Player ratings

Analysis & player ratings: Union 1-2 Real Salt Lake

Photo: Earl Gardner

Philadelphia Union finished July with a 1-3-1 record in MLS play after losing the lead and the match against Real Salt Lake at home on Sunday. Despite going into halftime up 1-0, Philly was never particularly dominant, and their inability to build lasting possessions into good chances created a stilted contest that was decided by two gorgeous goals by the visitors.

Last year, Jim Curtin continually reiterated that his team needed everybody to play well to secure a win. There has been no need to explicitly state that sentiment for much of 2016. It has been clear from the effort and organization that, from top to bottom, the roster was buying in, working, and enjoying the benefits of a clearly defined tactical system.

Bad month

But July has been far different. A sluggish loss in the Houston heat was followed by a walkover win against a limp DC United side. Since then, the Union have been eerily close to the 2015 club that never solved a tendency to commit individual defensive errors and, as a result, never locked in a coordinated defensive system. Since waltzing past a listless United, the Union went down two goals to New York and came back in a two-minute flurry, they were punished repeatedly for getting stretched by Montreal, and they looked wholly without attacking ideas against Real Salt Lake.

Many teams go through late summer swoons in MLS. Famously, the 2014 New England Revolution lost nine straight between May 31 and July 26 before making a run to the MLS Cup final. Philadelphia Union have not been “found out,” and they are not revealing long-hidden weaknesses. They are making individual mistakes,

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bad defensive reads,

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and playing too direct.

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They are forcing things.

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On this last breakout, you can see Herbers make a great back check to free the ball, then you see… the very direct off-the-ball runs. In all likelihood, each player is waiting to see what cut the others will make and in the end they all collapse the defense to the same spot. Somebody needs to take charge, and that theme has run through a lot of the Union’s offensive decision-making woes since Vincent Nogueira left town.

Going back to the Plata goal, it’s notable that Ilsinho doesn’t arrive to help defensively until the very end of the play. Early in the season, the Brazilian’s off-and-on defense was occasionally a problem, but when he was hustling he would track wingers deep into his own half. There were two benefits: First, and most obvious, he could help defend. Second, it meant he was close to Rosenberry and could help the Union build out of the back.

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But perhaps Ilsinho can be forgiven once the pair of failed clearances prior to Plata’s exquisite blast are factored in. Rosenberry’s header into the air then Tribbett’s soft ball out of the box allowed Salt Lake to establish a 3v3 situation on the flank. Once it is clear RSL is staying in the final third, Philly is far too slow to set up a low block defense to protect the edge of the box. And the result is a goal. A beautiful, stunning goal.

Union touches in the center of the attacking zone between the 55th minute when Morales scored and the 89th when Carroll and Tribbett put shots on frame.

Union touches in the center of the attacking zone between the 55th minute when Morales scored and the 89th when Carroll and Tribbett put shots on frame.

Movement in midfield

The defense came in for plenty of blame against Montreal and again on Sunday. But it’s becoming harder to deny that the Union’s true weakness lies in the center, which used to be their biggest strength.

In an early season win over Columbus, the Union deployed Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle behind Ilsinho in the center of the pitch. It didn’t work great defensively, with the visitors lucky that their hosts couldn’t put numerous good chances on frame. But despite playing with two holding players, Philly was quite competent on the ball. In contrast to Sunday’s loss, Brian Carroll began the year coming back to collect the ball without dropping all the way between the central defenders. Instead, Carroll received the ball five or ten yards ahead of the defense and quickly switched fields. The goal was to draw a midfielder out of position and open a lane for a pass from central defense to Creavalle or Ilsinho.

This strategy was generally effective, with Carroll playing simple, quick balls and Creavalle collecting passes with enough time to make good decisions. As Creavalle’s confidence grew, he would push further ahead during extended possessions, even earning an assist with a smart play in the next match against New England.

