Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 2-3 Vancouver Whitecaps

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union’s undefeated run at home is over. Despite comprehensively outplaying Vancouver for large portions of Saturday’s match, the Union were unable to convert opportunities. The Whitecaps, on the other hand, scored all of the real chances they had.

Normally, simply showing the visitors’ shot chart would be enough to calm fears about an extended Union slide. But with Vincent Nogueira gone, C.J. Sapong laid up, and Andre Blake leaving his cape with the Jamaican national team, there is a lot to suggest it’s time to get anxious.

Don’t.

(Not yet, at least.)

Don’t panic (still)

The Union were better than Vancouver. During the first 30 minutes, Philly was much better, and during the last 60 they were still better. And the home side’s biggest advantage came in the center of midfield.

Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Roland Alberg (and Fabian Herbers) were sensational during the opening half hour on Saturday. Alberg gives Philly a new type of central player, one who prefers to be on the fringes of play until it’s time to finish. Compared to his predecessors in the No. 10 role, Alberg spends much less time on the ball and has far less influence in build-up play. But when play enters the final third, he immediately looks to sneak into spaces behind defenders or duck into zones that have recently been abandoned. 

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It’s an interpretation of the attacking midfield role that Philadelphia hasn’t seen in quite some time. Cristian Maidana (and Vincent Nogueira when the Argentine was injured) were distributors first and scorers a distant second. Tranquillo Barnetta can score, but he preferred to drive play forward and then continue his runs, maintaining defensive attention the entire time and potentially freeing others.

Alberg is different. He may drift into the channels, but you will not find him making nice with the touchlines like Maidana. He may find a hole and run at the defense, but that’s not his main motivation like Barnetta. Alberg is like the wrestler in a royal rumble who waits until everyone else is tired and a bit dizzy before he shows up to finish it all off. His positioning is smart and intuitive, and both legs are rockets.

Early in Saturday’s match, Alberg was at the peak of his powers. He had four shots, a tackle, and a key pass within the first half hour. And he did it by reacting to the more stubborn styles of Barnetta and Ilsinho. The latter is nominally positioned on the right, but anyone who expects to see the Brazilian near the touchline will be sorely disappointed.

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Ilsinho attacks through the right channel, and rolls further toward the center quite often. Against Vancouver, Alberg started popping up in the gaps Ilsinho left behind, connecting entry passes to get Philly into the final third. Then he would pop up behind Barnetta’s runs through the box looking for a shot. It was the same plan the Dutchman executed so well against Chicago, though in that match he was more prone to appearing behind Pontius on the left.

European connection

The way Alberg’s game fits together with Fabian Herbers’ interpretation of the lone striker role should not be overlooked. C.J. Sapong occupies defenders by literally occupying their entire field of vision: He sets up in front of them, boxes them out, and only runs across in front of them toward the corners after setting the run up by checking in and taking shots in the back a few times.

Herbers, on the other hand, keeps defenders’ heads on a swivel. He still has a very heavy touch and a very light frame to play as a hold-up man, so he prefers to run across defenders early, which either forces center backs to run out of the middle or overloads one side of the pitch so fullbacks can’t step up to close down Fabinho and Rosenberry when they advance.

Though neither Sapong’s nor Herbers’s approach is necessarily better, each results in a different chessboard for the rest of the team to move on.

Sapong spends more time in the center, meaning runs have to come through the channels around him. There are copious clips this season of Barnetta driving into the final third while Sapong pins central defenders deep, forcing the defense to collapse centrally so Barnetta can play the ball wide for an eventual cross behind the defense.

Herbers leaves the center earlier, which means Barnetta or Alberg can slide into that zone when Ilsinho is on the ball. This fluidity has done great things for the Union’s offense specifically because Alberg has been so good about drifting into that abandoned central area and executing. The Union are averaging 2.67 goals/game in MLS since the Copa America break.

But there’s a catch

And it’s the obvious one.

With Sapong and Vincent Nogueira, the Union were far more likely to enter the offensive zone quickly, look to play the ball wide, and crash the box with a striker, a winger, Barnetta, and perhaps one more player. Union fans could delight in Nogueira even coming far enough up field to patrol the edge of the box for rebounds and second chances.

Add Ilsinho, Alberg, and Herbers, and Philly becomes far more interesting and creative in the final third, holding the ball, looking for give-and-goes to get behind the defense, and getting Keegan Rosenberry more involved up the wing.

