A View from Afar

The Union are tired and miss Nogueira

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union are tired, and they miss Vincent Nogueira.

If you want to explain the team’s recent struggles, it can be as simple as that. We can break down all the micro-level and technical details, but sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one.

Post-Nogueira: Goals galore, for better or (mostly) worse

The Union have gone 2-4-1 in league play since Nogueira’s stunning June 16 departure from the club to return to France. They were 6-3-5 before he left. They simply haven’t been the same club without Nogueira — not in the standings, nor on the field in terms of how they play. They have changed from being a solid defensive team that held possession well to one that has lit up the scoreboard for themselves and their opponents.

Statistics in league play bear this out.

Pre/post Nogueira departureRecordGoals scored per gameGoals allowed per game
Before June 166-3-51.501.14
After June 162-4-12.002.43

The Union may be leading the league in scoring overall, but since Nogueira left, they have been shipping goals at a rate that would be worst in the league — by far — if carried over the full season. (New York City FC surrender 1.77 goals per game, the worst rate in MLS.)

The Union miss Nogueira with his patient, possession-oriented style of play, and they miss Tranquillo Barnetta in the No. 10 attacking midfield role.

Roland Alberg’s brief offensive explosion raised hopes that the Union could adequately replace Nogueira with current personnel by shifting Barnetta to Nogueira’s No. 8 center midfield slot and sliding Alberg into Barnetta’s No. 10 role.

Those hopes have mostly evaporated.

Alberg no longer surprises opponents, who have been able to scout his performances and shut him down since then. What they see is what we see: An opportunistic attacker with eyes for the goal but almost no involvement in the team’s build-up play and possession game. He is more of a second striker, almost a poacher, than the legitimate attacking midfielder Barnetta is as a No. 10.

The Dutchman is doing little to create chances for others. Through 10 games, Alberg has just eight key passes and no assists. In comparison, Barnetta has recorded 35 key passes and two assists in 15 games, and those stats don’t reflect the numerous “pass before the key pass” efforts at which Barnetta excels.

On the whole, the Alberg-Barnetta version of the Union does not control possession or defend as well as the Barnetta-Nogueira version did. Barnetta pushes forward more than Nogueira, which leaves his club more defensively vulnerable, and doesn’t hold the ball as patiently as Nogueira. Meanwhile, Alberg plays physically but is not nearly as consistent a defender as Barnetta.

Other factors

Not that Alberg is the only factor in the Union’s post-Nogueira struggles, mind you.

Ilsinho’s entry into the starting lineup at right attacking midfield over the last month has added flash to the highlight reel, but Sebastien Le Toux had provided width, shape, defense and actual assists in the role. Le Toux has produced over twice as many key passes and assists per game as Ilsinho this year.

The Union are 4-5-1 when Alberg starts and 4-2-5 when he does not, and the same stat carries over for Ilsinho. Of those 10 starts, Alberg and Ilsinho have started seven together. As a result, it may be difficult to separate their individual impacts on the club from their cumulative impact.

What is beyond question is that the presence of each significantly changes the way the Union play.

Take C.J. Sapong, for example. His performance had already begun to drop off in late May, leading up to his injury, and he hasn’t recovered his early season form post-Nogueira. Before May 25, he was averaging 3 shots per game. Since then, that rate is down to 1.43, and he hasn’t scored from open play since May 14. Three plausible reasons to choose from: The league has scouted the Union better, his chance creators aren’t creating as many, and his own play has dropped off a bit.

Finally, Barnetta is still learning the No. 8 position. He has been an attacking midfielder throughout his professional career, whether wide or now central, and those tendencies don’t simply disappear. He regularly looks to push the ball forward. Nogueira did that, but he also knew when to slow a game down.

