A View from Afar / Commentary

Ilsinho, streetballer extraordinaire — but is that all?

Photo: Earl Gardner

Every basketball streetballer knows a playground legend.

He’s the guy with the nasty handle and the thousand-mile J. He can break your ankles off the dribble, drop a dime in your eye, and call “water” before the net tells you, “Swish.” He’s got more tricks than a cereal-chasing rabbit, more smiles than a mile of models, more confidence than Mike Tyson on a Michael Spinks high, and the ability to do things with the ball nobody else can.

But he doesn’t play defense, and he doesn’t play well with a team.

In America, basketball is the streetballer’s game.

In Brazil, it’s soccer.

And the Brazilian Ilsinho looks like a playground legend.

Elasticos and dribble-throughs, look-away passes and “Oh no, he did not just do that” plays — Ilsinho has them in spades. He’s a walking highlight reel like no other that Philadelphia Union fans have ever seen wear the blue and gold. His pure soccer talent is off the charts. He can be ridiculously fun to watch.

If only he fit into the team better.

In what’s becoming a weekly tally, the Union are 4-6-2 when Ilsinho starts and 4-2-5 when he doesn’t.

His performance Saturday against D.C. United was one part epic highlight to four parts anonymity.

On one hand, Ilsinho made an absolutely brilliant, game-changing play when he picked Luciano Acosta’s pocket to steal the ball deep in United territory and then dropped a perfect no-look pass to set up the go-ahead goal from Chris Pontius.

On the other hand, that one play may not have been enough to make his performance a net positive for the Union.

As is typical for him, he often played fairly narrow in attack, pinching in toward the center from the right to create off the dribble. Overlap opportunities for right back Keegan Rosenberry proved rare, as they have been for weeks. Defensively, we can at least say that Ilsinho seemed the lone player moving to mark anyone on D.C. United out beyond the 18 on that key play in stoppage time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough to stop his mark from finding sufficient space to float a cross into the box that Steve Birnbaum headed in for the game-tying goal in stoppage time.

[gfycat data_id=UnhealthyFlamboyantCreature data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]

Ilsinho is great fun to watch as an individual.

But soccer is a team sport. A team’s shape matters, both in attack and defense. So does defensive effort. So do flow, space and intuitive interaction with your teammates. So does the ability to blend well with your teammates and consistently make the team better.

Earlier in the season, you could make the case that Ilsinho was still getting to know his teammates and that chemistry would develop. Even now, you can perhaps grant a pass under the premise that Tranquillo Barnetta’s temporary move to the No. 8 center midfield spot has unsettled the the chemistry.

But you can’t deny that something is off.

The Union just traded away the team icon who had been the prime alternative to Ilsinho at right attacking midfield. New signing Alejandro Bedoya has spent plenty of time in that role, but most expect him to take Barnetta’s place at the No. 8 for the rest of the season to allow Barnetta to return to the No. 10 role at which he has flourished this season. Backup Walter Restrepo just dribbled himself out of contention for more minutes.

So Ilsinho still has time to show he can be more than just a streetball highlight reel. To be fair, there are definite signs he can be.

If not, Fabian Herbers is making it harder for his coaches to keep him off the field, and they’ll have to find somewhere for him to play. Maybe it’s right attacking midfield. Herbers may not hit the highlight reel as often as Ilsinho — although Herbers do the little things that make his teammates — and team — better. Right now, that’s what the Union need.

Miscellaneous notes: Ocean City, Ocean City, Ocean City
  • Chevy Walsh, player to watch: Few had heard of the Ocean City Nor’easters striker before this year. Now he is the MVP of the USL PDL. The 6-3 forward — no relation to me — should be on every MLS club’s draft board come January.
  • Ocean City, a team to watch: The Nor’easters have been overshadowed the last few years by Reading United and its affiliation with Philadelphia Union. No more. They have become a PDL power under coach Tim Oswald, who continues to find overlooked gems year after year.
  • Tim Oswald, a coach to watch: At what point does Oswald, who also coaches Rutgers-Camden, become someone that the pros begin to look at for their staffs? He has done wonders with both squads that he coaches.


