Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 4-3 Chicago Fire

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has two words on its cover: Don’t Panic.

Philadelphia Union’s announcement that Vincent Nogueira was leaving the club should have begun with the same words.

Luckily, Roland Alberg has calmed fears with a series of stellar performances, culminating in last night’s three and a half goal performance. Since NYC dropped four on Chicago in the season opener, the Fire had given up 12 goals in 13 games. They normally protect the center of the box as well as any team in MLS, but without Matt Polster they entirely lost the script.

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Make no mistake: Alberg was the story. His finishing, movement, “dirty running,” and awareness were sublime. But there was a lot more to like about the Union performance than just their hat trick hero.

Midfield madness

Chicago came out in a 3-5-2, ostensibly so they could protect the center of the pitch and force the Union to settle for crosses. The three central defenders were supposed to allow the wingbacks to push up and facilitate counterattacks, linking the defense and the speedy strikers.


The Fire would have been much better off with an extra body in midfield. At times, Eric Gehrig stepped into that role, but he looked as lost as a US soccer spokesperson trying to explain Jurgen Klinsmann’s strategy against Argentina.

Veljko Paunovic’s tactical mistake was compounded by Ilsinho’s tendency to drift inside and essentially give the Union four midfielders up the center. The Chicago back three were hesitant to step to the Brazilian, and Philly’s ability to possess in the middle third was often unchallenged. Additionally, Ilsinho’s inside movement meant Alberg could wander into the left channel to start his runs, sneaking behind the Chicago midfield like a kid making a midnight cookie run.

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Ilsinho’s movement meant the Union had an extra man in midfield all night, and, importantly, Rosenberry’s aggressive positioning meant that Chicago could not take advantage of the empty wing. When Ilsinho drifted inside, Rosenberry would quickly advance up the right, keeping Brandon Vincent deep so the Fire had no advanced outlet when they collected a loose ball.

In the clip below, Vincent finds the ball at the edge of his own box. Not only is he too deep to start a counter, but Brian Carroll has brilliantly stepped into the lane where either striker could check back to the ball so the only option is to go long.

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A huge problem for Chicago is that Paunovic cannot afford to make tactical errors. On the whole, it’s actually pretty doggone impressive that the Fire, with only Matt Polster and The Mistakes in midfield, have managed to be so tight defensively. Paunovic has oscillated between a back three and back four all season, recognizing that his side is usually going to be outclassed and needs to be greater than the sum of its parts (sound familiar 2015 Union fans?).

One of the biggest reasons Paunovic cannot guess wrong with his shape is that he essentially trots out a nine-man defense most nights. Kennedy Igboananike and David Accam are faster than my heartbeat when I see an Independence Day 2 trailer (Jeff Goldblum is the only real action hero!) but the Fire strikers don’t like to think about their defensive positioning.

In the buildup to the Union’s third goal, Accam and Cocis both drift toward Fabinho, who has the simple task of passing around them. This starts the Union’s forward movement into an empty midfield, and you just cannot be disorganized in midfield with a deep defensive line and Tranquillo Barnetta on the run.

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The final problem for Chicago was the biggest of all: They kept turning off. Take nothing away from Roland Alberg, who continually drifted away from his markers, but man… did the Fire think this was practice? Over and over the entire team seemed to treat a shot like the end of a play, and that makes it very easy to score off rebounds.

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Union issues?

One big question for Philly: Does playing with Alberg, Barnetta, and Ilsinho leave the team exposed defensively?

Chicago chances, final 30 minutes.

Chicago chances, final 30 minutes.

To a certain extent, it does. Against a team with any sort of possession game, Ilsinho’s inside positioning would be a potential hazard, forcing Rosenberry to step up and leaving Ken Tribbett on an island. Additionally, Barnetta’s tendency to carry the ball out of midfield means that he and Alberg can both get caught up-field off turnovers. This was no big deal against a Chicago side that couldn’t counterattack if they had an army of rabid kitchen counters at their disposal. But if a purely counterattacking team with a great facilitator like, say, Pedro Morales came to town…

Let’s back up a moment, though. The important point to drill home is that there was potential for the Union to get hit on the counter last night. The scoreline should not be taken to reflect that the team actually did struggle defensively, at least not during open play.

There will be, however, some hats pulled low during the set piece video session.

In the past five days, the Union have played against the two other rookies that they could have ended up with at the No. 2 and No. 3 positions in the past SuperDraft. As phenomenal as Jack Harrison was on Saturday, Philly has to feel extremely good about the players they selected. Even when both of those players get beat on set pieces in the same game.

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First, Razvan Cocis beat Joshua Yaro to the spot to slide the ball past Andre Blake.

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Then, Khaly Thiam snuck in front of Keegan Rosenberry to notch Chicago’s third. The Union have been bested on set pieces before this season, and it will happen again. Many will remember Clint Dempsey picking Richie Marquez as a prime example.

Chicago second half defensive actions. That is what Union dominance looks like.

Chicago second half defensive actions. That is what Union dominance looks like: Everything in the Fire half.