Drop it like it’s slow, hesitant, and currently ineffective

It’s worth asking what the goal is when dropping a midfielder between the center backs. The tactic was pioneered by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona as a method of advancing the ball — and the team shape — outside of the congested midfield zone. With Sergio Busquets deep, Barcelona could defeat defensive systems that pressured the center backs and move the ball across the midfield stripe while the midfield found pockets in the opponent defense. Then Barca could penetrate a defense from any of three positions in back.

One essential aspect of this strategy is that centerbacks need to be comfortable advancing the ball with their feet. By taking a man out of midfield, the attacking team is looking to create a numerical advantage in their own back line, meaning they can pull forwards off the center backs, who then have space to move forward. If the opposition midfield steps forward to close down the ball, the defensive shape is broken and the center back finds an open man and the ball moves through midfield. Voila.

For the Union, the strategy worked particularly well up the right side early in the season, with both Tribbett and Joshua Yaro stepping forward with the ball and aggressively looking to play through the lines.

Lately, the Union center backs have been pressured faster and played more passes from deep positions. When Carroll played the ball wide on Sunday, Marquez and Tribbett often immediately looked to pass forward instead of moving the ball with their feet. This is due to a combination of slow play between Carroll and the center backs and, perhaps more problematically, a lack of movement in midfield. Below, you can see many of these issues in a single play.

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First, Tribbett is still ten yards behind Carroll when the initial pass is made, meaning while he advances to receive the pass, RSL can adjust their defense. If Tribbett is anticipating the pass, he can step forward, show Carroll where he wants the ball, and immediately attack space. As the play develops, Tribbett slowly takes the space in front of him while Creavalle, instead of checking in hard (a la Vincent Nogueira), slowly backs off, looking for a gap. This means Kyle Beckerman can zonally keep an eye on both Creavalle and Ilsinho, who checks into a hole then waits for a pass instead of coming deeper for a quick one-two or abandoning the hole. If Ilsinho comes deep hard, he pulls a defender and opens the entire flank for Tribbett to dink a ball over the top to Rosenberry. And finally, without anybody checking back to the ball hard or making a run into the gap behind Demar Phillips at the bottom right of the screen, Tribbett has space to continue bringing the ball forward. But he doesn’t. In short, there are numerous ways the Union could disrupt the defensive shape of their opponent, but they settle for a soft pass into a static player with his back to goal. The result is a turnover with Rosenberry now caught out of position.

It is plays like the one above that make signing an axis-type midfielder so crucial. Tranquillo Barnetta is not Javy Morales or Diego Valeri, he does not need to be on the ball in midfield. Instead, he needs somebody else to check back hard and demand the ball, to get in close to the defense so the opposition has to step out of its shape and pressure lest they get beaten by the types of balls Creavalle puts out to Fabinho in the play below but missed on numerous other occasions throughout the match.

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With a midfielder checking in and demanding the ball, lanes open for Barnetta to slide in behind the opposition midfield, and then the Union are in business offensively.

Where does Alberg fit

Here’s the good and bad about Alberg. The good is that he’s potentially lethal around the goal and he knows it. That type of player draws defenders to him around the box. The bad is that he isn’t very effective in the middle third of the park.

First, there’s Alberg’s role in Morales’ goal. I’m not entirely sure at what point Alberg should have dropped in to cover the space at the top of the box, but it certainly appears as though Creavalle believes he should be occupying a deeper zone and Alberg should be keeping an eye on the top of the box.

That said, Creavalle’s positioning was a bit haphazard all game, so this could be a case where he was deeper than he needed to be and Alberg was less at fault than it appears on the tape.

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Answer this: How is it even possible that the player who has to be the team’s creative hub (playing in front of two nearly-pure holding mids) can go from the 6:20 mark until the 23:40 mark without a touch on the ball in open play? In a home game!? It’s one thing to make decoy runs, but it’s another to abdicate your responsibility as the player who drives the team forward. It’s both unbelievable and, frankly, unacceptable.

