A View from Afar

So that’s how you replace Vincent Nogueira

Photo: Paul Rudderow

So that’s how you replace Vincent Nogueira.

A week after Nogueira’s sudden, shocking and still somewhat mysterious departure from Philadelphia Union, Roland Alberg has become an attacking monster, scoring six goals in three games over the last week.

On Wednesday night, Alberg netted his first career hat trick. Lest you snicker that one of them was a penalty kick, recall that the own goal against Chicago came off a screamer from Alberg that could have easily been credited to him. He put six of seven shots on goal, forced Chicago’s Sean Johnson into at least one excellent save, and nearly scored on a spectacular side volley that went just wide of goal. If that’s not enough, he completed 38 of 40 passes and recorded two key passes.

Some time on the bench seems to have woken Alberg up. Suddenly, he looks like an outright superstar.

Mind you, not that there aren’t plenty of caveats there, notably:

  1. Chicago is not a good team.
  2. Alberg remains dangerously undisciplined on defense. A messy second half tackle could have easily resulted in a second yellow card and prompted Union head coach Jim Curtin to smartly substitute him.

Still, Alberg suddenly looks every bit the player that Union fans hoped they were getting when he signed this offseason.

Unsung hero: Tranquillo Barnetta and yet another new position

Many expected that Alberg would replace Nogueira in the starting lineup Wednesday after two straight solid games, but the expectation was probably that Alberg would play the No. 8 box-to-box role that Nogueira did. That may not be a position Alberg has historically played, but the Union don’t have another healthy No. 8 on the roster, so it seemed logical.

Instead, Alberg moved into the No. 10 central attacking midfielder role, and Tranquillo Barnetta slid into Nogueira’s spot, as he did in the second half of last weekend’s loss to New York City FC. In possession, Barnetta played deeper than Alberg. On defense, he was part of a midfield line of four across, while Alberg played up top with striker Fabian Herbers.

Barnetta produced a pretty good first outing in the No. 8 role. He completed 59 of 69 passes on the night. No other Union player attempted more than 47 passes. Additionally, he made an absolutely perfect run, one-touch pass and continued run into the box that led to Alberg’s second goal.

Barnetta spent much of his career as a winger and really only moved full-time to a central attacking role this season. He has still been evolving in that role, and a move back to the No. 8 spot may ask even more that he is not ready for yet. It’s worth noting that Chicago won the possession battle, and that mattered as the game wound down, as Chicago narrowed a 4-1 gap to 4-3 with two goals in the final 35 minutes. Few players in MLS can help a team maintain possession like Nogueira could, and expecting that sort of transition in mindset from Barnetta so quickly is a big ask.

The Union still need to add depth at the No. 8 role. They have no natural in the role who is currently healthy, and they have no backup. Going forward, the Union have to find ways to get Barnetta and Alberg on the field together, and this looks best so far. Barnetta will probably continue in the No. 8 spot for the foreseeable future, even if it’s not his ideal role.

We’ll see if that bothers him in the way that playing center back clearly didn’t appeal to Maurice Edu. Here’s a bet that Barnetta takes to it. That’s what team leaders do, and Barnetta looks more and more like the most significant and positive team leader this roster has seen since Danny Califf wore the blue and gold.

Nogueira: A player in a class of his own
Photo by Earl Gardner

Classic Nogueira. (Photo: Earl Gardner)

A note on Vincent Nogueira before we close:

Nogueira departs MLS as a player like no other the Union have ever seen. Simply put, he may be the best player to ever wear the blue and gold. (The current roster has a few who may challenge that claim over the next few years though.) Certainly, Nogueira was one of their most enjoyable players to watch. Since the day he arrived in 2014, he was the engine that drove everything in the Union attack. This year, he showed what he can do when surrounded by higher quality teammates and how he could elevate the team from pretty good to excellent. He will not be easy to replace, and the Union will not be the same team without him. He is — was — their most valuable player.

A few classic images define Nogueira:

  1. The Nogueira circle, in which he collects the ball in traffic and then gets low to the ground, dribbles in a circle, frees himself from the defensive pressure, and sets up the offense.
  2. Nogueira effortlessly switching fields and dropping the pass perfectly on the foot of the teammate he aimed for.
  3. Nogueira throwing his hands up in the air in exasperation when his teammates wouldn’t get open. (We haven’t seen this much in 2016.)
  4. Nogueira looking small, quiet and reserved.

