Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Houston Dynamo 1-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia Union rolled into Houston without any strikers, and they rolled out without any points. Though a full coterie of goalscorers couldn’t have prevented Cristian Maidana’s sensational game-winner, at least one would have opened the game up for Philly in a way that made it winnable. With Roland Alberg up top, the Union attack was about as exciting as Independence Day 2, and it made about as much sense.

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False false nine

A false nine, like many nonfalse numbers used to describe soccer tactics (e.g., 4-3-3; “number 10 role”; five-man midfield), tells us a lot less about the tactics supporting it than we would like. The false nine introduced by Pep Guardiola leaned rather heavily on the psychological burden that Lionel Messi places on defenders. The ball tends to be the strongest gravitational force on a soccer pitch, with defenses collapsing toward it. Messi is one of the few players that can exert a similar pull on a defense simply by moving around.

When Guardiola asked Messi to play in a striker’s role, what he really meant was that Messi should hang out near the center backs then pull out into spaces a typical striker wouldn’t take up. A defense cannot simply let Messi run free, so this movement disrupted organization. Guardiola then had a bevy of tactically brilliant midfielders on hand to slip forward into the dangerous zone the defense was no longer properly protecting. As Jonathan Wilson points out, Messi is the prototype because nobody else consistently draws the eyes of a defense like the best soccer player ever. Neymar, who is a great mover off the ball, wasn’t nearly as effective.

Messi is somewhat singular then, but the false nine label evolved to fit the role Cesc Fabregas played with both Spain and Barcelona, and the role that Francesco Totti played for Luciano Spalletti’s 2007 Roma side. In both cases, the player ostensibly furthest forward rarely moved up enough to directly interact with central defenders. The aim was to give those defenders something of an existential crisis: There’s nobody here, what I am doing here? In the meantime, Totti and Fabregas were in midfield giving their teams extra numbers so any midfielder who saw a gap could dart forward to start an attack, or multiple midfielders could flow through at once as the ball advanced on the wing. Central defenders then had to find their marks while retreating, which adds a fun little bit of complexity that Jim Curtin or any other defender will tell you is rarely appreciated.

This latter version of the false nine might be better described as a 4-6-0 formation. Messi gave the impression of taking up a No. 9 role but vacated the role at the exact moment defenders expected him to look for the ball. Fabregas and Totti never pretended to be a striker once the ball was put in play, almost immediately dropping so deep that the back four was hesitant to follow.

Roland Alberg tried to split the difference between the two roles on Saturday, and the result was… a somewhat traditional, but too-often ineffective, number nine.

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To be fair, it didn’t start out that way. Within the first 12 minutes, Alberg had twice stretched the Houston defense long with good early runs, and he occasionally checked deep enough that Tranquillo Barnetta could move over top of him into open space.

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But as the match progressed, Alberg fell into a midfielder’s habits, checking deep so early that all the Dynamo had to do to keep shape was… nothing at all. Defenders maintained their zones, and Alberg joined Ilsinho and Barnetta as a trio of kids in timeout who could hear Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle playing with the ball on the other side of a big orange wall, but couldn’t join in the game.

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Essentially, Philly needed Alberg to achieve one of two ends. First, he could open space in midfield with deep, diagonal runs across defenders. Early on, Alberg did this effectively and the Union looked to play him into corners.

Second, Alberg could provide an additional passing option in midfield to help break down Houston’s excellent zonal defense scheme. The Dutchman never did this well, dropping in so early that it simply allowed the back line to squeeze closer to Warner, extinguishing space and leaving no Union players to run over top of the defense.

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Fault should not fall purely on Alberg, though. The Union failed to come up with or execute a strategy to do the one thing that made the Dynamo defense crumble against Portland: Move Collen Warner out of position.

