I probably wouldn’t have been as critical on the first goal because he was in a tough position if it hadn’t been for the turnover. One or the other is bad luck but both combined is a bad day.

  2. When subs rate higher than starters, the lineup decisions look suspect. Again Curtin may have had fewer options given the prior match’s XI and the sudden departure of #5. Save his better options for these next two home games in 4 days.

    • I said in the game thread, but I’ll repeat here…
      I had no problem with Gaddis over Fabinho. Sure, in hindsight we know it sucked; but given the situation – including that this was the 2nd of 6 games in 18 days – I was OK with the decision when I saw the lineup.
      Similarly, I can understand why Curtin went with C&C in the middle, though I would’ve preferred Alberg from the start. Still, again without the power of hindsight I was OK with that decision.
      The real bad lineup decision, in my opinion, was Le Toux starting over Ilsinho. I love Le Toux, to the point of having a man crush. But given that this game was played on a U8-sized field, Ilsinho’s skillset was the better choice for this match.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        That really goes back to Wednesday. If Ilsinho was going to start Saturday than LeToux should have been the one to start against Harrisburg on Wednesday. Curtin probably saw Wednesday as the safer time to give Ilsinho the chance to get match fit.

      • What I don’t really get about Nog’s departure is the FO reaction. If it wasn’t a complete surprise, what was Plan B? Not what we saw Saturday, I hope. If it was, Big Ern’s public face belies the urgency of replacing him. Maybe that’s for show. Or a hint that Ilsinho and Alberg should be playing more.

      • It was a complete surprise though. They apparently knew there was an issue but didn’t think it was going to lead to this at this point. Nogs played some of the open cup game but then came out. Clearly he was meant to start this game. Otherwise I doubt Alberg would have played the whole game.

      • That is how I read the situation too.
        The FO might have known something was up but not how serious it was.
        Also, it is not like they could do a whole lot right now to bring another player in quickly since the transfer/trade window is closed.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        10 yards short and 5 yards narrow.
        U10s, don’t you think? 😉

      • John Ling says:

        *shrug* I picked U8 because it sounds slightly more derogatory for Manchester West’s field that way. 🙂

    • I’ve been thinking about this and feel that the problem I have with the starting xi is that it is preoccupied with trying to contain NYC’s attack over possession and offense. Why not invert that triangle and start with Alberg and Barnetta in midfield with Carrol behind them to plug holes and help put out fires? Hindsight is 20/20 and I said in a comment last week that I had a feeling they were going to drop this game if for no other reason than that the law of averages had to kick in at some point on NYCFC’s behalf.
      I hope Curtin gives Alberg a shot against Chicago on Wed. Force Chicago to deal with our attack rather than the other way around.

      • As said above Alberg hasn’t showed he can go the full 90 this season other than the open cup game. He clearly wouldn’t have lasted this game. Nogs was supposed to be the starter but when that option was removed they had no choice but to roll with what they did. Just bad timing.

  3. MikeRSoccer says:

    I really do not think Creavalle should be used beyond a defensive sub late in games that we are winning. He does not have the passing ability to be a #8 and he’s too aggressive (undisciplined) to be a #6. Both of these flaws were on full display Saturday.

    At home on Wednesday, I sincerely doubt that Curtin will start both Creavalle and Carroll, particularly since Curtin likes to be more aggressive at home. However, I believe that even on the road Creavalle should not be started alongside Carroll.

    One last thing, what has happened to Ray Gaddis? I have never been a fan of his, but even I have to admit that he has typically been an above average one-on-one defender. In his cameos this season, however, his one-on-one defense has been horrendous.

    • Jim Presti says:

      Honestly, the quality in the league has increased over the last two or three years. Then couple that with a lack of professional playing time.

    • Need to play to stay sharp and get better… less you are training every day with the best players in the best leagues.
      All this speaks in some degree to what I’ve been railing on about for two years… MLS teams have an arguably sufficient first team, maybe a bench player or two of quality —— then drop off…. when you are training against that every day non competitively… He’d be better off playing defense every minute in NASL.
      Sometimes the facts suck but they are still the facts.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Exactly. Consistent playing time.

      • Gaddis gets more excuses than any other player. As soon as he goes against someone that can match his speed he’s toast. The speed is the only reason he looked good. He’s a nice backup to both OB and that’s it. Dude has just been overrated because people thought he’d be better when he moved from left to right but that wasn’t the case. Wish we still had Williams instead.

      • Dr. Union says:

        Can’t agree with your thoughts on Williams. I mean he was in and out of shape so much one day he looked great next he looked like he couldn’t last 20 minutes on the field. His defense was lackadaisical more than 50% of the time and the offense he provided did not make up for his suspect defense. Lets hope Gaddis learns and improves he has had some quality minutes and some not so much just like everyone on this team. If they can learn from mistakes and stay together the team may be able to at least be consistent.

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        He had consistent playing time from June until October last season. He looked consistently poor, on the offensive and defensive side.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I agree. But you won’t improve year after year without consistent playing time at any level. Then couple that with better quality throughout the league.

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