  1. Dan,

    I love your columns. Look forward to them every week. But Ilsinho is nowhere on the top 10 list of issues the Union have. He’s just not. It seems like the biggest argument against him is that he has skill and therefore may not be as hardworking as his less-technical teammates. And, as much as I love Le Toux, Ilsinho is an upgrade. He’s only been in the league a little more than half a season. Let’s give him some time to acclimate and get his fitness level up. He’s got talent. Just give him more time with a midfield that has some sort of consistency.

    • While I like Ilsinho and his technical ability. Le Toux, for all his frustrations, was more productive in the stats that matter. I definitely want Ilsinho to get more time, but he has short comings that are more than just fitness. I also challenge you to give me 10 issues that are bigger than him. 6 shots on goal, 2 goals (1 a penalty) and 2 assists in 958 minutes. Along with the fact he does track back on D for the most part.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        But his recognition of the need to defend is half-a-count slow, it is conscious thought not instinct.
        For an example of why that matters, look at the highlights from Bethlehem Steel’s match Sunday July 31st at Lehigh. Nick Bibbs thought rather than reacted on the second of Toronto FC 2’s three goals.

      • OK, maybe not in the top 5 behind our issues with centerback, Left bAck, D-mid, Striker who doesn’t score … I guess the thing is, I don’t watch Ilsinho and think “Hey, there’s a problem here.”

      • Fair enough, can’t disagree.

      • Jim Presti says:

        Problems ahead of Ilsinho: DMID, Box-to-Box Mid (Bedoya may answer this), CB inexperience, Striker production, LB and LB depth, game-day tactics, set-piece offense, closing out matches, winger depth.

    • To me, the biggest argument against him is this:

      Is the team better or worse as a whole with him in the lineup?

      It’s hard to answer that question because it’s been hard to separate his effect on the team from the absence of Nogueira, move of Barnetta to No. 8, etc.

      Is this the biggest issue the team has? No. They have several at hand, and they may have addressed most of the biggest ones last week — save for this one. Plus, I have a weekly column — and I already wrote about Bedoya last week (but before his news conference) — and this was interesting and worth writing about.

      • pragmatist says:

        You obviously chose a good topic. If we don’t comment, then you missed your target. Not an issue on this one!

    • I disagree with this sentiment, especially with Bedoya at the #8. When crunch time rolls around, we’re going to most likely have a spine of Edu, Bedoya, and Barnetta. Our outside AMs’ most important job will be stretching the field wide, making runs, keeping shape, playing reactive defense, and possessing superb fitness. While Ilsihno has far more natural ball skill than Seba, he is less suited to provide the skill sets that this team needs going forward out of the RAM position.

      • Atomic Spartan says:

        Gotta disagree with your disagreement, especially with any “spine” that counts on Mo. Will he return at all? And if so, will he be a “plug and play” asset? And where in the spine? L4-L5?

    • dooper2010 says:

      The thing that cracks me up when this talk of the Union’s superior physical conditioning this year comes up, is that we regularly start one of the most out of shape guys in the league, especially for a midfielder. He rarely goes 90 and we pay him pretty big bucks. Le Toux’s overall game, albeit a very very different one, was better than Illsinho’s imho and came at a better price tag.

  2. Pete, I have to disagree. Dan is spot-on here. Ilsinho is the slowest guy on a team dying for someone with game-changing speed. He is ill-suited for a counter-pressing team. I’d rather have LeToux in the right mid-field. I’d rather give Restrepo another chance. I’d rather give Herbers more playing time. I’d rather Alberg get a look on the right. Anything but more Ilsinho.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Agree with everything save Alberg. Ilsinho tries hard to defend. Alberg has not tried hard recently. he has undoubtedly been told to cut out the yellow cards, and that seems to have reduced the effort.

      • I agree with your assessment. I really like Alberg’s skill set, but there’s something off about him. I really wanted to see more time for him earlier in the season because I thought he would grow into one of our most skilled attacking players. But now, I’m not so convinced because of the downsides that exist on the defensive and disciplinary sides of the ball.

    • I’d take Ilsinho every every player you listed with the exception of Herbers, who I think has room to grow. I think Restrepo may, too, develop, but not anytime soon (as in this season). Alberg’s personality seems to get in his own way. Ilson is very good. Better touch, better vision of the game in every way than most players on the roster.

