Player ratings

Player ratings & analysis: Union 2-2 New York Red Bulls

Photo: Paul Rudderow

For the second straight game, Jesse Marsch devised an excellent and creative tactical plan. And for the second straight time, his former teammate correctly identified the plan’s Achilles heel and shot a Pontius-shaped arrow through it. After taking only a single shot in the first half, the Union thwacked 15 in the second frame, a change in fortune that is unique in MLS history.  

After Philly’s US Open Cup win, Jim Curtin talked about needing to move the ball so fast that you had to commit to doing it “blind.” That takes a special type of coordination and organization for a team to implement at halftime, and the Union pulled it off.

Pre-Herbers Union passing chart, where all outlets lead to Pontius (L) and post-Herbers, with balance.

Pre-Herbers Union passing chart, where all outlets lead to Pontius (L) and post-Herbers, with balance.

On Sunday night, Jim Curtin pushed and prodded with Chris Pontius up the left for over an hour, then inserted Fabian Herbers on the right to wreak havoc against a tiring offside trap. Herbers was magnificent, and Jesse Marsch “ridiculously” had to go to five in the back while up a man late in the match.

Overrun in the center

Jesse Marsch is an excellent coach. The high line he put into place on Sunday night was near-suicidal even without factoring in a center back pairing that has extremely little experience together. But it worked, and it allowed the Red Bulls to bully the Union around the park for the first half of the match.

At the center of it all was, well, the center. New York dominated the middle of the park, forcing Philly to play through the wings and passing around the home side’s midfield by rotating Kljestan and Mike Grella through the channels. Unable to get close to New York, Brian Carroll dropped deeper to defend the back four while Roland Alberg began chasing the ball into the feet of Aurelien Collin. The center stretched, and an off-pace Tranquillo Barnetta struggled to keep up.

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The visitors were outright dominant for large swaths of the first half; Philly didn’t even attempt a pass on New York’s side of the pitch between the 11th and 24th minute. Remember, this was purportedly a home game.

There was, however, inherent risk in the Red Bulls strategy to play an extremely high back line. The problem for Jim Curtin was how to systematize that risk and turn it into a digestible set of tactical instructions.

And he did.

NYRB heavily tilted toward the right side with Kljestan as the axis in the channel.

NYRB heavily tilted toward the right side with Kljestan as the axis in the channel.

Left left behind

When Jesse Marsch gets so angry he wants to throw a ball or two, he goes to his happy place. And there he sees Sacha Kljestan curling into the right channel after Bradley Wright-Phillips pushes a center back pairing toward their own box. The stachequartista had two goals and a key pass in the first half, but nearly as importantly, he was five for eight in entry passes into the Union’s final third. Kljestan was, frankly, sensational in the first half. Three recoveries in the Union half, two goals, excellent set pieces, the list goes on.

Kljestan’s home planet is the right channel, and his ability to connect short passes draws teammates toward him looking for quick one-twos. On Sunday, Mike Grella tucked deep inside to occupy the left channel, and he often floated even further to the right to draw defenders off of Kljestan.

Oddly, though, Connor Lade also played very narrowly behind Grella, effectively vacating the five yards closest the touchline for long stretches of the match. For quite a while, Philly couldn’t exploit this strange spacing, but Curtin, it seems, was employing the classic rope-a-dope. By the time Fabian Herbers entered the match, New York’s defense was so focused on the left that they became disorganized when the Union suddenly attacked up the right. Curtin made a daring move to go to a shape that looked a lot like a 4-4-2 after hewing so closely to the 4-2-3-1 all season. But it was the right move, and it worked perfectly.

NYRB dominated the Union early, especially up the right.. Here's a look at the first 35 minutes.

NYRB dominated the Union early, especially up the right.. Here’s a look at the first 35 minutes.

Pontius Maximus

Curtin was able to wait until the 65th minute to sub because Chris Pontius decided that Sunday was the day Sal Zizzo enrolled in Pontiomics at the School of Hard Cheekbones. Zizzo was crucial to New York’s attack, but when he pushed forward, Damien Perrinelle could only offer inconsistent coverage (he had a Sapong-sized problem of his own). Pontius continually charged into the space behind Zizzo, chasing sudden long ball genius and potential wizard Brian Carroll’s angled dazzlers. But he also followed lost causes, slim hopes, and, when he was nearing his physical limits, probably a hallucination or two.