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The 4-1-4-1

If you watched Collen Warner on Saturday, you might wonder how he has had such a journeyman career. When the game is in front of him, Warner is magisterial directing a midfield, supporting the two players ahead of him at perfect angles and maintaining good spacing between himself and the backline. The catch is that once you get Warner on the move, he tends to get tunnel vision and fall into rash challenges. In the video below, you can see how chaotic Houston’s defense became the one time Philly successfully got behind Warner and broke forward.

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A week ago, Caleb Porter and Diego Valeri spent about fifty minutes trying to solve the Warner puzzle before Valeri started abandoning the middle entirely and Porter smartly responded by adding a second striker in the center. Warner, then, was in two minds. If he didn’t follow Valeri, it forced Alex or Ricardo Clark to track wide, which left space in the middle and blunted Houston’s counterattack. If he did follow Valeri, Portland would pick out longer passes into the feet of a striker playing in the hole between the Dynamo’s midfield and defense. Houston’s 2-0 lead vanished into a 3-2 loss (though the third goal came off a call every bit as bad as Joshua Yaro’s red card).

Below, you can see Brian Carroll hesitant to take the space granted him, and the inverted central triangle that provides the foundation of the Dynamo defense.

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Even when the Union moved the ball quickly side to side, they were too conservative about carrying it forward, and once they had it out wide, Warner had already moved across to protect the back line (see that inverted triangle form again at the end of the video?)

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The Union never moved Warner around, or even forced him to make difficult decisions. Tranquillo Barnetta ran off of Warner, but never wide enough to make the Houston man question his positioning. And while Ilsinho and Alberg popped up in central areas, they never crossed Warner’s vision, and all too often were inaccessible through the center. Thus, Philly’s main routes forward were up the wings, and they were often outplayed in those areas all night. Below, you can see that Houston doesn’t rotate well when Warner is pulled forward, following Barnetta. If Barnetta takes Warner anywhere except where he actually takes him, there is a massive hole in midfield for Rosenberry to find Ilsinho.

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A final issue that granted Houston control of midfield was the disconnect between the Union’s holding midfielders and their attacking players. Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle, playing in a typical road formation, were often on the same horizontal plane, passing the ball in front of Houston’s midfield as Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Alberg danced behind it. With Warner sweeping the midfield, the angled passes through the center were unavailable. To open up the center, then, somebody had to be willing to advance the ball at the defense, draw defenders, then find the open man.

At times, Joshua Yaro took this this responsibility on himself. The rookie defender strode forward with the ball and bravely played passes into Warren Creavalle’s feet. Creavalle, who was likely tasked with being that link between deeper positions and the attacking players, had a rough night. He was too slow to play the ball once it came in and the Dynamo defense was quick to collapse on him (in fairness, Carroll’s hesitancy to move forward also meant Creavalle could only go backward with the ball when a square pass would have opened up routes forward).

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Philly didn’t help themselves by dropping Carroll into defense to work the ball around the back. This time-tested tactic for escaping midfield pressure is only effective if it leads the defense to question its shape. When Carroll dropped deep, however, Richie Marquez and Yaro also stayed deep, meaning Philly was essentially passing the ball across a three-man back line that was ten or more yards behind the rest of the team. Passes out of the back, then, invited pressure on the receiver and did nothing to disrupt Houston’s organization.

When a midfielder drops deep as a central pivot, the central defenders must either take up slightly higher positions or be willing to advance the ball with their feet. When Will Bruin closed down Carroll, the ball would move to Marquez, who played it wide to a tightly marked Fabinho instead of moving it forward. As a result, Ricardo Clark was never pulled out of position, and Fabinho never had an open, angled lane to find Barnetta or Alberg.

None of this would be too concerning if the Union were aiming for a road point against a top quality opponent. Particularly early in the match, Philly controlled possession and was fairly untroubled by the Dynamo’s counterattacks. But in a worst versus first game, the Union needed to do more to maintain pressure on Houston’s defense and create scoring chances.

Dynamo dynamics

For all of Philly’s offensive struggles, they were solid in almost every area defensively. The two trouble spots were down the Union right and communication on crosses.