In all likelihood, the Union need a healthy Maurice Edu to return to play the No. 8 spot that he expected to play when he first joined the club nearly three years ago. This could allow Barnetta to play the No. 10 and Alberg to rotate with him and Chris Pontius to keep all three fresh through the playoffs. Edu returned to practice last week, but a timeline on his return to the field is anyone’s guess, as is the question of whether he’ll actually be a good fit.

A U.S. Open Cup run and fatigue

Separately, the Union as a whole look tired, both mentally and physically. This isn’t to say every player is worn out, but you see it with some, notably Barnetta, who put in possibly his worst shift of the season against Montreal. Perhaps he’s hiding an injury.

Consider the Union’s schedule in all competitions before and after the two-week break for the Copa America:

DateGamesDaysGames/days ratio
Before June 214941/6.7
Since June 1511451/4.5

The Union have been playing much more frequently, and Nogueira’s departure came right when they most needed another healthy, capable body in the rotation.

So it should come as little surprise that the Union have struggled lately.

As they say, however, form is temporary, but class is permanent. Nogueira took quite a bit of class with him when he left town, but Barnetta and company still have some of their own.

Miscellaneous notes around MLS

Last week was one of those weeks where life went a bit crazy here, so I went pretty much the whole week without reading a lick of MLS news. I caught up this weekend. That was fun, because I got a week’s worth of hot stove league jammed into one read. Here are some quick observations:

  • Zach Steffen to Columbus: How do you claim a “discovery signing” on a player who played in another MLS club’s youth system? The Union really missed out on this one.
  • Jason Kreis to Orlando: If Sigi Schmid gets fired next week, can Kreis change his mind and join Seattle instead? He must have gotten tired of waiting for the right opening, but I’m not sure that joining another new MLS team with a meddlesome foreign owner was the right way to go here.
  • Toussaint Ricketts to Toronto: It’s a good sign for MLS any time a U.S. or Canadian national team player comes home to play in MLS. Considering Jozy Altidore can’t stay healthy and Ricketts has been training with Toronto for months, this could be a great signing.
  • Everyone to Atlanta! Kenwyne Jones? This dude none of us heard of in Argentina who apparently was pretty good for San Lorenzo? Looking good, Atlanta United.
  • Seattle is a mess: It’s not good for the league for Seattle to struggle like it is. They are, in some ways, the most important club in MLS. They need to turn it around. If they had fired Schmid weeks ago, like they should have, they could have Kreis in charge. There is no other alternative as attractive and available now, and banking on an Argentine playmaker to end the Hamlet routine and show up to play has taken so long that it might be too late to make the playoffs.


  1. Not to sound like a broken record, but any news at all on the reinforcements front? We were told by Coach and FO that they were aggressively looking to upgrade at a few positions weeks before the window opened, yet here we are. Team fatigue absolutely stuck out to me against Montreal (not that that was the only problem), but guys that would normally bust their butts to get back on a fast break were gassed. Personally, I’m over the “Edu watch” and ready for a new CDM that can spell BC (who also looked exhausted) and give us a viable threat to occasionally go forward and pass well out of the back. Lastly, while I can’t argue that we are much deeper this year than we’ve ever been, I still think there is too significant of a drop off after our starting 11.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Derrick Jones. Vet him….if he is the best player on BSFC, he should be playing now… get Barnetta back to the ten.
      I’ll live with his learning curve, I can’t live with ugly soccer.

      • Jim Presti says:

        May not have a roster spot to do so…

      • John Ling says:

        Agree. I’ll accept learning curves from young players.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Have you watched Jones play, el P?
        He has improved as a #8 at the level of USL.
        I go up to Lehigh most Sunday’s to watch them. Usually I have watched the Union before hand.
        Without fail, in a mathematically perfect one-to-one correspondence, my first reaction is how slow the USL game is.
        Jones looked better against Crystal Palace than he has in the USL. I have drawn no definitive conclusions explaining why that was, but here are three possibilities. 1. Adrenaline. 2. It was the second half of Crystal Palace’s first preseason game, so the Londoners got no break in their training regime to accommodate the game, and they are nowhere close to game conditioning. 3. The pitch at Talen is 15 yards longer than at Goodman, so he had more space in which to work.
        When he has space given to him he uses it well and creatively, if somewhat basically still. But he does not consistently and effectively make his own space through technical control of the ball that beats defenders. If you disagree please show me the tape. Every game is available through the USL website and its Match Center menu.
        Jones played a key role against Rochester on Saturday, by using give and go wall passes combining with Seku Conneh that the Two starting Rochester center backs were too slow in pace and quickness to defeat. The Steel had six shots in the first half. The Rochester coach changed his shape at halftime, went to three center backs in the middle, and They outshot the Steel in the second half 5-1.
        The young man is not yet ready.
        And, while there is not question he is a valuable and important part of the Steel starting line-up, he would not be my choice for most valuable player. For me, that is either James Chambers or Ryan Richter. Richter you know, altho’ he is much more complete a player than in 2011.
        As for Chambers, if he had foot speed he would be playing in a European first division of some sort. But he doesn’t so he is here instead. He can consistently create space for himself, so consistently that the rare times he fails his teammates are taken by surprise. That surprise began the sequence that ended in Rochester’s equalizing goal last Sunday.
        Derrick Jones is not an answer for the Union in 2016.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I acquiesce to your much closer attention than mine.
        I saw a guy against Crystal Palace that looked comfortable enough to warrant more looks.
        The real solution is a fit Edu I guess…
        Either way the metronomic tendency of Noguiera is gone with no Tag Huer to replace.
        Worst case, Carroll at the 6. Edu at the 8. The Calm at the 10 gives us a fighting chance of playing well.

  2. DITTO TO 610


    • I don’t know about that. Edu has always looked most comfortable unleashed playing the 8. Now that Nogs is gone, there’s little reason to shoehorn Edu into the 6.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    This team was on the ascendancy and with the return of Edu forcing Carroll and Creavalle to the bench the quality on display would only have continued to improve.
    An article was written that Nogueira was replaceable, I argued otherwise.
    Simply his loss has been catastrophic to anything resembling consistent quality play. We are back to me simply wishing this team could play well- let alone win.
    Too bad.

  4. I’m not the most savvy technician, but it always seemed to me that Nogs was so important to us defensively. He was always able to provide an outlet to players in trouble and most importantly hold onto the ball or play quick 1-2’s to allow us to regain shape. He was always a master of switching the field.

    While these strengths didn’t result in as many offensive key passes, it was a huge part of our defensive scheme. But keeping possession longer, we made the other team chase and wear down. If he did turn it over, it was generally further up the field and our players were in position to counter press more effectively.

    Losing him has really, really disrupted our scheme.

  5. UnitedPenn13 says:

    I wasn’t aware that Nogs already signed with Ligue 2 side RC Strasbourg Alsace. I guess his health issue wasn’t physical.

  6. Of those 14 games before he departed, Vince made only 8 appearances for the team, according to the leagues stat page. I’m not sure what the team’s record was with or without Vince on the pitch, but you could probably get a better picture of his impact looking at that number. Though, the point of having fresh, quality starters you can rotate is worth taking into consideration, too.
    As to whether or not Nogs is replaceable, he is, but clearly not by any healthy players currently on the roster. Perhaps Edu and Carrol can combine as the 8 and 6 respectively, getting Barnetta back in the 10 spot, where he can be rested by Alberg. Even then, whether it’s the answer or not, the team still needs a reinforcement in defensive midfield. I can’t believe we haven’t heard of anything reliable about D Mid or Striker (in otherwords, not the ridiculous Balotelli rumor). We need more of both.

  7. Lucky Striker says:

    I wouldn’t have accused Dan of being lazy if he had simply added: “and don’t trust the depth they have enough to give it minutes” and stopped there.