As a result, the Union were able to create viable scoring opportunities and convince the Red Bulls that they intended to aim their attacks up the left. When Fabian Herbers enters a match, CJ Sapong often moves to the wing to preserve Philly’s trusty team shape. On Sunday, Herbers was like offensive player who gets to start in forward motion in Arena League Football. He played the offsides trap perfectly, and he exploited the passing lanes created by the Red Bulls’ narrow left side. It was a brilliantly imagined substitution, and the Union’s rookie striker fully understood his role.

Although Curtin was clearly looking to change the flow of the match, he hardly could have imagined how rattled New York would be by Herbers’ presence. The center backs stayed close together to deal with Sapong, and they were slow to recognize that Herbers’ runs were going to require an adjustment. So slow, in fact, that the match was tied before they started to come to terms with it.

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The genius in the substitution comes from recognizing that Herbers’ intelligence could make up for what he lacks in pace. The rookie is no Olivier Giroud, but he doesn’t have the acceleration of ageless French gazelle Sebastien Le Toux. The key to the offsides trap wasn’t speed, it was those timing patterns at which Herbers excels.

It says a lot about Jesse Marsch’s belief in Gonzalo Veron that he waited so long to insert the designated player. New York went up a man in the 72nd minute, and even before then it was clear they needed someone to provide width on the left. Marsch waited until there were ten minutes remaining and his team clearly pinned back to call on a substitute that could provide a new look. Veron should have been that guy, but instead he looked more like a hail mary.

Quick restarts

Philly likes quick restarts, but they pushed extremely hard to get the ball moving again on Sunday. Whether it was Andre Blake throwing touch passes to Keegan Rosenberry inches over the head of a defender, or Tranquillo Barnetta betting on a quick-hitting fifty yarder to Pontius, the Union were determined to push the pace and prevent New York’s defense from getting organized. The speed of play is likely a lesson learned from their previous encounter when the Red Bulls defensive shape was nearly impenetrable without perfectly executed counterattacks.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

Nothing to do after the first half, when he made one spectacular save off a deflection.

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Keegan Rosenberry – 6

Very limited presence in the first half, but proved that he can be a game-changer in the second. His cross led to a penalty and his subsequent forward runs posed problems for the overwhelmed Lade.

Ken Tribbett – 3

Gotta say, that was a solid bounceback half after the worst half of the rookie’s MLS career. Tribbett was a thought-step slow in the first half, caught between following the script (play short) and the reality (enemy at the gates, so get that ball out of here). His defense in the second period was excellent and he showed no signs that he was dwelling on his earlier mistakes.

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Richie Marquez – 8

Though he flubbed a free header off a corner, Marquez was largely stellar on the night. His sliding tackle on Bradley Wright-Phillips was a genuine roll of the dice that could have ended in a penalty and even a red card. But, like the rest of his defensive duties, he did it perfectly. Going forward, New York rattled Marquez in the first half, and he was decidedly more prepared for the speed of pressure in the second go-around.

Fabinho – 6

This weird trend of Fabinho not really having any highlights or lowlights? It’s… kinda great. He’s just playing well. And in a league where Brandon Vincent is as good as it gets at left back, who are we to complain?

Brian Carroll – 8

New York’s attack should be kryptonite for Carroll, and at times it was. The quick passing, the depth Kljestan can create, they conspire to speed play up and make it less predictable. Carroll relies heavily on identifying patterns and anticipating play, and that’s difficult against the Red Bulls when they’re in flight. But though he played too deep in the first half, Carroll was distributing with a range rarely attributed to him. One early left-footed rainbow created a break for Pontius that pointed the way forward for the Union. In a season with many standout defensive midfielders across MLS, Carroll is still proving he can elevate his game to challenge some of the best.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 5

Barnetta has been so consistently good that it was odd to see him have a bit of an off night, and he suffered the ignominy of having a free kick deflect off him and into goal. But whether it was something tweaked or bruised in his back when Mike Grella (in a totally not violent manner) headlocked and body slammed him, Barnetta was off the pace. Yet he never let his team stop working, and it’s clear how much he contributes to the squad’s never-say-die attitude.

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Roland Alberg – 5

This wasn’t a great situation for Alberg, and he didn’t respond well. Chasing the ball into New York’s back line just exacerbated the Union’s issues in the center, and it also meant Alberg wasn’t available as a first pass to start breakouts.

Chris Pontius – 10

Stellar. Threatened all night, earned a penalty, scored the equalizer. Found a pressure point and squeezed.

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Ilsinho – 2

Maybe not a red card, but definitely not smart.

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CJ Sapong – 7

An unbelievable defensive effort, but lost a lot of his aerial battles and didn’t get the separation he needed on a late chance in front of goal (though McCarty’s incredible recovery had something to do with it too).