Alberg remains an asset overall, but he needs to figure out how to stamp his presence on a match in ways other than with his shooting boots.

One final note

Every starting outfield player except CJ Sapong managed to get a shot off for the Union on Sunday. Think about that. Everyone but the striker. Sapong’s hold up play was very good, particularly in the opening frame, but he isn’t scoring goals as the team’s striker and that really needs to change.

Furthermore, only Ken Tribbett and Brian Carroll put shots on goal from open play. How’s that for a sour note to end on?

Oh, not sour enough? How about that two of the Union’s three shots on frame from open play came in the 89th minute?

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Player ratings

Andre Blake – 6

Not going to do anything about those goals.

Keegan Rosenberry – 3

A below-par showing from the right back, with multiple early giveaways and struggles to get involved going forward consistently. Notably, when he did get into the final third he put some good cutbacks into the box.

Ken Tribbett – 4

It’s possible to blame Tribbett for not stepping to Plata on the first goal, but that would be pretty harsh. The defender stepped to his man, he can’t predict the cute drop pass.

Richie Marquez – 5

A strong match distributing the ball was a bright spot on a day when the Union were generally lackluster moving the rock. But Marquez and his partner both need to be more aggressive carrying the ball forward. RSL kept their striker on Carroll, asking the Union to play through the CBs to Creavalle. It didn’t happen.

Fabinho – 5

A strong first half dissolved into an aggressive but ineffective second frame. As much attacking impetus as Fabi provides, his decision-making in the final third needs to improve. Forcing crosses into the box has to be balanced with a willingness to hold the ball and bring others into play.

Brian Carroll – 6

Spent 90 minutes putting out fires and trying to spray the ball around. His offensive positioning was very good, but RSL did well to mark him during buildups and drag him out of the center on defense.

Warren Creavalle – 2

The double-pivot falls apart rather quickly when the two players in the center don’t step and drop in coordination. When Carroll chased a runner, Creavalle needed to drop into the hole immediately. He didn’t and ended up taking a lot of bad angles. Additionally, he absolutely needed to be checking into the ball aggressively to pull a midfielder out of the center and open space for Ilsinho to attack space on the turn.

Roland Alberg – 3

See above. Sweet penalty, though.

Ilsinho first half passing

Ilsinho first half passing

Ilsinho – 3

Looking at Ilsinho’s passing chart, it’s almost incredible that he didn’t have a key pass or at least set up something. It does seem as though the Brazilian is forcing things, trying to dribble around the area until something opens up when he should be giving the ball up and making a run to put himself in a dangerous position behind the defense.

Chris Pontius – 6

Pontius was playing a different game than the rest of the team. His defensive work and attacking movement were far superior to the rest of the team, but he’s not playing a role in which he can easily change a match by himself. Without other players getting him the ball in good positions, Pontius is forced to drop deeper to become involved, and that means he’s not close to goal to finish. And right now, he needs to be close to goal because the Union’s striker is not finishing.

CJ Sapong – 3

Once again, CJ Sapong was close but not close enough to more than one ball into the box. In the first half, he did a wonderful job showing for the ball and forcing RSL defenders to body him up. Maund was no match and the result was a penalty. In the second half, Sapong was anonymous, popping up only occasionally, and too late.


Fabian Herbers – 4

Herbers’ work off the ball was far better than the man he replaced. The rookie worked his way to the back line then checked back into space, drawing defenders and opening lanes for those around him. Still, bad decisions and touches on the ball knock down his score.

Sebastien Le Toux – 6

Was lively and contributed immediately when he came on. Should start on Saturday.

Leo Fernandes – 4

Looked as though he had the right ideas, but continues to look lost defensively and overthinks things going forward. His run and low cross for Sapong were a highlight, but he fizzed in a cross that needed to be a touch pass.

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Geiger counter – 2

Juan Guzman baffles. His whistle is slow even for obvious fouls, meaning players are often playing hesitantly following a coming-together, unsure why or if Guzman is waiting. He seemed unoffended by a vicious tackle from behind on Creavalle, and didn’t give Demar Phillips a card for going in studs up on Roland Alberg’s foot.