One reason (aside from brilliant free kicks) that Dynamo fans should hold out hope that Chaco Maidana can rediscover his influential form is the emphasis Wade Barrett has put on creating triangles up the Houston left. In Damarcus Beasley and Oscar Boniek Garcia, the Dynamo have two players who read each other well, can move with the ball, move without the ball, and lump in an accurate cross if nothing else opens up. To take full advantage of these players, Barrett has Alex pushing in tight on offense to give the wide players a chance to create mismatches.

In what ends up looking a bit like a well-built basketball play, Alex moves in close to play short passes with the wide men, often ending up closest to the touchline. Boniek moves five yards inside to give the fullback — in this case, Keegan Rosenberry — a big question about whether he can get close to either player. The midfielder that follows Alex over is unwilling to go to the touchline, so he waits slightly infield. And if he gets too close to the touchline (or doesn’t come far enough), Beasley will dart forward through the channel. It’s all surprisingly consistent and coordinated, and appears to fit Maidana’s skillset well if the Argentine can be patient in his movement out wide.

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Notably, Houston’s success up their left didn’t mean they were creating a huge number of chances from that side. Instead, they used the left to enter the Union final third then quickly recycled the ball to the right where Jalil Anibaba’s much-improved crossing found Will Bruin in space.

Luckily for the Union, Houston has yet to solve on big riddle: How do you support both flanks with central midfielders and still put multiple bodies in the box? Warner was understandably hesitant to get forward, so Philly was often dealing with only Will Bruin (or Bruin with Giles Barnes at the front post) in dangerous areas.

Yet, Bruin had multiple chances on frame, and Barnes nearly finished a cross that fell between Marquez and Yaro. This points to the second big issue for Philly: Communication in defense.

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There is simply no reason Will Bruin should have been getting on the end of so many crosses. The Union’s defense did quite well keeping Houston on the outside, with Yaro in particular showing good awareness to step over and help whenever a breakthrough occurred on his side. But Yaro was also at the center of things whenever Philly looked vulnerable on crosses. Whether it was Barnes slipping in behind Richie Marquez or Bruin drifting toward Rosenberry when the right back already had a marker, Yaro seemed consistently slow to alert his teammates to movement and too forgiving in the amount of space he granted attackers in dangerous spots.

Yaro is short for a central defender. Teams are going to watch his ability to plan his positioning for crosses as much as they will watch his actual work in the air (his timing and leaping have been largely excellent this season). With the second overall pick suspended for a terrible red card, it will be interesting to see how Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez handle crosses against DC United.

That red card

It’s an awful call. There are no great angles on the play, but it’s pretty clear that Manotas puts a foot by Yaro, realizes the ball is too far away to retrieve, and uses that plant foot to propel himself into the air.

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Though Edwin Jurisevic deserves most of the blame for this incident, it is also a case of Yaro getting far too tight to a player in open space. Manotas has no support, and Yaro could simply force him into a contested shot or back off further and direct him toward defensive support. By getting close enough that Manotas can attack him on the side where he doesn’t have support, Yaro is making the mistake of believing he’s still that much more athletic than his opponents. It’s a prime example of a player that needs to realize his athleticism will grant him some get out of jail free cards at this level, but that it shouldn’t dictate how he plays the game. If Yaro imagines he has, let’s say, Vitoriaesque quickness, he ends up at a good distance from Manotas. And if the young striker beats him with a great move, he’s not so far away that Yaro can’t turn to his athleticism to recover.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

Great shot-stopping from Blake, but also some real gross-out moments in the kicking game. He’s lucky his flap in the 29th minute didn’t come back to haunt him. I hear the arguments about Blake’s positioning on the game-winner, but I’m just not sold. Maidana is typically a finesse shooter, so if Blake is cheating some small bit toward the wall-side, he has a very valid excuse. Also, that free kick hit the underside of the crossbar and went in. It was really, really well-struck. 