But if it takes set pieces and the grimy, grabby world that pops up in the box when they happen to expose Philly’s inexperienced back line, so be it. I would have expected many more teams to tear apart a defense populated by rookies and a left back who flips a coin to decide if his decision-making will be sensible or not each match.

Set piece defense is about knowing what tricks each player has in their bag, and with time Rosenberry and Yaro will be quicker to react. Does it suck to give up two goals off dead balls against a bad team? Yeah.

But when that is just about the only thing that bad team can do to do, the overall picture is still fairly rosy.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 4

…Bounce back game coming?

Keegan Rosenberry – 6

A very mature performance tarred by Thiam’s goal. Also, if anybody can add a setting sun and spaghetti western music to this RosenWalk, I’ll be eternally grateful. 

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Ken Tribbett – 4

Struggled with the speed, but still put in a good performance overall. Smart passing and didn’t get cold feet about closing down the ball after having it backfire on him early.

Richie Marquez – 5

Not a great passing day, but dude was a clearance machine.

Chicago key passes/assists

Chicago key passes/assists

Fabinho – 5

No major mistakes, and a strong passing performance in the second half. But all the Fire’s key passes seemed to come from his zone.

Brian Carroll – 7

The best part about his game was that Chicago couldn’t even get enough going to make him work, but he was still in the right places. And people are starting to notice.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 8

Simply Nogueirian with the passing. Plus the bursts out of midfield as an added element.

Roland Alberg – 10

Well, that was the easiest rating I’ll make all year. After the Union’s second goal, Paunovic switched Kappelhof and Gehrig to put a more, let’s say, aware defender in the left channel. Alberg didn’t mind; he found space wherever he went.

Ilsinho – 8

Read the game perfectly. Chicago had no answers when he came inside.

Chris Pontius – 8

Not as flashy as the other members of the front five, but worked his tail off and holy mackerel was that dummy beautiful. Also gave me the most frustrating moment of the night when he missed Barnetta’s run on this play. 

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Fabian Herbers – 7

His only shot of the game turned into an Alberg goal (as almost everything did on Wednesday). More importantly, Herbers played much better defensively and played his game offensively. He can’t hold the ball like Sapong, but Herbers kept the Chicago defense from advancing into midfield with curling runs into the corners and movement that took him out of the middle to open space for Alberg. It’s an unpolished game Herbers is playing, but it’s mature as hell.


Joshua Yaro – 5

Yes, Yaro was beaten on a corner and the third goal deflected off him and in. But he also took the Fire’s only major offensive threat out of the game. Paunovic tried moving David Accam onto Richie Marquez because there was absolutely nothing doing over the top with Yaro on the pitch. And it wasn’t even about the open field speed as much as the closing speed.  

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Sebastien Le Toux – 6

Saw a lot of the ball and didn’t do a ton with it, but three interceptions, a tackle, and a recovery in under 20 minutes is why he’s always going to get minutes.

Warren Creavalle – 6

So, I just stay in the middle here in case they counterattack? But they aren’t going to… OK, OK. I’ll hang out. So… know any good jokes?

Geiger counter – 3

Jaime Herrera didn’t give a yellow card for a yank-back penalty. Usually, either a penalty or a yank back alone is worth a caution. But that fit with the referee’s general policy of acting in the most confusing way possible at all times.


  1. Honestly one of the worst referee’s I have seen in a long time. Inconsistent is an understatement

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Always a pleasure, Adam. Much obliged.
    Yaro’s upper body strength against Accam was impressive. Accam surprised Tribbett with it in the second minute, is how I read the misplay live. But he could not muscle a man with less leverage available.
    Perhaps center backs should attend Greco-Roman wrestling clinics?

    • Adam Cann says:

      @OSC – No matter how many times I see Accam I’m always blown away by how fast and strong and completely one dimensional he is! If he got more involved and worked defensively, he’d be so much scarier. Union iced him out of the game in the second half by neutralizing that speed, and he had no response.

  3. Alberg also had a key tackle in the box in the first half; he was everywhere. I would give him a 10+.
    Pontius an 8?! He needs to score or give more assists to get that score! Hopefully Alberg’s success will motivate him more.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @Guido – I agree with Kinkead’s Pontius rating on Philly Voice – he deserves the equivalent of an assist for the dummy on the first goal. Thing of beauty.

      • I thought Pontius was much better this game with varying his runs. He’s also a nice power player to have out there with this lineup. Him and Le Toux at the same time can be a little rough, but with Barnetta, Alberg, Ilsinho, and Herbers I think he brings another element. Plus I think he’s a big reason Fabinho looks better on D this year.

  4. Will miss Nogs, but honestly thought Tranquillo’s passing was better. I understand that there are plenty of reasons to go square and backwards for possession, but sometimes felt like Nogs did that reflexively before he looked downfield. Tranquillo seems like he always looks to attack first, then if its not on, possesses.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @whit – I really like what we’re seeing from Barnetta, but the U haven’t had a match that really challenged him to be disciplined in the deeper role yet. Will be interesting to see how he responds when they do. Nogs was often surprisingly good at adjusting his game to the defense required of him. Will Barnetta do the same?