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    Don’t forget that Guzman chopped off about 10 minutes from the game by allowing RSL to stall and not adding much stoppage time. Forgetting the second half, in the first there were 2 or 3 stoppages for RSL “injuries” plus the scrum where Beckerwoman had to shove half the Union players, plus a good 2 minutes between the whistle and Alberg finally being able to take the PK. But only 2 minutes stoppage time.
    Then in the 2nd half, he kept waving the RSL players to restart or to hurry off the field but didn’t do anything except when Morales insisted on walking through the center circle after delaying the restart following the game winner. There probably should have been 6-7 minutes of time added but he gave 4 (+1 on the last sub).

    • You can make your point that Beckerman acted like a jerk without being sexist.

      • Andy Muenz says:

        I know…and I just said pretty much the same thing to one of my coworkers…I was never sexist until I became a Union fan and started calling the team from North Jersey the pink cows…
        It was not the best way to say it. (And he did acknowledge he heard me when I called him classless on the field Sunday and he made mouth moving motions with his hand in response.)

  2. Zizouisgod says:

    “Philadelphia Union have not been “found out,” and they are not revealing long-hidden weaknesses. They are making individual mistakes, bad defensive reads and playing too direct.”

    Great summation. Hopefully everyone at the Union Cliff of Despair will read this.

  3. When was the last time Le Toux had an effective game as a starter?

    We know what he is now. A great sub option but in a start, his lack of touch or creativity or ability to control in space or make intelligent runs hurts us.

    • Le Toux does have two assists in his last four starts, and collected a goal and four assists when starting eleven straight April through mid-June. In other words, he’s had more contributions to goals than the man ahead of him in the pecking order right now.

      Also, you could ask the same question of most of the Union’s non-Pontius attacking group that gets regular starts. Sapong hasn’t scored from open play since May, Alberg doesn’t have a SOG from open play since he had 10 SOG in 3 games in late June, Ilsinho has 3 SOG (2 from open play in 6 starts since rejoining the first XI…

      • I feel like Le Toux is the king of those empty stats. The Bobby Abreu of the Union. He may collect assists and goals here and there, but the eye test tells you he doesn’t mesh with the newfound quality in our midfield and has a lot of limitations.

      • While I partially agree, Ilsinho is the king of making the other team look foolish but not actually contributing to goals. And he plays no defense. And recently he’s been losing the ball a lot more and forcing things as noted in the write-up.

      • True. But if I had to choose between “Knows to how to dribble and keep the ball in tight places” versus “omg look how fast he runs”, I’d take the first player.

      • More like how much he runs rather than how fast he runs

      • I agree, but i’d also like more than 2 goals and 1 assist from my starting winger, even if he can dribble.

      • This to me is the nagging issue with this team. A striker in CJ who can’t seem to score. Imagine if Pontius wasn’t in the middle of a career season. This team would be competing with Chicago for worst place again. I get CJ’s ability to hold up play and that if you can spread goal scoring to the top 4 players in the attack, you don’t necessarily need a striker to put up 15+ goals. But if you want to put this team over the top, it’s going to require an upgrade of Sapong at that spot, no? I’m starting to pine for Arsteguieta. Dude was slow as hell, but he could put a shot on frame.

