The Union miss everyone, and no one

Photo: Earl Gardner

Vincent Nogueira left Philadelphia Union after the team’s 3-2 win over Harrisburg City Islanders in the US Open Cup. The suddenness of the French midfielder’s departure makes it easy to forget that he had only played 70 MLS minutes since the Union’s May 14 draw with Montreal Impact. Though Nogueira was unquestionably a key cog in Philly’s midfield, the team knew how to operate without him, collecting five (extremely) tough points in the three matches he missed through injury in May.

Nogueira returned to the lineup the same day C.J. Sapong picked up the ankle knock that has kept him out of the last three matches. Prior to his injury, Sapong had played an absurd 1237 of 1245 possible MLS minutes in 2016 (and he had missed one single minute of action since the opening match of the season).

With Sapong and Nogueira both missing, Philly has struggled to rediscover their pre-Copa America form. In three matches, they have allowed nine goals, collecting a mere three points against a trio of inconsistent opponents.

This sort of streak needs a narrative, so let’s start with the most popular one: The Union miss Vincent Nogueira.  

Missing Nogueira

Simple and straightforward. Philly’s midfield featured a direct, active, attacking midfielder and a solid, stay-at-home holding player, and Nogueira was the perfect keystone to balance everything out. With Brian Carroll protecting the back line and Tranquillo Barnetta driving the team forward, Nogueira brought wide players into the game, helped hold possession, and slowed down counterattacks.

All true! No complaints there, right? Well, except that it doesn’t really explain what has happened since Nogueira left. The team has given up more goals, sure, but how many would Nogueira have really prevented? The two goals off central defensive turnovers? The four set piece goals? Jack Harrison’s driving run or Christian Bolanos’ late deflected goal? Perhaps the only goal that Nogueira could have had a hand in stopping was Kekuta Manneh’s sensational run, which came after two of Philly’s central midfielders abandoned the middle zone at the same time.

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Add to all this that Nogueira’s replacement has been at the center of almost everything good about the Union’s attack and this narrative is a lot less appealing.

So, of course, a new narrative must be found:

Well, we just said “what we will” about Nogueira, and this story sounds fairly logical on the surface, so let’s check it out.

Missing Sapong

CJ Sapong is another one of those players that fills a niche in the Union’s system extremely well, but, like Nogueira, is likely not irreplaceable. So what is the actual argument for why the Union really miss Sapong?

Having played almost all the minutes he could have played, Sapong is tied for the team’s scoring lead this year. More importantly, he is indisputably the spearhead of the defense. A lot of what the Union defensively is based on is team pressure, which means pressing center backs so they have to look long, and cutting off switches so teams can only use one side of the field. Sapong is as good as any striker in MLS at these defensive activities; he wears out defenders when Philly has the ball and he harries them relentlessly when the team is out of possession.

Against NYC FC, it was clear the Union missed Sapong’s pressing, as rookie Fabian Herbers often over pursued when the home side spread the center backs apart, taking himself out of play.

But in the past two matches, Herbers has been a much more efficient and intelligent defensive presence. He cannot hope to replicate the speed and power of Sapong, but there is little evidence that teams are building out of the back more effectively than they were earlier in the season. Central defenders are still struggling to connect long passes against Philly’s well-organized defense.

Additionally, there’s this: Sapong’s contributions had been waning prior to his injury. Including the Columbus match, over the previous five matches he was averaging just one shot per game, and he had only two shots on goal during that span. Though the Union’s front man was still putting in the defensive miles, the physical battles were clearly taking their toll.

Through three games as a starter, Herbers has three shots, and one on frame (the shot that led to Alberg’s goal against Chicago; the deflected shot off the joint against Vancouver was not counted as a shot on goal). He also has an assist, giving him and Sapong the same number on the season.

To be clear, the argument here is not that there is nothing lost when Herbers starts over Sapong. What the Union lose with Sapong is likely more defensive than offensive, however — and this points to the real narrative of the past three games — the nine goals given up since the Copa break have little to do with Sapong’s absence. 

Missing… luck?

The real narrative of the past three matches is that Philly has started nothing but kids and a mercurial Brazilian across the back, a rookie striker taken outside of the top five (over the past six years, only Deshorn Brown, Tesho Akindele, Will Bruin, and Sapong have contributed in a meaningful way in the first season), and a first-year midfielder for three matches. During that time, the team only missed going undefeated because of they forgot how to defend off their own set pieces in New York, flat out didn’t defend set pieces against Chicago, and were punished by Vancouver on literally every shot from a good area except Blas Perez’s blocked effort.

The narrative is that, despite a key injury and a key departure that necessitated the team’s best player switching positions, Philadelphia’s defense remains largely unimpeachable. The goals have come almost entirely off set pieces and individual errors, not anything systematic.