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Fabian Herbers – 8

If I said you could have a former rookie of the year, a Venezuelan international, and a proven veteran or a former rookie of the year and… a rookie, which would you choose? Fabian Herbers entered the season with his coach’s trust, and he has repaid it many times over. But tonight was probably his best performance. Herbers understood his role so well, first taking space behind Lade then began dipping into the gaps left when Sapong pushed on, essentially playing a hybrid second striker/10 role.

Sebastien Le Toux – 6

6/6 passing and a key pass in 8 minutes? Ok, yeah. That’s pretty awesome.

Warren Creavalle – n/a

Just hung out for a bit.

Geiger counter – 3

Man, no card for Grella then a red on Ilsinho that you probably see given 70/30. In fairness, though, the match had a very good flow and he didn’t break it.


  1. Need some gifs/vid of the two 40+ yd beauties BC produced.

    • National TV means more obscure gifs like those won’t be available for a few days, unfortunately. Believe me, if I could get them, I would. That left-footer exploded off his foot.

  2. 7 is way too high for CJ. He lost aerial battle after aerial battle, and his passing was off too. Maybe we’re just spoiled, but that was an off-night for him as much as it was for Barnetta. I’d give him a 5.

  3. Also, I really do not think Alberg should remain at CAM for this team. I mean, it might be the best we can do for now, but I will be happy when Edu comes back and Barnetta can move up the field to his rightful spot.

    • pragmatist says:

      And then where do you play Alberg?
      And I’ll offer that this was his first bad outing at the spot. I’d like to see a wider sample size before benching him.

    • This was not his first bad outing at the spot. Not by my assessment, anyway. As for the right position, right now I would say it’s either a) off the bench; or b) backing up the attacking or wing midfield spots. Ideally, when everyone is healthy and available, the starting XI should be

      • I think this is close to what will be. You can rotate between Barnetta, Ilsinho, and Alberg in those two spots based on opponent and health. Alberg could also spell Sapong here or there up top – not quite the same style, of course, but Alberg is more physical than Herbers.

    • I have been low man on Alberg for a while here (with the idea that the adjustment to this league is tough) but he’s starting to come into his own. He’s been playing great recently and gives us a very potent attack when he’s right. This league and what he’s now being asked to do is very different and requires a different mindset. I think he’s still getting into that and will have lapses. He’s still an important player moving forward and should remain at the 10 even when Edu comes back.

  4. When mentioning the reffing how can you not mention the lack of a second yellow for Lade after pulling down herbers i think that led to the carroll/le toux missed chance? I’m ok with giving ilsinho the red if you also call that obvious second yellow on lade. He was horrendously inconsistent all night and unwilling to give persistent infringement yellows to any red bulls. Utterly awful reffing per usual thanks Don!

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Alan Kelly proved on the play in question that he his courage is inconsistent. The play was clearly outside the box and it was a clear, second grab from behind. That’s black letter law.
      Justice is a balancing of equal treatment against unique individual circumstance, not actively shaping the game’s outcome to give the networks and the league office the best possible intra-New York showdown next week.
      He gave Ilsinho a literal blackletter law interpretation, well after the usual Red Bull-Philly viciousness had surfaced among the players. I can understand that.
      Lade committed a black letter law yellow card offense, twice, with obviously deliberate intent.
      Find your “brave” pills, Mr. Referee, Sir!

      • Especially if you’re illegally paid higher money than any of the other refs in the league!

    • There was also a first-half play that I thought was a clear yellow for a New Jersey Energy Drink. Not sure who it was, unfortunately. The play was deep in the Union box or just outside it. Barnetta beautifully dispossessed an Energy Drink and started up field on the left. And… the Energy Drink flopped on the ground like a large-mouthed bass just hauled into the boat. Kelly shook his head vigorously, and when the ball finally went out for a throw-in on the right, I was sure Kelly would come back and give a yellow for diving. And… nothing.
      A 3 is definitely too generous for Kelly. A 2 if you want to be generous, but I’d go 1. He was inconsistent, he allowed bullshit like Grella showing off his WWE moves, and he showed no interest in taking control of the match early.

  5. Credit to the U for turning around the game. Down 2 goals at half and looking horrid in the the first 45 mins, i knew that the U were gonna show up for the second half. Sinho made a mistake; of course that might not be carded most of the time, but he was already on a yellow…you got the foul in the attacking half and ALL the momentum, so he just needs to be more in control. After the red card I let out a sigh because the game had developed into an exciting affair: down 2 goals, the U fought back, now let’s see who is going to win this in the final 20 mins. But heck, the U kept pressing, and very well could have won.
    I really was impressed by BC’s new found passing range. Please please more of that BC! Herbers’ assist beat at least 3 defenders. Marquez is a savage defender, he is so fearless flying into challenges and seemingly never misses the correct angle. I don’t care if NYCfc is above us in east standings…the U boss the conference!

