Season Reviews

Ten biggest on-field surprises of the Union season so far

Photo: Daniel Studio

Halfway through the 2016 season, Philadelphia Union have been full of surprises. Surprise draft picks, surprise contributors (Tribbett? Ilsinho? Carroll???), surprise departures, and, of course, surprising success.

That success has been driven by a — once again — surprisingly coordinated defensive press. But given that the Union jettisoned Chaco Maidana, let Steven Vitoria return to Slowmotionland Portugal, and didn’t have any goalie drama, there was always a very good chance the defense would improve to some degree. Below are what I think are the ten most surprising on-field developments so far this season. The list is in no way definitive! If there are other developments you think should be added, let me know in the comments.

Chris Pontius’ aerial game

Pontius has scored with his head, yes. But he’s also the target for a lot of the Union’s longer set plays. When Tranquillo Barnetta lofts a ball back post, it’s often Pontius’ head he finds. When Philly needs a guy running through on RosenThrows, it’s Pontius again. And he has been extremely strong in the air on long balls out of the back. A healthy Pontius was going to score goals, but I had no idea he would be such an important part of the aerial gameplan (mea culpa: I didn’t know Pontius’ game very well). Philly has turned numerous long free kicks out of the back into opportunities by aiming for Pontius’ head, including this sillygood goal:

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Tranquillo Barnetta’s ability to create space to turn and run

 The Swiss man, long played as a winger overseas, is willing to go anywhere to get the ball. He makes long, languid runs to behind the midfield before popping up in a pocket of space where Joshua Yaro or a midfielder can find him. Going into the season, the biggest upside of having Barnetta in an advanced midfield role was that he would up the defensive pressure. The extent to which Barnetta has made himself the most important part of the Union offense has been a bit stunning, and absolutely necessary to their early success. This run is emblematic of what Barnetta brings to the Union:

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2a. Tranquillo Barnetta’s inability to find the final ball. Seriously, how does Barnetta only have two assists on the season? Considering the number of times he has been able to create his own space, turn, and run at a defense, it seems as though the Union are still overcomplicating their attacks. Barnetta will often play the ball wide then join CJ Sapong in the box looking for a hard, low cross. That’s a fine strategy (particularly with Sapong on the pitch), but it also needs some variety. Barnetta and Sapong need to link up more often for the Union offense to reach its full potential.

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2b. Tranquillo Barnetta’s set pieces. They should be in a museum!

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Keegan Rosenberry’s overall maturity

Matt Doyle highlighted the one-on-one defending, and Rosenberry consistently has shown incredible balance and a good poke check. The rookie could make mixtapes with his passing alone (see below, through two layers of defense), so the defense seems like quite a bonus. But it’s the overall reading of the game that has been the Union right back’s most impressive feature. Particularly after FC Dallas welcomed him to the league by making him chase ghosts like a lost member of the Scooby-Doo crew, it seems borderline ridiculous that Rosenberry looks like the best right back in MLS (and it’s not even that close) because of his consistency.

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Even when he struggles to get involved offensively, the type of mistakes that are literally named after first-year players just haven’t occurred so far. As if to highlight this point, the uber-talented Brandon Vincent (who everyone without a seat at the Union draft table expected Philly to take over Rosenberry) has had a far bumpier — and more typical — start to his pro career. It’s clear that Rosenberry has a special set of skills that make him a unique asset at right back. Philly needs to think long and hard about how to maximize those skills and build them into future gameplans.

Brian Carroll contributing at a high level game after game

Brian Carroll, guys! There were not just games, but actual months in 2015 when Carroll seemed past it. But with willing runners in front of him and a higher line behind, Carroll has put together an incredible season. It’s like watching a Tom Glavine pitch run around on a soccer field. You know it’s going to be slow, you know it’s going to be in the right place, and you know it’s going to be both of those things maddeningly consistently. Carroll has not only been consistent, he’s done it in a high tempo defense in front of a back line so young that they were all below the recommended age to use Star Wars Catchphrase when BC entered the league. (How come ten year olds can’t play catchphrase!?)

