Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 3-0 DC United

Photo: Daniel Studio

Philadelphia Union’s 3-0 win over DC United was as much a victory over the past as it was a win over a bitter rival. For ninety minutes, the Union executed their style of football at a high level, while DC came out of the gate with energy but little shape, and lacked both by the time the Union took a two-goal lead at the end of the first half.

If there is a word to describe Philly’s dominance, it is this: Comprehensive.

Now, to be sure, the Union were far from perfect. But they did not need to reach for such lofty goals when their opponent offered such limp resistance.

Overall match assessment:

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Cristian Maidana’s match-ending winner last week against Philadelphia meant the Union were looking to bounce back after a frustrating road loss. The 2016 Philadelphia Union haven’t been fazed by defeats because, thus far, defeats have lacked execution, not strategy. The strategy remains elegantly similar week to week, and any dips in form have not been due to fundamental issues of understanding what should be done on the field, but instead can be attributed to the inability to enact a well-understood game plan.

That game plan, with its clear and consistent fundamental concepts, was missing last season. And it is what makes the Union’s 2016 success sustainable.

The plan in action

This is a match to turn to when you want to better understand what the Union want to do defensively. For Philly, the attack is built on defense. The Union may play matches where the defense is strong but the offense is absent, but they will rarely have a match where the attack plays well and the defense struggles (note that recent defensive struggles were driven by problems on set plays, not open field defense).

Philly’s offensive success comes from creating turnovers that shorten the field and attacks that burst forth and run to completion before the opposition defense has a chance to set up. The basic idea behind the Union’s counterpress is the same one that motivated Gandalf to send a hobbit into Mordor: The last thing the enemy expects is for you to attack when you’re threatened. True to form, traditional thinking is that loss of possession is a signal to quickly return to defensive positions to thwart an imminent attack. But the Union’s hobbit is the counterpress. The basic argument is that if you drop back immediately, you’re allowing an attack to develop. As disorganized as you may be defensively, the opponent often cannot move immediately into an attack, so the time you would spend retreating can be better spent snuffing out an attack before it blooms.

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If a single player counterpresses, however, they simply close down the ball and leave space behind them. Two passes and the attack is off and running. The key, drawing from Curtin’s language, is for the primary pressure to clearly indicate where the secondary pressure should go. Is the goal to push the ball wide? To force it into a particular (and hopefully well-guarded) lane? Being the first man pressing is not unlike playing the dating game with ten teammates. You have to be consistent enough in your decision-making that they can predict what you’ll do, but your teammates also need to be paying attention to you or they still won’t know how to respond.

While the Union were locked in defensively on Saturday, DC gave a masterclass in how to unravel. After Philly went up 3-0, the visitors started pressing further up the pitch, led by their center mids. Unfortunately, Jared Jeffrey and Nick DeLeon were rarely on the same page, and often stepped to the same man, making it simple for the Union to move through midfield (see below).

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The Union counterpress, on the other hand, was exceptional. It wasn’t perfect, but it was ruthless. Even when DC United managed to play the ball long and bring it down in midfield, time was at a premium. And while Ben Olsen’s decision to bench Luciano Acosta gave his side much-needed defensive structure, it also meant the only bridge between defense and attack — rickety as it has been this season — wasn’t opened until midway through the second half. And by that time it was too late.

Below, you can see how DC tried to disrupt Philly’s defensive structure by cycling Marcelo Sarvas out of his deeper role to create space for Jared Jeffrey. Alberg assiduously follows Marcelo, but also notice how quickly Tranquillo Barnetta steps to Jeffrey. Unless the DC man has immediate options for a pass-and-move, he’s essentially a punter sans helmet.

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If you looked carefully, you could see echoes from Philly’s least inspiring performances this season in DC’s play. Just watch the Union cycle the ball across the midfield as United desperately tries to close it down but never gets close. Chris Pontius ends up making a run into what may in fact be a literal acre of space, but he could just as easily have turned inside and found Roland Alberg is his very own acre.