    The same needs discussed among some pre-season:

    ( CDM / Str. / LB ) are the same needs now. Maybe Barney could even get back to playing the position Chaco was moved out of for him to take over, again. Hey; it could happen (before he leaves at the end of the year) #baitandswitch………..

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I actually cut a reference to that out simply because I felt the column was too long already. (I always aim to stay under 900 words, and this was over 1,000.)

      You could dedicate an entire column to Curtin’s views on squad rotation, and in the end, what you may come away with is a column on roster construction. (And maybe that’s worth doing, but are any of you interested in reading another column from me about that?)

      This year, you could argue that Curtin plays plenty of subs. He plays 3 center backs and 3 fullbacks, for example. He has Creavalle and Carroll at the No. 6. Le Toux/Ilsinho at RM. Herbers plays. Decent backup keeper, possibly. Etc.

      The real issue is he doesn’t have a single No. 8 available to him right now, no legitimate backup No. 9, and he doesn’t really trust former Cosmos Restrepo and Fernandes in attacking midfield. The rest of the team exists to fill out Bethlehem’s roster (save Anderson, who was an insurance policy that won’t return next season).

      The Union loaded up on attacking midfielders in the off-season, basically grabbing the best players available regardless of position. That’s a good move when rebuilding, because you don’t know which ones will pan out, but it can still leave holes. The absences of Nogueira and Edu have highlighted that. Sans injury, the only really depth problem entering the season should have been center forward.

  8. Spot on article. The Union really miss Nogs. And even if Edu gets healthy and plays the #8 role it won’t be in the same style as Nogs. Edu isn’t as calm on the ball or as good as a tempo setter. No knock on Edu but that’s just not his game. Nogs was a very unique player in MLS and will be very difficult to find a like replacement.

  9. While everyone wants rumors and ideas what the Union are doing. I tend to think Earnie is not the type of person to let people know that. After something is concrete then he gives out the info, but not before. It seems to be how he works and I have a feeling all transfer windows from the Union now on will be generally quiet and when something happens and only then will we know. I mean Alberg and Anderson were both kept under raps until they signed I believe or a day or two before they signed. Ilsinho was the only one with a lot of rumors since he was a trialist.

  10. Thank you, Dan, for saying something that I have been saying for weeks and weeks now: Alberg is not a CAM, he’s a poacher-type forward. He had that remarkable scoring run, and it clearly testifies to his talent, but the goals he scored were clean-up type stuff. And I’m not knocking that, BTW — he finished beautifully, and that’s how you win games. But he does not spread the ball, does not really participate in buildup, and is just not right in the middle of the pitch. He might work as a winger — it remains to be seen — or as a withdrawn second forward (though that would involve changing formation).

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      You say it by implication, I will do so overtly, “Alberg is not a CAM” in MLS.
      Harken back to The Sporting Director’s comparison of MLS to the Bundesliga to the Eredivisie. While he made it clear the German league was of higher quality especially at the top end of the table, he said the styles of the two nations were similar. With the same caveat about the top, he said the styles of the Dutch and North America were NOT similar.
      Alberg plays CAM like a Nederlander, shock and surprise. Especially as someone wiser than I somewhere in these posts recently pointed out after he began accumulating cards profligately trying to adapt to his new environment, he reverted to type. My apologies for not remembering who you are, full credit for the wisdom nonetheless.

  11. Now, on a second note, why do you say that Seattle is the most important club in MLS??? That seems quite undemocratic. Who cares if Seattle struggles, and NYCFC or Montreal or Colorado takes their place in the league’s elite? Certainly not I.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Because Major League Baseball is ‘better’ when the Yankees are good. Dans comment speaks directly to the single entity structure.