All well and good until something goes wrong and, instead of Nogueira on the edge of the box with Carroll behind him to smother the counter, there is only Carroll. Chicago’s David Accam gliding past Carroll is memorable, but a bigger long-term issue for Philly was Nicolas Mezquida forcing the Union man to stay central on Kekuta Manneh’s goal for Vancouver.

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Joshua Yaro made the most obvious individual error on the goal (see above), but the counterattack was facilitated when Alberg took a throw-in (that he should not be taking) on the left (see below). After the throw-in, Alberg remained on the left, ostensibly as an outlet, but actually catching his breath. This meant Fabinho could not step into that space, but it also meant that Barnetta and Carroll were the only players in the center. Barnetta didn’t read this, and when he tried to attack the box on a give-and-go with Herbers, he left Carroll alone.

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The ball popped out to Pedro Morales, who just happens to be one of the best outlet passers in MLS. Nicolas Mezquida forced Carroll to hold the center, and Yaro didn’t close space on Manneh quickly enough to prevent the speed merchant from picking up a head of steam. (That is fine, because if he stepped sooner, Morales could look over the top. It was a difficult decision for the rookie.)

In short, the Union are in the midst of a transition in midfield. Barnetta still tends to think like an attacking midfielder when he has space in front of him, and Alberg still tends to act like attacking midfielders in the Netherlands who, as Marissa Pilla said during Saturday’s broadcast, run considerably less on average than those in MLS.

These problems may turn into systemic issues, but for now they are growing pains. And as painful as they may be for the defense, they have made the attack far more dynamic.

Individual errors

They’ll kill ya.

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Ray Gaddis’ missed tackle on R.J. Allen, Brian Carroll’s open field mistake that set off Jack Harrison, Richie Marquez’s poor control that Frank Lampard broke on. Ken Tribbett’s missed tackle on David Accam, two instances of bad set piece defense. Blake’s drop, Yaro’s spacing on Manneh. Almost every goal the Union have given up since the Copa break can be traced back to an individual mistake that was severely punished.

With the NYC match perhaps excepted, opponents have not created much else against the Union. Chicago did zilch. Vancouver only slightly more.

In short, the Union are still in control of their own destiny. They haven’t been found out, and they have actually created good chances just as well as they did prior to the Copa break.

So of course it will be nice to have a physical force like Sapong back in the lineup (even though he has only one goal in the past two months). Of course, Nogueira is a big loss (even though Alberg has replaced the Frenchman with a run of goals unlike any the Union midfield has ever produced). But the Union will be fine if they keep trust in their system.

They will be fine.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 4

The first one is obviously on him, but the other two are not. A fine save on Mezquida.

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Keegan Rosenberry – 5

Rosenberry was mid-run when Barnetta decided to go up the gut late in the second half. As a result, the rookie was well behind the play when Manneh broke toward goal. Unfortunate, but difficult to blame Rosenberry. There should be more offensive contribution, though that’s partially on Ilsinho for slowing the game down so often and looking central every time.

Joshua Yaro – 6

OK, this is a tough one. Yaro was beaten by Manneh in the open field, and he still seems uncomfortable and too upright when defending around the top of the box. (For such an athletic player, he needs to work on his defensive technique because his balance is limiting his agility on the turn.) But Jim Curtin was not just being kind when he said Yaro had a great match outside of the big error. Dude had four interceptions, three tackles, eight recoveries, and a trio of clearances. He also let the Union play a very high line and connected three of his four longer passes into midfield.

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Richie Marquez – 6

It’s a bit odd for the defenders to rate well when a team gives up three goals, but Marquez earned it. Though far less active than Yaro, he spent most of the game matched up with the physical specimen that is Erik Hurtado. The striker had no shots and rarely even had space to play a forward ball.

Fabinho – 5

Here’s the thing: Fabi was extremely involved but didn’t do much. A lot of the issues seemed to come out of his relationship with Sebastien Le Toux. The Frenchman played close to the endline, combining with Fabinho but rarely creating attacking chances. Fabi had one key pass but otherwise struggled with his delivery, sending the ball in before players could get into the box.

Brian Carroll – 8

Quick: Think of all the things you remember Brian Carroll doing on Saturday. OK, here’s his line: Six interceptions (two in the attacking half), four tackles (two in the attacking half), three recoveries, and a clearance. Also, he completed 100% of his passes, with a key pass. If there is any criticism that can be made of Carroll, it is that he stayed too close to the defense even when they held a high line. This is likely a function of BC overcompensating for Barnetta’s attacking, but it left a gap behind Barnetta that allowed Pedro Morales to relieve pressure too easily.