  6. Does a huge match bring out the best of your customary colorful (without detracting from subject) style, Adam? Too many examples to pick just one. But I’d’ve lowered Allan Kelly’s grade because the pass he gave Grella was for a foul that affected Ilsinho physically and emboldened NJ’s gambles in the Union half.

  7. No way Pontius should get a 10. I would have been OK with a 10 had he made the goal when he was 1-1 with the goalie.
    Would give Barnetta slightly higher for that wonderful curling shot he had. I was right behind that post and the goalie just saved it.

    • Adam Cann says:

      That was a stellar shot, and Barnetta did so well to create his own space on that one. I think that was when I fully understood how battered the NY defense was – you’re rarely going to see a player dance around the top of their box without McCarty or a defender flying out at them.

      This wasn’t a surefire 10, I’m with you there. But I kept going back to the question: If Pontius hadn’t trucked up and down the pitch – following Zizzo deep then beating him down the field to long balls – how were the Union ever getting out of their half? NY was heavily committed to staying tight on Sapong so they could catch him with the trap, and Ilsinho had no notions of going deep. It was Pontius or nothing, and he could’ve had a handful of key passes if he wasn’t consistently isolated when he gathered the ball.

      So I don’t think it was a performance that we’ll look back on and go, “WOW!” but I think that if you put, say, 2015 Andrew Wenger out there, the Union never get out of their half and NY doesn’t need a Tribblunder to turn their pressure into crooked numbers.

      All that said, I did hesitate quite a bit! If there was a time to introduce the 9.5, this would’ve been it.

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Did you read Jesse Marsch’s game plan as you were watching the game live, Adam?
    Hats off to you, because you nailed it, and Curtin’s adjustment to it as well. AS soon as I read your analysis everything clicked for me. the details were in my memory’s observations, I had not put them together correctly.
    Thank you yet again.

    • Adam Cann says:

      Thank you! It was such an interesting and daring approach to countering Alberg’s influence in previous games, and it could’ve backfired horribly if the Union middle three had made more coordinated adjustments. I’m glad it was interesting to watch in the end.

  9. I’m thinking one more tick up for Rosenberry–his pass on Herbers angled run was spot on.

    • Adam Cann says:

      I wouldn’t push back too hard against that! It’s so easy to forget that his passing ability is a true rarity for a fullback.

  10. I can’t say it enough…I LOVE THIS SITE! Thank you!

  11. It also appears that when Marsch threw his temper tantrum at the open cup gmae he lost his balls hence his decision to sub on a defender for a striker while up a man. Plus the cutout of him in the middle of his temper tantrum in the river end was pure gold. Petulant child antics for the win!

  12. Great stuff as always Adam… thanks!!
    Curtin is showing he can manage a team. He, along with ES of course, is a MAJOR reason this team is better. Even with better players, which I would argue we have compared to last year, if Curtin doesn’t improve, we might be 5th-6th… not 1st-2nd. I’ve crushed Curtin in the past, and said I didn’t think he had it in him… so far I am happy I appear to be dead wrong.

  13. I want to see somebody kick a ball so hard into Kljestan’s face, his pornstache falls off. And… I think maybe that’s the best compliment I can give an opposing player. I think he’s a great example of a player I HATE on the other team, but would love if he was playing that way for mine…

  14. Jim Presti says:

    Adam, so the entire first half, NYRB squeeze and squeeze the midfield forcing the ball to the sidelines. This goes on for like maybe 60 minutes before they tire from their own pressure. Marquez and Tribbet default to lumping the ball up to Sapong (and in a few cases Pontius) who is losing those duels almost every time. They both need to act and re-act creatively to the circumstances in front of them. They are solid defenders but lack that ability to adjust on the fly – especially under pressure. This is where I think teams will figure out how to stifle the Union. Keep the midfielders off the ball. Challenge Sapong for balls in the air. Pressure the CBs when the ball is at their feet. If the team cannot adjust on the fly to pressure like this, they will struggle to make a deep playoff run.
    Does a defensive midfielder with an above-average passing range negate this issue? Does a little bit more confidence from the CBs help? Your analysis concludes that this match was saved by Pontius’ hustle and Herber’s ability to time his runs. But moving the ball across the backline and into the midfield with pace would’ve opened up space and make all that additional hustle unnecessary.