  3. I have such mixed feelings about Ilsinho. His offensive skills are so unique and exciting. He has single-handedly rekindled my son’s interest in the Union.

    However, he seems like the kind of one-way offensive player you need to structure around, and given his inability to finish and his inconsistent passing, I don’t know if he has the offensive quality to make it worth screwing up the whole team concept.

    At this point, given that he came on a free transfer, I’m guessing Earnie is mostly focused on increasing his value and shipping him back to Europe.

  4. ERic Baratta says:

    The DC game was the perfect opportunity to put Ilsinho in the center and Herbers on the wing (where he looks like he belongs), but the coach put him out there on the right, again. I’m confounded by Ilsinho being wasted in a position he’s not suited for. It seems so un-intuitive to put him there…

  5. I believe if restrepo gets more minutes and a chance to calm some nerves he could be a great threat. His speed on the right would be a hard match and would be perfect for counters. Not to mention as seen at Bethlehem and the cosmos he too has a bag of tricks

    • Yeah, catastrophic mental lapses from last week aside, I would like to see more of Restrepo. I’m not writing him off because of a couple bad decisions in one 10-minute stretch.

  6. “We need to get away from run fast, try hard.”


    “Why doesn’t that guy with crazy technical ability run faster and try harder?”


    American soccer, man….


    I don’t post often here so I do want to be clear, that’s not a slight at the author, or the commenteriat. I’ve read enough of the content and commentary on this site to know that you guys – especially Dan – know a whole hell of a lot about this game, and I have a ton of respect for your opinions. This just seems to highlight one of the recurring themes in MLS/American soccer circles. We want what we don’t have (creativity/technical ability), but then when we get it, we have no idea what the hell to do with it.


    Also, point of clarity #2 – I’m not saying Ilsinho is above reproach. Dude has some issues. Just happen to think that he’s something this league doesn’t see much of, and thus doesn’t really know how to defend. To me, that would warrant trying to figure out a way to maximize his ability (even if it’s off the bench), rather than sticking him into a plug-and-play system and asking him to be something he’s quite clearly not.

    • You should post here more often! Great counterpoint. So much so that I have no retort, only a slow nod in agreement and recognition that this would have made some great nuance to add to my column.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      We want what we see from the very best players in the very best leagues which are the ones we see on TV.
      My wife does not like basketball, but she loved watching Michael Jordan. She tolerates going to soccer games but primarily because she’s married to a nut. But she will ask when Argentina is playing Germany, she likes watching the best of the best.
      most of us recognize the sublimely supreme who are the best in the world at what they do. MLS only occasionally has that quality, when he is young and soon going to leave.
      For the rest of MLS it is a puzzle fitting contest.
      What Ilsinho has does not fit Jim Curtin’s vision completely.
      In addition to all the other kudos, Keegan Rosenberry should get credit for cleaning up behind Ilsinho. So should the right center backs who also have to do so when Rosenberry is upfield caught by Ilsinho trying to dribble through the fifth defender who turns him over into the counter attack.
      Ilsinho must do better maintaining possession, in my view.

    • Jim Presti says:

      @Drew something I’ve been hammering at forever. Ilsinho is an incredible asset to have on a club. The MLS mind-set of run fast/try hard needs to be extirpated.
      The greater issue is Curtin not – or seemingly not – playing Ilinsho and functioning the team around optimizing his skill set and diminishing his short-comings. Maybe Bedoya will help provide extra defensive coverage in the midfield and unlock Ilsinho as an offensive weapon? Maybe not.

      • I think it has been a cascade effect. Nogs played d well for an 8, and Barnetta played d well for a 10, and Sapong played d well from the 9. With all that we could afford to have a weak spot defensively on the wing. Now that Barentta is playing the 8 and whoever is playing the 10 we have 3 defensive weak spots (in respect to the position) which has become too much. My hope is that Bedoya coming in to the 8 and Barnetta back to the 10, we will only have that Ilsinho weak spot on the wing and will be able to play around it. He’s not a complete hole defensively like Maidana was, it just takes some time for him to get back, the other players being back already should give him time.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I think, tactically, that’s the plan that makes the most sense to me. But I could also seen a strange variation where Barnetta, Ilsinho and Bedoya rotate through the midfield and wing ahead of a DMID a la Edu. Pull CBs and midfielders out of position and make it difficult to track the forward and other winger.

