Player ratings

Analysis & Player Ratings: Revolution 0-4 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

It isn’t hard to guess how everybody involved with Philadelphia Union — from players to coaches to fans — are feeling after Saturday’s road win in New England.

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It also isn’t hard to figure out why New England felt the need to steal a page from President Obama and buy their manager an anger translator.

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(If only we had video of that woman’s face after this play)

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The Union earned their second road win of the season and did so in convincing fashion. But even with Alejandro Bedoya’s addition to midfield providing desperately needed control and balance, it’s worth remembering that just over a month ago, the Union looked similarly dominant against DC United.

Union shots vs DC (L) and New England (R)

Union shots vs DC (L) and New England (R)

Also of note: Philly’s shot chart against DC looks much better than their chart against New England. Although the Revs back four has been penetrated with relative ease over the past few games, the Union struggled to turn midfield control into real chances. It took a brilliant Fabinho run while everyone else was still snoozing, a lucky bounce to Chris Pontius, and a set piece goal to ensure victory.

To be fair, New England was never going to win this match. Their attack should have orange construction cones around it, but that would imply it was going to improve over time, and there is nothing to indicate that is the case. Calling Lee Nguyen listless is like calling Jesse Marsch a bit of a crybaby; just a huge understatement.

So with the understanding that this was a huge, confidence-building win, let’s dive a bit deeper with an eye toward next week’s matchup against the team to beat in the east: Toronto FC.

Ale-viating major problems

Yeah, that’s right. Philly’s most expensive signing just got pun-k’d!

Which is totally fair because Bedoya, Jim Curtin, Earnie Stewart spent the past few days trying to punk everybody by creating a huge mystery around where the new signing would play.

Surprise, surprise: He played in the team’s only real positional hole.

But as Bedoya himself said after the match, the American international ended up playing as more of a, let’s call it No. 7 than the box-to-box role he probably expected to occupy. And that’s a fair price to pay for having the lead after 90 seconds on the road.  

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Let’s go back to the early moments of the match, before Bedoya began sitting in to help Warren Creavalle protect the back line.

A partial list of problems the Union were hoping their new signing would help solve includes:

  • Controlling the center of the field
  • Connecting the back four with the band of three behind CJ Sapong
  • Add patience in the attacking half
  • Protecting the back line in transition
  • Connecting with CJ Sapong directly

Bedoya checked four of five boxes on Saturday (still working on the balls to Sapong), and he brought a new dimension to the deeper midfield role by advancing the ball with his feet.

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This has been a persistent issue for the Union, even with the dribble-friendly Barnetta sitting in. Ken Tribbett will carry the ball forward, but as his confidence has fallen off, so has his willingness to tolerate pressure. Richie Marquez, smartly, tends not to play around with the rock. The same goes for Creavalle and Carroll, both players who usually understand that they excel with a simpler-is-better approach (though more on Creavalle’s overly ambitious passing later).

Dominating space in the center is often conceptualized in terms of either having bodies in the middle or simply having a well-built passing network with players offering easy options out of the congested center. Another way to think of controlling the center, though, is being able to push a team deep and then grabbing that advantage.

Playing with the Creavalle-Carroll double pivot, the Union have, at times, been able to push teams deep by playing into Ilsinho or Barnetta’s feet and back out again. But Bedoya finally started to maximize that created space by carrying the ball forward decisively. The benefits are — at minimum — three-fold. First, Philly is building an offense from the opponent’s half instead of their own, so turnovers happen further from goal. Second, driving the ball forward forces the defense to step to the ball-carrier, which makes the rest of the defense move and close gaps. If they don’t do this quickly or in an organized manner, it’s suddenly a lot easier to break their lines. Third, and something you should see below but don’t, carrying the ball upfield means you don’t have to play 10-15 yard passes into the feet of players who are facing entirely away from goal.

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Ilsinho, quite used to passivity out of the deeper midfield roles, checks into the hole Bedoya is attacking. If the Brazilian simply waits or drifts a few steps to the middle, he can receive the ball on the half-turn with a license to run at goal. The difference between being on the half-turn and facing away from goal is enormous, especially for a player of Ilsinho’s technical gifts.

Control the middle

Controlling the middle of the field is axiomatic for a team that wants to defend like Philly, and when you can’t do it you end up with a month like the club had in July. To understand the importance of controlling the middle, just look at Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side. Guardiola pushes his fullbacks into the middle when the team is in possession so he has numbers in the middle, even if this means less protection on the wings.