Keegan Rosenberry – 4

Rosenberry dealt reasonably well with some great movement from Houston, especially given Ilsinho’s “when I feel like it” support after the first 30 minutes. But in what could be a battle between American national team fullbacks, past and future, Rosenberry was outdone by Damarcus Beasley. Even at 34, Beasley still has a quick first step, and he varied his runs between the outside and more central routes depending on the shape of the defense in front of him. Excellent stuff that points the way forward for Rosenberry’s offensive game.

Joshua Yaro – 3

I’m actually fine with that early card on Yaro (video here); you can’t put a boot that high. The card clearly rattled the rookie, who misplayed a few early passes to Rosenberry that he can usually drop on a dime. As the match wore on, though, Yaro once again showed the peaks and valleys of his ability and inexperience. Yaro’s speed kept Houston from breaking through down the left multiple times, and there were points in the match when it seemed like of Marquez, Carroll, Creavalle, and Yaro only the latter understood that the ball needed to be advanced with the feet to draw in the defense and open lanes forward. But then there were the communication issues and the poor positioning that turned into a red card. It’s still entirely unclear whether Yaro will turn into a star or a player who makes a ton of mistakes but puts out a lot of his own fires. Both are still very possible. (Below, you can see Yaro start to use his speed to close on the ball, then realize he’s taking himself out of position and barely get back in time).

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Richie Marquez – 5

Overall, a strong match from Marquez, though he should have carried the ball forward more often.

Fabinho – 5

Fabi was quite good defensively, and more than one of the crosses coming in from the right did so despite good pressure on the crosser (seriously, when did Jalil Anibaba become so accurate!?) But the Brazilian was largely absent going forward, and it meant the Union had no route around Houston’s solid midfield up the left.

Brian Carroll – 5

The Dynamo weren’t too interested in going forward through the center, and when they tried BC quickly discouraged it. But the Union protector was very, very conservative in his passing, with virtually everything going either square or almost-square. To be fair, the movement in front of him wasn’t very good, and he did play this beautimous outlet to Pontius that set up one of Philly’s best half-chances.

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Warren Creavalle – 3

Creavalle’s passing range isn’t great, but early in 2016, he was forcing turnovers then getting into good, advanced positions that meant he didn’t have to play terribly difficult passes to help the attack. In Houston, Creavalle couldn’t figure out how to penetrate the Dynamo midfield, and he was a liability as a passer from a deep role. Putting himself in better positions will alleviate a lot of the issues Creavalle had in the open field. Also, that foul at the end was a very, very poor one.

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Chris Pontius – 4

Largely anonymous on a day when he needed to be involved to stretch the defense and provide width.

Ilsinho – 4

A similar story: Very involved, but never behind the defense. The Brazilian tends to slow the game down and force the ball forward when more combinations would be advisable. Ilsinho did pull out the move on video below, which, of all his crazy footwork this year, is the drag I’ll probably watch over and over the most.

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Tranquillo Barnetta – 4

Barnetta was dancing behind Collen Warner all game, unable to find a lane to connect to the rest of the team. This put him out of position defensively and made him less influential going forward. It says a lot that the Union’s best transition weapon was almost entirely absent through the center of the offensive half; he needed to be running in front of Warner, not behind.

Roland Alberg – 4

Didn’t create much up there.


Leo Fernandes – 5

In an encouraging turn, Fernandes found ways to use his size and get involved offensively. He still is too slow defensively and tends to turn on and off when the ball moves closer and further away from him instead of retaining defensive intensity at a high level.

CJ Sapong – 6

A welcome return for Sapong, who immediately set about pushing the Houston back four deeper. He almost got on the end of two of the Union’s better moves of the game.

Ken Tribbett – n/a

A very short cameo.