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That play happened late in the first half, after DC had already given up the ghost of coordinated defensive movement. Earlier, the Union’s success on the ball looked more like the clip below. Against Houston, the Union never pulled Collen Warner out of position. In part, this was due to the organization and smart pressing of the players in front of Warner. But it was also because Philly could not figure out how to break through the first line of Houston’s midfield then find a pass other than one that allowed the Dynamo to regroup. Balls into midfield were spit back into defense with alarming consistency.

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Here, Philly moves the ball quickly across the back, which unlocks DC’s languid defensive shape. Tranquillo Barnetta finds a gap behind the first line of defense, and when the ball is played into him, Roland Alberg is behind the first midfield line to receive a quick pass. Barnetta has pulled Marcelo out of position, and Alberg is moving into the space left behind. That’s how you attack a 4-1-4-1.

Note also that when Barnetta’s pass is a bit off, he immediately goes into counterpressing mode, and as a result DC has to recycle play and can’t start a counterattack. That counterpressing has a longer-term effect on the match. Since DC struggles to turn midfield wins into transition chances, their wingers have to come deeper and deeper to receive the ball. Anybody who has ever seen Fabian Espindola play knows that he’s frustratingly good at creating his own space in the attacking half, and his passing (and crossing) is often underrated. So when Espindola has to come 20 yards or more into his own half to receive the ball (see below), that is a very, very good thing.

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Many players could be highlighted for their strong performances in this match (see the ratings below), but two deserve special mention because their contributions were subtler than most.

First, Chris Pontius, who was Jason Bourne-levels of off-the-grid before popping up to earn a penalty in the 19th minute. Though he was entirely uninvolved with the ball, Pontius was helping Fabinho make Lamar Neagle disappear; he worked his defensive socks off. In all that time, Pontius was always looking for space to open up behind Sean Franklin, and the few times it did Kofi Opare was quick to foul Sapong and take away any threat.

But in the 19th minute, Pontius immediately recognizes a hole, is patient enough not to tip off a naive DeLeon, and just like that the Union had a penalty and Opare was halfway to an early shower.

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CJ Sapong also deserves special praise because he had one of the most CJ-Sapong-games ever. First, the Union striker went about making Ben Olsen pay for thinking he could match Sapong’s physicality and speed by selecting Kofi Opare over Bobby Boswell. Sure, Opare is big, strong, and fast, but all that meant was that he foolishly assumed he could get close to Sapong. Nope, don’t do that.

Sapong had Opare on his second foul within the first ten minutes, and he was shrugging off the center back (see below) by the 15th. Add in the defensive closing speed, the setup for Ilsinho that almost created a penalty on Taylor Kemp, and the knockdown that led to Ilsinho’s second tally, and you have a sensational display of modern striking on your hands. (Add in the point blank header from two yards out that he didn’t score, however, and you see why Sapong is still one step away from a national team call up).

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Player ratings

Andre Blake – 6

Not called on for much, but he was always ready. Better kicking, though that wasn’t hard to do after a rough go of it in Houston. Blake did make one stunning double save (though the second was ruled offside) just to show Hamid he wasn’t the only superhero in the house.

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Keegan Rosenberry – 7

A solid, unspectacular offensive performance (Philly didn’t really need him with so much space in the center) and a strong defensive showing against one of the league’s trickier players. Rosenberry was tested in the 15th minute and showed Espindola that he’d have to come with the good stuff to have any hope of penetrating the back line.

Ken Tribbett – 7

The first half was great for his confidence, as Tribbett looked more and more comfortable slotting longer passes through midfield. In the second half, he was very good at picking out Carroll in the center and always covered Rosenberry well. Below, you can see a play that often gave former Union center back Ethan White trouble. Tribbett reads it all the way and snuffs out the danger.

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Richie Marquez – 7

One of the big man’s best passing games in a Union jersey. Once he figured out that DC was opening up as the ball moved, he was always willing to test his range, and it looked good.

Fabinho – 7

Lest Marquez take all the praise, Fabinho also had a wonderful match. He was restrained a bit going forward, but that worked out well, creating huge gaps in midfield for Barnetta and Alberg. Additionally, when Fabinho did get forward, he was confident with the ball and didn’t immediately look to cross it in.