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    Creavalle may get tackles and recoveries on the stat sheet, but as is often the case with players who are not strikers, the things that do not end up on the stat sheet are the most important. He has no positional sense whatsoever, as was made clear in the analysis. It may sound like a knee-jerk reaction, but the positional chaos he creates makes me think that he should not be on the field as a starter. In fact, the only time he should be on the field is when we are truly bunkering down and pull the CAM for a defensive player. That is the only time his positional wandering won’t destroy us.
    I’m very interested to see what happens in the next week. Ale’s defensive play at the Copa was extremely encouraging in terms of his ability to be an 8. However, in an ideal world, I’m hoping that Ale will play the 10. If that is the case, I think that acquiring Dillon Powers is a realistic possibility. We have nothing of value (that we are willing to give up) to trade for Powers until we acquire Ale. If we do, we could trade Alberg or Ilsinho to COL. Powers has been forced to play the 10 role in COL since Jones arrived, but he is a natural 8. We need an 8, they need a 10, and if Ale arrives we would be more willing to trade Ilsinho or Alberg. It’s not going to happen, but here would be the ideal lineup.
    Bench: Restrepo, McCarthy, LeToux, BC, Gaddis, Ilsinho or Alberg, Jones, Tribbett
    Leo and Creavalle are not worth having on the bench imo. Leo has been given more opportunities to prove himself than a lot of other hard working Union players in the past, but he consistently fails to take advantage of the opportunities he is given. Unfortunately, I think he is too slow and lacks the physicality/technical ability to make up for his lack of pace.
    Building towards next season, I do not think that Barnetta, Ilsinho, and possibly Edu, depending on his play, should return. While I may sound crazy, those three players occupy 1/3 of our team’s salary cap and two international spots. With the exception of Barnetta, the production in return for cost from Ilsinho and Edu is simply too low to justify them remaining. If we can get any of them to cut their salary demands in half, bring them back. Particularly Barnetta. The only reason I included him on this list is that he will be 32 next season and has a long history of knee injuries. He has been worth every penny paid to him so far, but we are pushing our luck by maintaining that high pay into next year.
    As strange as it sounds, I have developed a certain degree of trust in the moves the organization has made. Barnetta, Pontius, Tribbett, Yaro, Herbers, Rosenberry, and Alberg are moves that have all been made in the past year and have been fantastic. I include Alberg on this list because, although he has not been perfect, he is paid significantly less than Barnetta and Edu (and slightly less than Ilsinho), but has been productive. Even the moves they chose not to make have panned out well, e.g. picking Rosenberry over Vincent.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    I’m watching the TV broadcast of the game and just saw the first RSL goal. It was 18 seconds from when Rosenberry had the miss hit header until the goal. Although the Union had a clearance in front of goal, they never really regained control. Meanwhile that entire time, Ilsinho is in the screenshot, first standing around and then slowly walking toward the play. He could have, and should have, come back to help with the defense since he was the closest unoccupied player on the Union but instead watch RSL play with it until the ball ended up in the back of the net. I’d lay about 90% of the blame for that one on him.

  6. I think the players are reading Adams column and getting confused. On the first goal Rosenberry can just head it out of bounds and not try to keep it in play. Simple soccer. On the midfield giveaways, why force things, why turn into the defender. Forget about forcing a pass to someone who is halfheartedly checking back and so on, just pass it back if you made or see a mistake and start again. The man with the ball is responsible, not the one who refuses to work hard. Also, its not enough to notice Sapong is not scoring. See what he is doing that makes him innefective and teach him to change his ways. High balls onto the head aint gonna do it. These guys need fewer tactics and more basic , less brainy play to the feet soccer. Second ball combat is a bad way to play and will not serve you well long term. I think they need a reset by the coaching staff.

  7. el Pachyderm says:

    A simple analysis by The elephant.

  8. The Little Fish says:

    I cannot believe I’m saying this but if we get Bedoya perhaps we should consider playing Mo Edu at CB in place of the Tribett/Yaro platoon. It would be less wear and tear on Mo’s stress fracture and strengthen our spine defensively. (If we don’t get Bedoya Mo is immediately plugged into the MF though.)
    Also, I’ve got to be honest playing Bedoya on the wing opposite Chris Pontius is also kind of fun to think about. Am I crazy?

    • No, not crazy. I do think having a lineup of:

      Pontius – Barnetta – Bedoya

      is a pretty nice thing. That is going to be a hard team to break down.

  9. Bienvenue M Bedoya!!

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