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Tranquillo Barnetta – 8

Absolutely everywhere and rarely stopped running. He made some mental mistakes that likely won’t reoccur as he adjusts to the deeper role. Philly needs to get on the end of his set pieces; they left him hanging on Saturday.

Roland Alberg – 7

Alberg was just excellent in the first half. He started centrally then drifted into the left channel to get away from Matias Laba and Pedro Morales. The Whitecaps holding midfielders were very reticent to leave the middle, and this allowed Alberg freedom to join the buildup play and then join attacks once Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Herbers had already created chaos. But the Dutchman very clearly ran out of gas after the hour mark. Not only was he much less of a factor defensively, but he couldn’t summon the energy to move out of the middle during passing moves, which meant he clogged up the center and didn’t provide the late arriving runs that he does so well.

Sebastien Le Toux – 5

Very effective on the wing early but only got below the box once after the first half hour. Good defensive work rate, as always.

Ilsinho – 6

One of the few players who grew into the game as it went on. Ilsinho found a pocket in the right channel and stuck with it. The Brazilian is still so desperate to get on the ball that he seems to need to pass it before he can move. He’ll be a far more effective contributor if he’s making more runs through the defense when Barnetta is driving forward.

Fabian Herbers – 7

Strong movement and a rocket shot (even if he needs to be able to pull the trigger quicker), Herbers has grown more comfortable with his back to goal, but he is still far too loose with his first touch in tight spaces. Combine Herbers and Sapong, and you have an unstoppable MLS force.

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Substitutes

Chris Pontius – 7

Two shots (though the second was a tap-in) and a key pass in 25 minutes isn’t bad. He took the space Alberg occupied in the first half, but was faced with the defensive and athletic Teibert-Laba pivot.

Walter Restrepo – 6

Like Danny Cruz with a bit more control, Restrepo offers a winger’s mindset and a lot of pace. He was a constant threat, but with Herbers instead of Sapong and a tired Alberg in the box, it was hard for him to make an impact.

Leo Fernandes – 7

Possibly Leo’s best substitute performance of the season. Won two headers, including a great one off a corner that Pontius finished for the second goal.

Geiger counter – 4

Armando Villareal somehow avoided calling Tim Parker for five fouls and a card in the first half. Vancouver had twice as many fouls as the Union yet the same number of cards.

23 Comments

  1. I know there are many wise football people who think goals are overrated. I see their point.
    I know there are many supporters who like the way this team has been playing lately. I am one of them.
    Still.
    The ratings for the people whose primary responsibility on the field is to keep the ball out of the net have been entirely too high for the last two matches.
    Please get everyone off the scale and hit the ‘TARE’ button.
    Thank you.

  2. Most of Alberg’s goals have been poacher-type stuff, or clean-ups from shots off the post, etc. So here’s a guy who doesn’t contribute that much to build-up play, gets winded if he runs overmuch, but has a wicked shot. I wonder if we should be playing him in the forward role, at least until Sapong gets healthy. He would basically function as a false 9. Then you put Ilsinho at CAM and Le Toux and Pontius on the wings (with Barnetta in the box-to-box role that he’s learning, until Edu comes back).

    • disagree about Alberg, believe he creates a fair amount of danger, but appreciate the word “overmuch” thanks for that

    • I appreciate the idea, brainstorming is virtually always good. But I’ll have to disagree with alberg as a false 9. I think a huge bit of what makes him effective right now is herbers ability to move off the ball, drag defenders and ultimately make space. He sees the space and takes it better than anyone we’ve had at the 10. Ever. Barnetta included. His “poaching” is a direct result of intelligent movement. I think if you move him forward, you’re relying on him to be the “decoy” runner if you will and that’s something he’s not terribly interested in.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        – second level thinking…. this is why IMO I like Herbers game better with this lineup. Well said.
        .
        Union are clearly winning the space battle on attack.

      • Completely agree.
        .
        This is chess, not checkers and Herbers makes things happen.
        .
        Also, Le Toux as a starter is now a step backwards for this team.
        .
        In baseball, a relief pitcher is usually in that role because he can throw one or two pitches well enough to get a batter out ONE time, but doesn’t have the full complement of tools to be an effective against a batter MORE than one time (as a starter must be able to do).
        .
        On this 2016 squad, Le Toux is now a reliever.