    • Jim Presti says:

      MLS “needs” Seattle – who have the highest attendance numbers and tv viewership numbers – to put a decent product on the field to maintain the MLS narrative that the league can be successful as a single-entity without pro/rel. Seattle is the poster boy for MLS. It’s their “Look at how excited people are! Look at how we pack the stadium with 35K+! Don’t worry about the on-field product across the league or the total monopoly we have on D1 soccer in the US! Look at the $$$ we can make off these saps!”
      Maybe it’s me, but where is the complete outrage from the SS fanbase? Am I missing it?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        You sir have all the ingredients.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Maybe, maybe not. The bigger issue is can they adequately “control growth” via their single-entity structure, while also building on their current market share. And more importantly can they do all this league growth while growing the actual on-field product. I’m very, very doubtful that given the current structure the on-field product will grow at a more rapid pace than the rest of the world’s burgeoning leagues.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Cut to one of the chases. Are they willing to grow the salary outlay?
        TAM expires after next season, unless they renew it.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I am sure they will continue to increase the cap space and TAM/GAM availability. But it’s the quirky signing rules, allocation orders, discovery rights – initiatives that handicap the league in the name of parity. That said, just increasing the cap does not help. The league needs to investment more in the USL and team academies, add additional roster spots for international players. The current crop off US players above 23 are tolerable at best.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        This is well said and pretty much covers my thoughts, although it’s more cynical than I would have said.

        When I talk with non-MLS fans and they dismiss the league, I counter with, “You know they have a team that draws 40,000 fans a game and packs 60,000 whenever they want, right? You know they had the 4th/5th/whatever largest attendance for a single game in the world, right?” And they get curious.

        The Seattle story brings the sort of credibility that no other team in the league can.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I agree it’s great to have a flagship team to market for the league as a whole to new/skeptical fans. BUT it does not excuse the at times amateurish behavior of the league in terms of its roster rules and clear favoritism for certain markets. In addition, there seems to be little outrage from the SS supporters. Why aren’t they making Lagerway and the ownership group feel the squeeze. It’s not enough to be grateful to have a team in your town. That doesn’t move the dial towards greater on-field product.

      • Dan Walsh says:

        Oh, agreed, without question, regarding favoritism. Regarding fan response … I think they rightly recognize that Obafemi Martins’ late departure really crushed them. I like a patient, reasonable fan base. I mean, that franchise has been extraordinarily well run thus far. At least they’ve finally fired Schmid … a week too late to get Kreis.

  12. Well I said it when the news came out he was gone…I knew it was too good to last. It felt like a slap in the face. Especially that he was signed to a new team in less then a week. There’s been absolutely no movement on the Union’s part to find a replacement or any of our glaring needs. As I wrote in the match report…He was the engine, the heart, of the team. The team has been lucky, fooling others into thinking the body was still alive with spasms and twitching. Last night we saw the truth…without a heart…the body withers. We need a transplant.

  13. one thing I’m still not clear on… How did the Union not get a transfer fee or anything? I can appreciate it if they wanted to do Nogs a solid, but I haven’t seen discussed anywhere if it was monumentally stupid to let him go for nothing. Maybe he had no transfer value. I don’t know. It’s just bizarre.

    • I thought it was strange too. If he doesn’t want to play for us anymore…fine. Go back to France and we’ll figure out a transfer.

    • Jim Presti says:

      The contract was canceled via mutual consent. So he essentially left the club on a free.

      • Right. I’d love to know why the Union allowed him to go without some kind of compensation. Maybe there’s a good reason. Would just like to know.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        They made it clear by implication that a reserved, private man badly wanted us to respect his privacy.
        Clearly the issue was not physical.
        That leaves matters of the psyche. What types of events throw mature, solid adults over onto one wing? The first subdivision of the possibilities is between issues of Self and issues of Others.
        Now think of all the logical possibilities under Others.
        I am going no further in my speculative invasion of the man’s highly valued privacy out of respect for him as a fellow human, as a class act, and as one of the best who have played for the Union in its short history.
        Think carefully and systematically. Then, say, “Oh,” when the light bulb clicks on and respect the man’s wishes.
        In a wildly irresponsible burst of speculative thought, read the recent profile piece on Jose Barril on the City Islanders website.