Brian Carroll – 8

In the first 20 minutes, BC had three tackles, a recovery and a pick. He made sure that DC never got a foothold in the match and, more importantly, he made sure Philly’s offensive tempo stayed high. A knock on Carroll is that he can be slow with the ball; he wasn’t on Saturday. Below, you can see a classic Carroll play: He recognizes that Marcelo is going to turn to create space, and instead of going to DeLeon, which would cut out the short pass but give Marcelo time, he calculates that he can press the ball and force it deeper. That’s intangible experience on display.

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Tranquillo Barnetta – 8

If you had to describe where Barnetta played on Saturday, you’d just have to say “midfield.” He was everywhere defensively and his six recoveries were all high up the pitch, pointing to his role in helping the Union attack off a change in possession. He sets the defensive tempo.

Roland Alberg – 7

A huge thing to look for going forward is how well Barnetta and Alberg interact and move off each other. It’s happened in fits and starts this year, but there have been issues when Barnetta steps forward and Alberg doesn’t see that as a sign to check deeper. On Saturday, the coordination was there, and it meant Alberg saw a lot more of the ball with time to look up and pick out passes.

Chris Pontius – 8

He definitely wanted to score against his old team. And he almost did not once:

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But twice:

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Ilsinho – 10

Earned a penalty and a half plus a sweet Albergesque half-volley? Not bad. But the real pleasure was watching the Brazilian commit to his defensive duties. When he’s working back, the Union are a very tough team to break down. Plus, he did this to Taylor Kemp, who isn’t a bad player.

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CJ Sapong – 9

A 10 score was just two yards and one Bill Hamid away! Sapong single-handedly owned the DC back line. You could pull up numerous clips of the entire back four suddenly retreating while the ball barely moves because of something off screen. That’s Sapong. This clip where Ilsinho goes all Copperfield on Kemp? Set up by great hold-up play from the big striker. He was fantastic.

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Sebastien Le Toux – 6

Long cameo, hardly involved (didn’t have to be).

Warren Creavalle – 6

Long cameo, hardly involved (didn’t have to be).

Fabian Herbers – 6

Shorter cameo, hardly involved (didn’t have to be).

Geiger counter – 6

This could have been a lot lower if Opare hadn’t been forced into obvious card situations by non-Sapong players. Early on, it seemed as though Sorin Stoica was going to let the big defender pancake Sapong with minimal backlash.

Sorber smile watch – 6?

…maybe? I slo-mo’d it for closer inspection.

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  1. Ok here is the deal. Every time I can’t watch a Union game they win big. Coincidence? Are you willing to rick it? So here is the deal. Unless some sizable money starts rolling into my paypal account I buy season tickets.

  2. Also i would say Sorber had more of a grimace than a smile.

    • Adam Cann says:

      I can totally buy that argument.

    • No, I think that was an actual smile. In fact, when I saw it on the broadcast, I said, “Adam Cann is gonna be all over this!”

      • Adam Cann says:

        @scottso – My dream is that he reads PSP and decided he would break one out for the readers. But I think we all know that’s both an unlikely and a weird dream.

  3. With Tribbett playing so well, I’m reaallyy interested to see if Yaro can play the 6.

    • pragmatist says:

      People have brought this up a few times, but Curtin, Stewart, and Yaro have all been pretty adamant about his staying at CB.
      Right now, having that platoon depth is fantastic. Yaro playing the 6 seems to make sense, but all indications are that it won’t be happening any time soon.

      • We keep mentioning it because those stances baffle us. The kid would thrive there, it seems like a no-brainer.

      • pragmatist says:

        I have a feeling that will be an off-season conversation. But they are expecting Mo to play that spot. If he comes back and is not a suitable #6, particularly at that salary, then the issue will become more pronounced.
        As it is, we have a guy, granted on borrowed time, but playing very well. And we have an potential all-star/DP-quality player about to join the team, once he regains health/fitness.
        There is no immediate need for the switch. But it’s definitely something that can’t be ignored long-term.

      • I’m not sure what the American obession is with changing positions.

        Yaro has been a CB his whole life. A pretty good one.

        Atleast LET him fail as a CB before we go ruining his career like we did with Okugo.