  5. I think these are a little low for Marquez and LeToux.

    Curtin gave the defense an F, but Richie did not get beat on the run and was (as usual)the strong point of that defense.

    Letoux did plenty with the ball; he held possession in Chicago’s end in the last minutes. A sub who comes on and adds energy, keeps play on his side and in the offensive end is doing exactly what he is supposed to in a game with his team leading.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @JMac – Marquez was one of the tougher ones to rate. I dropped him down a bit because his passing was a bit wild on the day.

  6. MikeRSoccer says:

    I think Rosenberry at a 6 is a bit generous. Even after Tribbett getting blown by 2-3 times in the first 20 minutes, Rosenberry never recognized that he needed to ‘stay closer to home’ as support. He seemed slow to react to changes in the flow of play. I’m not sure if it had anything to do with him being tired. After LeToux came on and the third goal went in, he seemed to wake up and have an extra burst of speed to press and challenge.

    If we are going to give Blake a 4 and Yaro a 5, I think it’s a bit hard on them to turn around and give Rosenberry a 6.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @MikeR – Totally fair points, I just view the coverage a bit differently. On the Accam goal, Tribbett steps up and loses a tackle AND has support in the form of Carroll. I don’t think a hundred Rosenberrys stop him. Furthermore, I think the goal with Accam has to be to back off him and force him wider, not commit a second defender to him. He’s a speed dude, he’s gonna run. Just make him do it in less dangerous areas.

      Chicago’s setup was designed to keep Rosenberry pinned deep, and I like that he continually pushed forward to make sure that Vincent had to stay back and leave Accam isolated.

      Plus, Rosenberry was very strong going forward. Sort of a typical game for him, but we’re spoiled by what he does in the attacking half. I’d rather see him up there and have the rest of the D adjust.

      • Especially with Ilsinho constantly creeping into the middle, Rosenberry was a necessary presence higher up the wing to control the wide space Ilsinho was vacating.

      • MikeRSoccer says:

        And that’s why you are the person making the ratings and I’m the person making comments haha. I guess it would be pretty harsh to blame Rosenberry for the Accam goal.

  7. Alberg 9.5 . . . he legitimately should have gotten 4 yellows which is why Curtin had to pull him before the ref did.

    • Adam Cann says:

      @shane – lol! I can’t argue with that. Dude was definitely asking for a second yellow. No idea why he does that.

      • I think he is just overplaying. He hasn’t been getting the minutes he or most expected so he is likely coming on looking to make every play that comes his way to show he should be on the field more. Plus, when you are “feeling it” like he seems to be right now, you can find yourself trying to do more then you should.
        In any case, credit to Curtin for taking notice and protecting him with the sub.

      • azog d'filer says:

        Adjustment still needed. If you have watched the Dutch league, it’s pretty rough.

  8. That might have been the worst game Ive seen Blake play. He flapped at a few crosses and was tentative on others. He probably could have done better on at least one if not two of the goals. I’d give him a three. I would also boost Marquez a point. He was putting out fires that were not of his own making all night long. I also think Yaro needs to start if he’s fit. Especially with a more attack minded lineup on the field.

    • Blake is a little bit of a concern. Did he have a couple of bad games or is he regressing to the mean? I hope it is just a blip

      • Breathe easy. Everyone plays poorly from time to time. Coming back from international duty into a much different team with much different tendencies can cause a few hiccups. He’ll be fine.

      • Most important thing for a keeper is focus. With how many games Blake has been playing and the travel to play with the Reggie Boys I wonder if he is/was a little mentally exhausted.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        Which is why I don’t want to see him in the all star game. He could use the week off rather than having to travel cross country and back.

  9. wonder if we have to rest some key guys Saturday? I’ hope the Barnetta, Alberg, and llshino connection gels with Sapong. Is Sapong going to be ready?

    • I think there won’t be many players rested. Curtin showed us during that stretch leading up to the Copa break that he will ride the players playing well, regardless of clogged fixture list. The only wild card we get this time is the USOC game that looms after Vancouver. If the union are taking the cup as seriously as they have in years past, maybe we see a change. However, those seasons the union were looking to give us reasons to stick around till october. So I’d wager we see the usual suspects Saturday and a crop of backups against NYRB.

      • Earnie himself commented that he believes in having a consistent lineup. I could see maybe 2-3 changes – Ilsinho and/or Carroll rested and Gaddis on for either Rosenberry or Fabinho. If Sapong is 100% then maybe a 4th change for Herbers, anything less then 100% but cleared to play then maybe bring him on after an hour to work his way back.

      • If we are going to play backups it’s going to be the next game. No way they rest against an in conference team.

      • Not sure what match you’re referring to, A. Vancouver is not in conference, obviously. Red Bulls are, but it’s an Open Cup match not a league match, so “conference” doesn’t really matter there, either.

      • Totally blanked it was open cup vs the red bulls. duh. Although I bet Curtin values that game more than a non conference league game.

    • Sorry for my ignorance, but didn’t the team basically just get 14 days off?

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