  15. Adam Cann says:

    @Jim – I think, luckily, that there aren’t many teams in MLS that can pull off what NYRB did for the first hour on Sunday. I didn’t view it as Marsch introducing a new system so much as tweaking and amping up the system he marauded through the east with last season.

    That said, teams can look at the two first halves of these NY/PHI matchups and ask what they can incorporate into their own systems to shutter the Union offense. Philly has 4 goals against New York and all 4 of them have come by working up the right (at varying speeds) and finding Pontius.

    I think a DM with a good range helps, especially since Curtin’s first tweak against a high press is to drop the DM between the CBs. I think the Union are also well-built in that they can insert Yaro and Le Toux and hope the latter’s verticality can open spaces that the former can hit with passes.

    But more sustainably, I think the Union midfield as currently arranged is dangerous on the counter but still a bit uncoordinated working out of the back, and teams that can deal with high presses the best can work the ball into midfield and back out again, pushing the press deep, then letting it stretch itself out. NY did that wonderfully last season and at times this season, and NYC has been very good at creating that space in their own half now that they have a midfield three playing regularly together. You can also look at Columbus’ midfield last year, though that’s a less perfect guide because those mids could stretch further than most without losing connections thanks to Trapp’s passing and Tchani’s ability to carry the ball forward.

    Sorry for the long response, but to sum up I’d say: NY’s ability to collapse the field is somewhat unique, but it expose problems with the Union’s possession game. A DM with a great range would help, but I’d put even more emphasis on keeping the midfield three closer to speed up ball movement.

    Totally open to counterarguments and other perspectives though.

    • Jim Presti says:

      I agree that there aren’t many – if any teams that can sustain NYRB’s press for extended amounts of time. But it’s telling that a team can press like that for maybe 70 minutes, score a few goals then sit back and absorb pressure and ride out the match.
      I think that acquiring a DMID with more effective passing range and ability would echo your sentiment regarding the pace of ball movement. Moving them closer together might just suffocate the midfield more under pressure. Tough to call without watching more tape of the Union backline and midfield being squeezed to the wings like that.

      • Adam Cann says:

        Good points. I also have this lingering feeling that there is a bigger, more complex role for Rosenberry in all this. He’s got great range and is good under pressure. Finding a way to get him more central when building up against high pressing teams may be useful if done well. He’s a unique piece, and though I’m hesitant to move him around a la Michael Farfan, I think finding new ways to use him out of that RB position deserves some time and attention.

      • Jim Presti says:

        If you look where he plays, he’s basically a winger when Ilsinho cuts into the channel. I think we would have more freedom with a DMID that can cover more ground [Carroll has been excellent this season, but just doesn’t have the legs] along with the mobile CBs in Yaro and Tribbet. Could really play a defensive high line with more opportunity for interchange with Rosenberry, the midfielders, and the attacking winger & CF

      • Can Edu work that D-mid role once he returns? Or should I say if? It’s enticing to believe we already have the answer to the tactical problem the pink cows have posed to us sitting on the roster, getting healthy. As for rosenberry, the kid is clearly smart enough to handle some minor adjustments to his responsibilities. I’d love if curtin tweaked them during a road game as a means of alleviating pressure, especially against the more talented offensive teams in this league. It would be a gambit for sure, but one that could pay huge dividends

      • Jim Presti says:

        Edu could do it if he stays disciplined. Sometimes it seems like he’s all glory and zero professionalism. Needs to be smart with his runs forward if he wants to play the 6 in this system

  16. Will this latest display of pure, unfiltered awesome by herbers finally quell some of the voices wondering whether he’s “ready” or “good enough”? Everyone here has been pretty high on him for a while now, but the continual calls for striker reinforcements points to us pushing him back to steel for his minutes (something I don’t want).

    • Jim Presti says:

      Still need a striker to add to the core. Another target forward is needed for this system. Not necessarily to replace Herbers. That said, people calling for a big name striker are foolish. Upgrades needed elsewhere.

  17. Zizouisgod says:

    My favorite part of that clip where Rosenberry springs Herbers is when Lade turns to chase and then realizes that Collin is too far central to help and just throws up his hands in disbelief.

    I found it interesting that of RB’s fullbacks, Lade gets forward more often than Zizzo. I would have guessed the opposite. Part of it on Sunday had to do with Zizzo tracking Pontius, but Lade has shown a desire in other matches to push forward into the attack even on the left side. Kudos to Curtin for exploiting it.

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