      • I understand what you’re saying, but this literally happens all over the world. It isn’t an American thing and players even at the full international level switch positions. It’s dependent on a variety of factors like coaching, player IQ, player skill set, and many others. Players can reinvent and switch positions throughout their careers. Moving him to a different position isn’t going to ruin his career.
        Just a couple examples and there are many many more: Pique was a forward for most of his youth career and started his pro career as one before finding his position at CB. Lahm moved to center mid when Pep could see that he would fit there and transitioned back without a problem. Closer to home, from what I’ve read/heard, wasn’t Rosenberry a center mid until his junior or senior year of college? And Tribett was a center mid his whole career before the pros.
        Position switching isn’t as big of a deal in my mind. What’s most important is having the coaching to educate the player and giving them some time to learn/develop if they need to (which the U can now have at the Steel). I know the U have struck out with players trying to switch positions like Okugo and Wheeler, but players with high IQ can switch positions with no problem. I still argue Okugo’s long term career would have been better off with him as a CB, tho he played the 6 position incredibly well too. Look at Mo (was CM and played CB) and Tranquillo (was a winger, but moved to AM here and now can also play the 8). As long as a player understands what is needed from a position, it shouldn’t just be immediately written off that they definitely can’t play it or shouldn’t try because they’ve played this position their whole lives. Just my 2 cents.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        James, it has to do with the American soccer coach’s most fundamental, very first challenge every season at all levels below the professional, probably, (without doubt below the collegiate). Namely, identify you best eleven players, and then devise the team shape that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses both offensively and defensively.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        You also have to consider the player’s basic personality.
        If you are a responder rather than an initiator, you will not be a successful striker no matter having all the other tools, all of them.
        If you want to think about position changes, junk the #6, could Yaro learn to be a #8???

    • Tribbett really did have a great game, and looks consistently solid every time he gets on the pitch. In fact, Adam, when you did your recent piece on “Union surprises”, you should’ve had Tribbett in there. Where did this dude come from?? How does he have any business being this good?? If we didn’t have a #2 draft pick with a very high ceiling in front him, he would be a starting CB, hands down.

      • John P O'Donnell says:

        I think we might be selling these young players in the future as Stewart has hinted at it. So moving Yaro doesn’t make sense as he’s the one more likely to move on to another club as a central defender. Tribbett is the unexpected surprise that will let us move him without taking a major step back.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Good point, he should have made the “just missed” list at minimum.

    • ebradlee10 says:

      I like having Yaro as the starter. He’s quicker and a better passer.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Yeah I think he’s too new to switch positions just yet. I would definitely keep it in mind going forward though

    • Keep that idea alive. It won’t happen unless we’re forced, but it reminds me a little of the nagbe situation in Portland. Caleb Porter insisted on leaving him wide until injuries forced his hand, and he was immediately an impact player inside. (Tribbett played the 6 in college, so that could also be part of a contigency plan there)

  4. Can’t say enough about CJ’s play. Most Sapongiest game ever was a perfect description. He holds the ball up, attracts a lot of attention from defenders, battles and runs every minute. Not many other players can pull off that ball he headed back for Ilsinho’s goal. Is CJ the emotional center/leader of this team?

    Speaking of Ilsinho (aka Ronaldhino on the Delaware) he is a treat to watch. Crazy quick with the ball and when he is able to get one on one on the edge of the box he makes things happen. He’s electric. But he is almost as crazily unfit as he is skilled. Dude is huffing and puffing with hands on knees every time he makes a run. And, as others have noted, he didn’t seem too concerned with getting Rosenberry involved down the right side. I fear his negatives will cost us eventually but I’m going to enjoy him until then.

    Felt good to be on the winning side of this kind of game.

  5. Love the performance. This was the most comfortable I’ve seen the U all year. I am going to pick one thing we can still improve: the final pass. We were tantalizingly close to being 5 or 6 goals to the good, even with Hamid playing out of his mind. One 4 on 2 sequence comes to mind where CJ plays pontius far too wide and costs us a phenomenal look at a 4th. But again, I’m being picky. I love what I’m seeing.

  6. hahaha i just watched the gif of the dudes applauding and thought “the guy nodding really makes this” and then i noticed the caption you gave it

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