It is not time to worry.

It’s time to see if Josh Yaro really does learn from his mistake (a mistake that still required an exquisitely placed finish from a player not known for such a skill).

It’s time to see if Tranquillo Barnetta can restrain his runs when Roland Alberg leaves the center, and if Alberg can recognize when he needs to cover.

The Union absolutely miss Nogueira’s awareness and positioning. And it is certain they will welcome back Sapong’s defensive and aerial work up top. But they have also been far more dynamic offensively over the past three matches. Without Nogueira. And without Sapong.

The Union have scored well-built goals and attacked the box with creative, short passing. They have scored 2.67 goals per game after averaging 1.5 per match (both with and without Nogueira) over the rest of the season.

The most accurate narrative is twofold:

  1. The Union miss their key players, but without those players the offense has evolved, and even thrived.
  2. The team is getting punished for individual mistakes and very correctable set-piece defending at the same time. 

One of those narratives portends good things. There’s little evidence the other will last.


  1. James Lockerbie says:

    Yes,yes, and Yes again !

  2. The Union were recipients of good fortune early in the season. This latest scretch is evening that out a bit. The Union are in the top half of the East but are they the best. I’m not sure.

  3. Appreciate this all being put into perspective but i’m not quite ready to jump on the “who needed Nogs anyway” bandwagon just yet…

  4. Zizouisgod says:

    Great points, but also needs to be said, Blake has not been playing well when compared to his superhuman efforts prior to the pre-Copa break.

  5. Depth.
    The Union lost a very good player, and he has not been replaced.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    I believe the mistakes being made lately are correctable… unlike teams of Union past.
    Sure we are missing a few key players, and sure there has to be some fatigue from so many games in a short time, but this team is pretty good, and if Blake gets his head right again, we will be even better.

    • pragmatist says:

      Not to mention CJ coming back, Barnetta learning a new position, and Ilsinho and Alberg getting match-fit.
      There is more talent on this roster than at any point in the organization’s history. There is also a highly-skilled GM at the helm. There is a coach that has pulled the right strings for his lineups, for the most part. (I concede the Jim may be a weak link, but you can’t deny he’s improved greatly since he started.)
      We said before the season, and mostly throughout so far, that this was a rebuilding year. They are still in that process, despite the smoke-and-mirrors of the early success.
      Everyone take a deep breath. There is a summer window, then hopefully a fun a playoff run of some sort, then a much more important winter window.
      I’m still looking more forward to what next year will bring, while still enjoying this ride.

      • Good point.
        This was supposed to be a “rebuilding year” finally with a full infrastructure (training fields, training building, USL team) and with a solid front office (Stewart, sports science and data staff). The team has exceeded exceptions so far but it was only a matter of time before some hiccups came around.
        The future is very bright – Blake is 25, Marquez 24, Yaro 21, Rosenberry 22, Gaddis only 26, Alberg 25, have not even seen Ayuk yet this year at 19, Creavalle 25, Herbers 22, CJ 27, Pontius 29….solid core of young players to build on while players like Barnetta, Ilsinho, Edu, and others all contributing in the more short term.

  7. Lucky Striker says:

    Lost 2 of last 3, and gave up 9 goals for a coach who said he was “on schedule” to finish the year giving up 1 per game.

    You call that coping?

    • scottymac says:

      So the narrative is now,”Remain Calm, nothing to see here.”

      Let’s see how that works out tomorrow night against RBNY. Also to be said, those weren’t exactly the best of MLS that were capitalizing on “correctable mistakes”. Beating a Chicago team who hasn’t won on the road but almost gifting it away isn’t a reason to gloss over the issues.

      As far as the “irreplaceable” tag, of course everyone can be replaced. The issue is, when will they be replaced? Striker depth didn’t sneak up on us, that was identified in the preseason. Now apparently we’re told not to rely on Herbers because he was the 6th pick.

      I think this is an overreaction to the loss overreaction. The reality is the U may drop a few spots but are still a playoff team, which would meet/exceed damn near everyone’s expectations of this team and Curtin’s leadership.

  8. el Pachyderm says:

    My position has been argued recently.
    I concur with most this article.

  9. Rosenberry may need to track back sooner and more often to help Carroll if Alberg is in tbe box. If we score lime this, the 1 goal against average can suffer.

  10. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Before the Copa break, am I not correct that four points separated 1st in the East from Eighth in the east?
    We are in the hunt.

  11. Missing CJs holdup play is huge. Herbers isn’t strong enough to hold up or fast enough to threaten over the top. So offensively we throw numbers forward from the start and are left w/ maybe 3 in the back on counters.
    And Barnetta is no #8. As Adam mentions, we were winning w/ 2 Dmid-type players before Nogueira left. I like Marquez, but he’s not organized enough to play with only Carroll in front of him.

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