The Union have lost a player who was not merely unique to Philadelphia, but to American soccer as a whole. Let’s hope we see him on a soccer field sometime soon, whether in France or elsewhere, with a ball at his feet, a smile on his face and contentment in his soul.


  1. Nogs leaving was like a gut punch. Loss of breath. Seeing stars (thought not the one that left). I can honestly say I was a miserable S.O.B. for the past week. Then the Alberg show started and a bit of joy and relief has come my way.
    Nogs, you will be missed. May your days get brighter and your smile return. You will not be forgotten. Thank you for your service.

  2. I cannot help wondering what the hell prompted this. Based upon the chatter, it seems it actually was a health issue, and his, not a family member’s, and he said that it was not life-threatening and that he would play soccer again. And yet, it is big enough that he presumably needs family support, for long enough that he terminated his contract instead of going on leave, and it seems he made this decision quite suddenly. The two ideas I have are:

    1) Addiction — That requires a long-term treatment, and you’d want to be as culturally comfortable as possible, perhaps. The league has treatment policies and resources, of course (as we know from Sapong’s experience), but maybe he didn’t want to use them.

    2) Testicular cancer — This would require a significant course of treatment, and might qualify as “non-life threatening” if you stretch it a bit, since certain kinds of testicular cancer, occurring in young men, have a very high cure rate. Still not sure why he would break his contract altogether as opposed to going on leave. Maybe he just got the biopsy result from his doctor, and had a strong gut reaction that he needed to be back home for a while??

    Anybody got any other ideas? I mean, I love Vince, and I really wish him the best. In fact, I harbor some faint hope that maybe someday we’ll see him back in Blue and Gold. But for something this sudden, and shocking, for a player who was so important, I feel justified in trying to search for some answers.

    • John Ling says:

      My assumption has been some sort of mental health issue, such as depression.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        I wrote and scrapped an entire column focusing on what I think prompted it, because it’s based upon speculation and that doesn’t deserve an entire column. That said, if you read between the lines, I also think it is mental illness, probably depression but possibly something else.

      • Dan i’m sure i and others here and in the fan base would greatly appreciate a “Vince’s top 10 moments as a Union player” post. Any chance on that happening? I’m guessing not since i haven’t seen one yet…

      • I assumed depression as well. Think about his public face when he was on this team – always looked bitterly unhappy. I think he was just really, really homesick.

      • John Ling says:

        Yeah, but people with depression can look “happy on the outside” while they’re feeling utterly miserable on the inside. So I’m not so sure that’s a good indicator.
        For me, I remember an interview he gave shortly after signing with us. And while I can’t even remember enough of it to paraphrase for you, it came to mind shortly after hearing the news. And in that case, “homesickness” could most definitely contribute to making him feel even worse.
        As someone who has dealt with depression, I can say that it can be absolutely soul-crushing and mind-numbing.
        Whatever the case, though, he has essentially asked for the details to be kept private. Regardless of the actual condition, I’m glad it’s not life-threatening and wish Vincent the best. I hope Stewart’s right when he says he’ll play again. I’d love it to be here, of course, but anywhere would be great. He is, as best as I can tell, a class act.

    • HIV?? Pure speculation, but that would check all of the boxes.

    • Can’t say I blame you or anyone else for searching for answers in a situation that is downright confusing and stunning; but, we should be careful with the speculation. Vince has earned our respect with the way he played in his years with us and I’d say its on us to show him that respect for his privacy now in his moment of struggle, whatever it may be. Anything we say is just rumor and all it takes is one misguided person to spread it like wildfire.

      • Well said. Glad someone is tasteful.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Well said. This was actually the rationale for not running a full column on this matter. I think it’s fair for folks to chat about it here in the Comments section, as long as they exercise some common sense and restraint about it.

      • You have more faith in people than I do. I’d say that faith was let down. Vince deserves better than rumor and innuendo.

      • Gonzhao, I’m not going to spread wild rumors without basis — I’m speculating, and it’s pure speculation, and I advertise it as such. But I’m a die-hard fan of this team, and have been from their first home game, and that means I CARE A LOT. If you had a 6+ year relationship, and your partner suddenly broke it off, with no warning, you’d be entitled to some explanation of what went wrong. I’m not even insisting on getting a fuller explanation from the Union — I will respect Vincent’s privacy, as I respect the guy enormously — but ain’t nobody gonna stop me from wondering what the hell happened so I can make some sense of it, and that includes discussing it here.