    • Ilsinho thrives at cutting in off of the right wing and carving up defenders one v. one. A central playmaker he is not. Unless you want to go back to the Maidana paradigm.

  3. Hope Blake watched Buffon just now and how he punches the ball away on corners. He only catches the ball when he is 100% certain that he can catch it. Otherwise Blake has the ability to become as immortal as Buffon.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Less precise distribution.
      .
      To what degree did the time with Jamaica perhaps mute Blake’s communication to his defenders. Jamaica’s defenders were much more experienced and play in leagues more prominent that MLS and the Union’s 2 rookies and 1 second year man?

  4. John Ling says:

    Somewhat related, and I’ve been meaning to say this for a while this season…
    .
    Alisha Rice – the gal who sings the anthem: Great voice, good singer (who needs some coaching to work on her breathing), but… Damn, I feel like a dick saying so… I wish they’d stop using her for the national anthem. She’s bad at it, at least in my opinion.
    .
    But I’ll offer up a compromise the Union. They want us to sing along with her, but it’s really difficult to do because of her pace, particularly the way she draws out certain words. Want us to sing along? Play the music along with Ms. Rice. It’ll keep her on a better pace, and will allow everybody to join in since the music will set the tempo to follow.
    .
    .
    Now back to your regularly scheduled Union dissection…

    • Andy Muenz says:

      I missed the game (my subordinate at work picked Saturday night to get married). I’m curious if she sang Oh, Canada as well?

      • John Ling says:

        No, she didn’t.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        And we were – for the first time in my 7 years attending – NOT invited to sing along. And the lyrics did not scroll on the electronic media in the stadium.
        .
        She has a gorgeous voice. To my taste, which is individual and personal, I wish she had had more traditional, classical voice training.
        .
        The best National Anthem IMO I ever heard was Robert Merrill at Shea Stadium in 1969 before game three of the World Series. There is no substitute for an opera singer.
        .
        The only competition to Merrill in National anthems was when the Soviet national basketball team played Bob Knight’s Hoosiers at Assembly Hall in Bloomington during the Cold War. IU got a professor of Music to sing the Soviet Anthem in Russian. In spite of the latent animosity inherent in the situation, the presentation was gorgeous and the gesture of respect was made with class. It was obvious that the Soviet players were pleased. And then IU beat he crap out of them on the court, containment through soft power.

  5. Belinda Lukens says:

    I agree with you completely John with regards to the national anthem! I am a retired professional singer and I told them the same thing . I miss the crowd being able to sing the national anthem!

  6. Robert Lukens says:

    I agree with you completely John with regards to the national anthem!

  7. BBQSoccer says:

    Totally disagree on BC. His lack of pace showed and it put others in bad situations for much of the night. His soccer IQ helps and he’s been better this season, but I don’t think Vancouver was one of his finest.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Barnetta plays vertically and leaves BC exposed.
      .
      When I saw BC starting I assumed they were protecting Creavalle’s groin, because creavalle’s range has a better chance to cover Barnetta’s forward driving tendencies.

      • All of this just makes me wish for Edu to be healthy ASAP. But for my two cents, Creavalle has been terrible in possession recently. I will take Carol’s football IQ any day.

  8. The crowd singing the anthem was hands down one of the best traditions in sports. I am so bummed out. I do like Alisha’s voice though. Girl has some pipes.

    • John Ling says:

      Agreed. I don’t want to take anything away from her, talent-wise. She needs to clean up her breathing a bit – something a coach could help her with. (For example, listen next time. She’ll effectively sing, “Hhhand the home of the brave!” because you can hear her inhaling right before the line, which makes a sound similar to the letter H.) It’s small-potatoes stuff. Her range is fantastic, and she does put emotion into the song – something I generally like.
      .
      Just… pick up the pace. Singing along to pre-recorded music would help that, and would also help the crowd sing along, since everybody would have the musical clues about when any given line starts or ends.

      • I think everyone can appreciate that the new Union FO is trying to improve it’s relationship with Chester and having Miss Rice (a Chester resident) sing the anthem is a step in that direction. She’s terrifc and I enjoy listening to her as is.
        .
        Have to agree though, it would be even better if she could sing anthem at a pace that is “crowd friendly” rather than “individual performance”.

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