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Fabian Herbers’ movement

Strikers taken outside of the top five rarely contribute so soon. But Curtin has been building Herbers’ minutes from the start of the season, and the rookie’s understanding of how to make angled runs and check between defenders has been impressive. Below, he immediately reads that he needs to get Jose Goncalves out of the middle ASAP so Le Toux can take that space, then he holds himself onside even after the play breaks down and gets a good shot out of it. 

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Some of the raw talents currently moving around Europe for big money will never develop those skills. There is a lot of work to be done, but for a striker that doesn’t have elite speed or size, Herbers already knows what his niche looks like. Watch him work to get the ball back then shimmy some space for a shot: 

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Ray Gaddis’ comfort on the ball

Gaddis has never looked very comfortable on the ball. Yet he came into this season without a regular role and has been extremely calm with the rock in limited minutes. It’s a positive sign for a player who was leaning heavily on his speed and struggling with confidence in the rest of his game at the end of last season.

Joshua Yaro’s rawness, and ohmygoodness his upside

When an undersized center back is the almost-consensus best player coming out of college soccer, you don’t really know what to expect. What could a short guy do to turn the heads of so many coaches? It turns out that Yaro’s inability to, well, be tall is counterbalanced by an ability to be good in almost every other physical attribute. He’s hyperfast with a dart of a first step, a very good leaper, and he has handled stronger strikers quite well so far. But there’s more, of course.

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He’s the next generation of central defender on the ball. Though a bit loose with the dribble, he can break compact lines of defense with passes on a dime. Or the front toe of Tranquillo Barnetta. Yaro has a lot of positional intricacies to learn, though. If he reaches his full potential, the physical skills will be just one part of a very impressive package. Below, you can see he still needs to work on communicating (he should be getting Rosenberry to step with Marquez there). These issues seemed to come up again last weekend in Houston.

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Leo Fernandes’ inability to adapt his game to MLS

Fernandes can contribute at the MLS level, but to do so he needs to be able to create his own space. I didn’t see him last season when he was on loan to the Cosmos, but the hope was that a year of shining in a lower division would lead to a player who found holes in the defense with enough consistency to regularly contribute to the offense. Thus far, it’s been difficult for Fernandes to find his spots and play with enough speed to find the attacking passes he sees.

Andre Blake’s Kryptonian heritage

Seriously. Does he have a locker or a phone booth?

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CJ Sapong’s minutes

Before he got hurt, Sapong was like Jim Curtin’s created character in a FIFA video game. He was bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else, and Curtin wouldn’t take him out even when he was at, like, 34 fatigue level. Of course, Sapong’s unique skillset is a very important part of the Union’s shape and strategy, but knowing that he had limited front line resources, it’s still surprising Curtin pushed Sapong so hard. Even when Fabian Herbers joined the fray, Sapong was left on in a wider role.

Just off the list: CJ Sapong’s goal total

I mean… he’s played a ton of minutes as the team’s only striker and he’s only got five goals. What gives? AmericanSoccerAnalysis’ Expected Goals model (through June 29 matches) has only Kei Kamara (5 goals, 7.04 xG) underperforming his xG more than Sapong (5 goals, 6.36 xG). In other words, it kinda seems like there’s a lot more to come from Sapong. If CJ had seven tallies right now, the Union’s front line would be nudging its way into the conversation for the league’s best offensive unit. One note of worry here: Chris Pontius is currently overperforming his xG to about the same tune Sapong is under his.

Just off the list: Sorber smiles

Mike Sorber’s lack of a smile during his midgame interview, even though J.P. Dellacamera’s dulcet tones sound delighted to speak with him. Just give us one! At least smile with the eyes!