      • Ah entitlement. The crux of your problem. You are only entitled to two things in life. Death and taxes. Get this straight soon. No one owes you anything.

    • Of the explanations given here, I don’t buy HIV, because that’s actually a chronic condition. Anyone who has that needs to be on medication for life. It’s like diabetes or high blood pressure. Even if he got a diagnosis, and it was a shock, and you needed some time off to cope, it doesn’t make sense that you’d break your contract altogether.

      I guess maybe the combo of depression and homesickness is most likely. I suppose that would explain “I need to leave and don’t plan on me coming back”. We’ll miss him a lot in any case.

  3. Hard to argue.
    Asked the manager for a creative solution to the problem that did not involve sending C + C Music Factory out there every game and it seems he has landed on one. Hope it stays and is tinkered with on an individual or in game basis, but this is the core group going forward and once Edu is healthy Carroll is on the bench… .
    I get it other teams score against you, but if you make a habit of scoring more– who cares… and it is much more visually appealing… not to mention Edu can cover twice the ground Carroll can.
    — little moving triangles every where on the field….Barnetta, Ilsinho and Alberg, Rosenberry, Herbers make are vastly better. Is there even a discussion?
    Regarding Vincent Noguiera. 100%. Class of the Union. Though Kleberson, I’m sure would have staked a claim to this had he seen the field — which is among the most head scratching of, That’s so Union history.

    • Edu will be a big help when he comes back. At this point though, Creavalle needs to be the 6 or we are doomed, unless we play a team with big slow attackers. We just need to speed back there to cover at least until Barnetta gets used to be at the 8.

    • pragmatist says:

      Keep in mind that this is a manager who famously said he was happy with 1-0 games. So for him to manage a roster that is more suited to the soocer equivalent of PAC-10 football (all “O” no “D”) is an adjustment. And it appears that he has accepted it rather well.
      We won’t be able to confirm until we see that lineup for a string of games. And I’m concerned still about Ilsinho’s fitness. But as of now, I’ll remain optimistic that we have found the XI to hold down the fort until we get even more skills and athleticism in the midfield in about a month.

    • if Hackworth were managing this squad, we’d never see Ilsinho that’s for sure

    • If Alberg & Ilsinho were not match fit, we have NYRB 4 days after the Caps. If CJ can go Saturday, maybe neither starts and last night’s XI is also Wednesday’s. Better to win in conference. Now is when JC’s roster management acumen will be on full display.

  4. I agree that Nogueira was, to date, the best to wear the crest. I think we should all stop speculating and give the guy the privacy that he seems to want, and clearly deserves. I hope to see him play again.
    Lots of us have been screaming for Alberg to get real minutes and it feels good that our suspicions were correct: guy can ball. Really intriguing now to see what Curtin does with great options that don’t quite fit together: Ilsinho, Barnetta, Alberg, and Edu all have the quality to be on the field, but really hard to see them blending well. I’d hate to see it, but maybe a trade for a big time goal scorer could make a deep run in the playoffs even more likely?

  5. Articles like this one remind me how much i am still reeling from the news from almost exactly one week ago today 🙁 I’m hoping beyond hope that there will be SOME kind of farewell tribute to Nogs this Saturday, at best coordinated between the F/O and the Sons of Ben. Perhaps one of the Union’s first class, in-house videos? Nothing too fancy- just to say Thank You and Best of Luck… 🙁

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    I wrote this in another post about Nogs leaving, so I thought I’d drop it again: That absolute screamer of a half volley goal, at home a few years back, is still picking up steam. By far the best goal I have ever witnessed live and in person.
    Awesome player, and maybe the soccer-gods (who are doing their fair share currently smiling on our club) will smile a little more and we’ll see him again in a Union shirt one day.

    • I’m just SO freakin’ grateful i was not only able to see his last goal this season and his last game for us but i was able to meet him multiple times, shake his hand, talk to him, make him smile when i showed him my jersey (his jersey) with my photo on his number, on and on. Hoping only the best for him and to see him again… 🙁

  7. HopkinsMD says:

    Dan, I was surprised by the emotion I felt as I read the four classic Nogueira images and the last paragraph. Beautifully distilled and expressed.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Thanks for sharing that. That’s really good to hear. I really wanted to write a column just on Nogueira, but it was hard to do without going too deeply into (my aforementioned) speculation about what caused him to leave. He was probably my favorite Union player to watch, for reasons beyond just his play on the field.

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