  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=obg2pZDaCFI In case anyone wants to see Nogs run around. Or maybe drinking water. Or saying things in French that I don’t understand.

  15. Jim Presti says:

    Speaking of the Sounders, they fire Sigi and the fanbase response is “It’s all Lagerway’s fault! Best of luck Sigi! Thanks Sigi!” You are about to miss the playoffs and your roster looks like hell. Part of that is the front office and part of that is the coach. Proof that the scrutiny of on-field product across MLS is pretty weak – almost childish in comparison to S. America & Europe.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Gary Kleiben was commenting on this similarly over the weekend. I agreed but did mention I saw a certain supporters group carry a casket to a game to voice disapproval over franchise direction.
      He still wasn’t impressed. I tried.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        None of us have any doubt that you did your best, el P. Audio-visual AIDS raise the effectiveness of direct instruction by an amazing percentage, according to the gurus of educational psychology.

      • Jim Presti says:

        And even that was half-hearted in my opinion. The “protest” never made it to TV screens or to other media outlets. Part of that is because SUM controls those outlets etc, but that’s an entirely different conversation.

  16. The “schedule” half of the headline’s thesis was known long ago, and the “missing Nogs” half showed signs well before he was let go for nothing back. Surely the braintrust knew before the fanbase he was irreplaceable but chose not to plan for that possibility. Curtin trots out the “no excuse” excuse for exhausted players making mistakes. Barnetta has 2 weeks between games but the manager needs to go to rwmwdial roster rotation summer school now.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      remedial roster rotation summer school.
      Two switchbacks and a crevasse over from the C.o.U.D?
      Shouldn’t be long now till the campers arrive again with Vienna Fingers and Grasshoppers.

      • That’s funny! I personally am not ready to head back to the C.o.U.D. it’s true this team misses Nogs. But there has been a true shift in this team that most of us(I think) didn’t expect to see until this time next season. I know that expectations have been raise do to the better on field play. I hope they can find a combination that gets them back to their early form. They miss him,we miss him,just a new challenge to get through.

  17. Old Soccer Coach says:

    We are returning to the C. Of U. D. Because we are no longer a contender for home field advantage throughout the playoffs, we fear.
    As I reminisce do I not remember earlier conversations about moving goalposts?
    Compare the positions of the goalposts now to the same this time last year.
    We are not going to be Leicester City. We may not even make the playoffs. On the other hand, even if the slide extends that far down, we are no longer irrelevant to the rest of the league. We do not get the opposition’s B starters as the best players stay home the way we did last year.
    And while el P. And I disagree strongly about whether Derrick Jones is ready, there are players at Bethlehem who will push current first team incumbents next January.

    This season the Academy has demonstrated two center backs who are capable of playing well with USL professional adults. (Trusty and McKenzie). There is a U-16 attacking center mid who struggles a little with those same professionals, but also shows flashes of creativity and guile sufficient to make us impatienT for him to grow up. (Anthony Fontana). No the academy has not put a striker on the USL field. There is a 20 year old and an 18 year old on the Steel’s roster behind Corey Burke. (Seku Conneh and Amoy Brown). Who knows whether either will amount to anything, but there is at least a chance. Somebody thought they were worth bring over here (from Holland and Jamaica respectively)
    Not yet time to recall the high Priest for the Gospels of Union Despair (as much fun as his stuff was to read!)

    • That was some great stuff! +100 for the reminder!

      • der Fussballzuschauer says:

        With all due respect, OSC – McKenzie has made exactly two appearances totaling 20 minutes in the USL … I was under the impression that Justin McMaster, who has made two brief USL substitute appearances in injury time this season, was a striker

    • As for striker, i remember hearing recently a top NCAA prospoect came threw the Union system. I forget his name … dammit. Elney or something?

      MLSAnalyst actually threw his name out there for us recently.

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