      • Sure, IF Edu stays home he can cover the ground for sure. And once they get comfortable, the exchange and understanding between Bedoya/Barentta/Ilishno(/Pontius) really should be a thing to watch.

      • Jim Presti says:

        I’m thinking – hoping – that Edu doesn’t feel the need to dribble out of the midfield and create if he has players like Bedoya and Barnetta in front of him. I would also like to imagine that Curtin and Stewart have him bought into the system.

      • We are on the complete same page in regards to Edu.

    • pragmatist says:

      Like Dan said, I was simply nodding along as I read this.
      And to your #2 point, I think using him as a sub would be fantastic. If Herbers starts on the right and wears out the defense with a more straightforward (albeit skillful) style, Ilsinho can come in with 20-30 minutes left and really take advantage of a tired, physically and mentally, defense.
      Hopefully the dust will settle soon on all the transfers/trades/injuries and we’ll see everyone in a position to best use their talents and skills.

      • There was one game earlier this year, can’t remember which one, Ilshino was brought on as a sub and the defense was so afraid of him burning their tired legs they gave him an insane amount of space and attention. Would love to see this again at some point. Probably depends on the opponent who should start. Nice to actually have some different viable options this year though.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Well said.

    • I’ll push back a bit. The team on the field and its system is comprised of 11 players. There are very, very few situations in the world where a team builds a system around 1 player. You see it with new managers all the time…top managers cleaning house because players don’t fit their system. To me, it’s more incumbent on the player, rather than the coach to figure out how he can integrate his top skills into the role that he’s been given. Obviously, you hope that a coach doesn’t put a #9-type player at LB, but that’s not the situation here. Ilsihno needs to figure out how to use his technical ability – which is excellent – within the responsibilities of what the Union are asking him to do.

    • I hope Big Earn got two immediate texts of gratitude on the signings at the 11th hour of the transfer window: one in Portuguese, the other Dutch. A proven finisher and a world class talent who will be our 8 until Edu returns. Just what Ilsinho needs on both sides of the ball. Frees Roland to get on the receiving end more often where we saw what he can do.
      I’m confident Jim got the message from Jay & Ernie: Here are the keys to your new car: it’s fast enough to take our first team into the playoffs. Drive and don’t come back too soon or you may not get behind the wheel next season.

  7. He was much fitter at Shaktar, thats for sure. Why isn’t their a concerted effort, with all the sports science and personnel available to the Union, that they can’t get him Shaktar fit. Maybe they are? Who knows? But the mental pause that Isinho makes that you guys are talking about….doesn’t come from him not getting it….that also comes from a lack of fitness…you flake mentally when you are gassed. And it really doesn’t matter to me personally….I want results, but as someone stated above….”he rekindled my kids interest in the Union”……thats an important point! Isinho probably helps put people in the seats. Lastly, this eerily reminds me of the whole Carlos Ruiz argument.

    • Remember, again, he’s only been in the league half a season. Can’t remember who was talking about it or where I read it — I’m pretty sure it’s something Stewart said in an interview — but MLS players run a great deal more in every match than a European player. I think it was something like 5 miles in a league like the Eredivisie vs 7 in MLS. That’s pretty much 40% more distance covered. Yes, Ilsinho trained since preseason, but it’s still an adjustment.

    • The Little Fish says:

      The difference being that Carlos Ruiz put the ball in the back of the opponent’s net again and again and again. Ilsinho just ‘looks’ great. That said, I’m NOT giving up on Ilsinho because he may actually thrive being surrounded by better offensive talent like Bedoya.

      • I wouldn’t give up on Ilsinho either dude, find a way to maximize talent like that on the pitch…….

  8. Lucky Striker says:

    Just wondering if some of his pace/conditioning issues might at least be somewhat mitigated if he were permanently moved to the center of the attack instead of the outside.

    I understand Ayyuk can’t come up because of intl. slot issues, but Herbers functions better outside right in a single-high system.

    Even coming off the bench for Barnetta going forward might do a better job maximizing his effectiveness while keeping a better shape-but whomever is alluding to it first has it right:

    For all their abilities, neither Pereira nor Alberg are the best of fits for this system………

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