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  1. I continue to worry a bit about C.J.’s ability to score goals. He seems to do everything as as a big hold-up striker but finish. I hope he’s just been unlucky and will turn it around. I don’t think a 10 goal a year striker is good enough long term for this team.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      But he’s so good at holding up play…. and closing down CB and run run run.
      No question sir spot on.

      Herbers type every time for me.

      • I like Herbers a lot. He has had several moments in which he’s created his own space to take a great shot. That one that bounced off the woodwork in Alberg’s hat trick match was so, so good. Had it gone in, we’d still be talking about it. I’m really happy hes been trusted with playing time. He might genuinely be the team’s striker of the future.

    • The Chief says:

      True, but it’s not like Herbers has lit it up either. He has only 1 goal. For me I like sapongs hold up play. It’s valuable when we get into a Houston Dynamo slog type game where we can’t get any traction. At least we can chuck the ball to him and there’s a chance he could draw a foul or hold up and distribute. Do I want that to be our strategy? No. I’m being realist not idealistic though, and we’re still gonna have plenty of games like that. With all that said, I’m really a fan of Herbers and I’d be disappointed if we traded him to bring someone else in

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    In my opinion the barnetta sapong link up issues reside with the striker.
    From my POV there has been at least 2x when barnetta has had the ball where u want and sapong isn’t seeing or making the run. Period. You can almost see The Calm wanting to slip him the ball but it’s not there… I remember not too long ago finally CJ made the darting run and Barnetta filtered him the pass on an acute angle only for CJ to fumble it at his feet….
    If Barnetta had 2 more assists of this nature and sapong had 2 more goals from this nature wouldnt even be discussing.

    • Last sentence sums up my feelings on CJ entirely. I like him, I like most of what I see, but he can and should do better with what he’s provided with.

  3. Agreed about Gaddis. He does look a bit more comfortable on the ball this season, even when he was on the left. Granted it has been in more limited minutes so he will have to continue show this improvement to make it fully believable.

    • Zizouisgod says:

      Agreed. To me, this has been the biggest surprise of the year. It was totally out of the blue when he finally got into a match and looked very comfortable with the Union’s new style.

  4. I, for one, am not a bit surprised by Andre Blake based on the small piece of the lower curve of the Superman S that we spied on his chest last year. How many freakin’ saves did he make in that New England match near the end of 2015??

    Totally agree about Sapong’s minutes. I think Curtin rode him into the ground. I am totally fine with him leading the line, but the man needs a break sometimes.

  5. John Ling says:

    making him chase ghosts like a lost member of the Scooby-Doo crew
    Your posts are must-read purely for your ability to break down tactics and technical stuff into easily-to-understand chunks of words. I’m a relative novice to soccer, only having started to pay attention when the Union launched. And I feel quite comfortable in saying I’ve had quite an education from your posts, Adam.
    But then you go in and regularly throw in awesometastic similes such as this? Absolute must-read material!

  6. Lucky Striker says:

    Sap is the accidental goal-scorer. When he tags anything, it hits wood or misses open nets.

    Everything else about his game is first rate though. He is the only forward effective in the single-high press. His hold-up play, distribution and stamina are criminally underrated.

    It’s the Union, so they’re lucky to have him-and I refuse to expect anything better. Let CJ misshit balls off defender shins and mistakenly block teammates shots off his heels with his back to goal and into the far corners all he wants.
    They count all the same.

    Let the rest of his teammates-who are better shooters* well….ya cant prove that by 9/25…..-do the heavy lifting with regard to the pretty finishes.

  7. Mike Sorber always looks like he’s annoyed about having to talk to the announcers. He doesn’t smile and doesn’t look into the camera. A couple games ago, Marc Zumoff gushed about how wonderful it was that the fans get to hear from a coach mid-game, but he never says anything too insightful and always seems like he can’t wait to get off camera

  8. JediLos117 says:

    Fernandes won’t last in MLS in an offensive position…i think he could be an excellent Dmid

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