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Geiger counter – 1

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It’s not just the red card given for a dive so obvious even the Copa America refs would have thought about calling it. It’s also the continuing trend of letting central defenders get away with persistent infringement without a card. Raul Rodriguez picked up three fouls in the space of 20 minutes in the first half and wasn’t put on a warning. Yeah…


  1. pragmatist says:

    On the first Yaro yellow, there should be no argument. Catch a guy in the groin with your cleats and you get a card. End of discussion.
    As for the overall performance, 5’s and below sound about right. This was a tired team that looked exhausted. They also had key players out of position in multiple places.
    Let’s get everyone (or close to everyone) healthy and see what they look like with some rest and in the right places on the fields. Put the pitchforks away. For now.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Remind me next time he comes to Philly to ask Jurisevic how much he bet on Houston (and who he’s betting on that game). Several warnings for Houston players, none for Union players. 11-11, Houston doesn’t have the ball that deep, there is no foul, and no free kick. 0-0 draw.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      To be fair to Jurisevic, he has never shown that he is a competent MLS referee so I see his performance on Sat as typical incompetence rather than malice or greed.

      Great video clips, Adam. Always nice to see a play happen live and then wonder if you’ll highlight it in your ratings (e.g. – the Yaro one where he starts to ball chase before coming to his senses).

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    When your handing out 3’s and 5’s to professional players…… is there anything else to say….
    I dont give a rip about injuries – I don’t give a rip about officials…. EXCUSES. Losing a match is one thing. Throwing turds on a palette to paint ~ then calling it art is another. Simple solution…..
    Play better! ….
    Or am I being too harsh. Don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

    • I completely agree. Ilsinho still appears to be out of fitness. Imagine how much better he would play if he actually had his fitness level up and could compete for the full 90 minutes. We desperately miss Nogs in the midfield.

    • You’re right on El P. The most disturbing part about all of this is how content we were to play a defensive game against a team sitting in last place. Gamble a little that you’re better than them. Put barnetta in the deep role, Fernandes up top as a false 9 and give alberg the instructions to move warner around all game. Like the plan was on Thursday during the presser. If we lose, oh well, road points are hard to come by anyway, but at least we would have gone for it.

      • I’m not sure that “we” were content to play that way, but apparently Jim Curtin was.
        Why? I have no idea.

    • Alicat215 says:

      2 points: 1. While we need Isinho, I can’t recall another league in the world where you wait for a player to get fit on the first team. If it was a fitness issue with a baller from any club abroad, he’d be having fitness tests every other day and training with the reserves…..only in the MLS! 2. 3’s and 5’s are low, but only on a rare occurance are all your players going to be 8, 9, and 10’s…..on a given night. As a coach, you are hoping 3 or 4 put in a 9 or 10 on a given night…..

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I agree regarding the assigning of value to players….as you write- man when almost the whole team was a 3 a 4 or a 5 that bodes trouble though.

  4. philpill says:

    The “false false nine” is both catchy and so true when explaining what went wrong when the U possessed the ball. Alberg was played out of position. Unforced error.

    • Scottso was asking for this strategy all last week. And in fairness to his point, there wasn’t exactly a ton of service coming his way. But it seems there might have been better options than that experiment.

  5. Lucky Striker says:

    nights like that keep me wondering if this franchise will ever be truly capable of turning a corner, rather than just turning over their roster year to year.

  6. losing your top 3 strikers and your starting #6 and #8 makes it impossible to play attractive soccer. That is not an excuse, it’s a reality of the rosters in this league.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Well put.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      I understand your point and that’s why I chose ‘play better’ …. scheme, imagination from the manager, 4-6…. Play better.
      I don’t care… these are professional players and the first 45 – 60 min of the last few games were well well below acceptable standard no matter who is missing from your lineup… once again I’m a demanding sum’bitch I recognize but this is the highest level, apparently, of the game in this country and I will put MLS toes right into the fire…. EVERY time.
      They want it so they get it.

      • philpill says:

        We played into first without our lone DP. We know the owner’s philosophy and why depth is lacking now. The TD seems capable of the delicate balance. Aggressive pursuit in this window is promised. I’m willing to see if it’s kept.

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