Control means that you are able to move the ball quickly in the middle because short, easy passes are available, so the ball isn’t pushed wide until the defense has collapsed centrally and left space out wide to attack. There are two extremely important points in that sentence. First, the value of short passes. Have you ever played make-it-take-it basketball with a friend? After they make a shot, you might carry the ball until you’re a yard or so in front of your opponent then toss it to him/her and maybe, if you’re feeling unsporting/tricky, try to immediately knock it out of their hands. Now imagine you threw them the ball from 10 yards away. It would be a lot harder to stretch that far with your human-sized arms and knock the ball free, right? The same principle underlies a short passing approach. If you send the ball to a teammate who is five yards away and they lose it, the ball is likely still fairly close by, so applying immediate pressure is fairly easy. If your pass is 15 yards, though, now it’s tougher to quickly close the ball down. Think of the pass Taylor Kemp intercepted from Ken Tribbett to Ilsinho that led to DC’s first goal last week. If that’s a shorter pass, Kemp has less time to get up to speed and start breaking upfield.

Second, controlling the middle means the defense has to shade toward the center to prevent attacks from coming up the gut. This wariness means that when the Union do play the ball wide, there is a bit more time and space for the wings to operate. Keegan Rosenberry’s involvement up the pitch was back to peak levels on Saturday because the Union were able to hold the ball in the middle before playing it to Ilsinho, and this makes it so much easier for fullbacks to read play and overlap into opening space.

Over the past month and a half, Philly’s control of midfield had evaporated. Not only were they looking to play the ball into corners instead of working it forward, but they were leaving the back four exposed on the counter. Those problems were addressed with impressive efficiency on Saturday.

Patient play

Closely connected to midfield control is patience. The Union have struggled mightily in this department, pushing the ball forward after turnovers with a sort of ecstatic desire to prove that they can still create chances with the speed that characterized some of the team’s early season wins.

But that need to put immediate pressure on the defense is like George-Michael Bluth putting on a muscle suit and thinking nobody will notice. Yes, it sort of feels like you’re more like the offense you want to be, but there’s no substance behind the flash. Breaking forward without numbers is an empty threat that, while occasionally effective, opens the team up in transition.

Think back to the early days of Jim Curtin’s reign, when the Union, by necessity, were playing a pure counterattacking system built around one of the league’s better transition players in Cristian Maidana. As long as Philly found Maidana quickly in space, they could break with three to four players and still create danger. But that first pass off a turnover is actually extremely hard to pull off. Transitions are, almost by definition, chaotic times. Being able to find a simple pass out of pressure before pushing the ball forward is a far more productive endeavor, and one that Vincent Nogueira did with aplomb.

Bedoya, like Nogueira, is willing to forgo a lightning breakout if it means maintaining control of the ball and building a better offense. As Kevin Kinkead points out, Bedoya was often willing to play a simple pass when a Hollywood option was on. But, importantly, he supported that simple passing game with movement that provided the defense with a link back to midfield. Below, Bedoya receives the ball, shrugs off Kei Kamara’s pressure, and recycles possession. This is all it takes to throw off the Revolution defense, as Scott Caldwell scampers into the left channel while Tranquillo Barnetta is left in so much space that I had a flashback to my middle school dances.

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Bedoya and Creavalle getting to know each other

It should be said that things weren’t all hunky-dory for Bedoya, though. He may have been more aggressive early, but kept finding Barnetta in similar spaces.

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Additionally, he and Creavalle showed many rough edges, both defensively and going forward. It would be easy to blame Creavalle for these issues because he was far from his best on Saturday, but the breakdowns were also a function of Bedoya learning to play with the defensively flighty Ilsinho. Below, you can see Ilsinho attempt zonal marking but strand himself between two players, allowing a long pass wide that could have put the Revs behind Philly’s midfield if not for a poor pass.

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But overall, the biggest work to be done this week will be on the connection between Bedoya and Creavalle. Below, you see Bedoya cheat forward and get beaten with a good one-two combo. Creavalle also cheats forward anticipating a pass to the middle, and the result is a lane big enough to drive Nick Sakiewicz’s ego through.

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You can see another problem bubble to the surface below, with Bedoya stepping to Lee Nguyen and attempting to alert Creavalle to Diego Fagundez’s imminent space. Instead, Creavalle moves left to shadow a well-marked Teal Bunbury but is let off the hook by Scott Caldwell’s decision to play wide (thanks, Scottie!).

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It will be extremely interesting to see how the Union handled the Bedoya-Creavalle partnership for its brief tenure. Creavalle is such a read-n-react defender, willing to abandon his zone once he’s zeroed in on the ball. Bedoya, at first glance, seems as though he really is a player that understands the mantra, ‘trust the system’ and doesn’t sacrifice positioning when his adrenaline rises (if it does rise).

Below, Creavalle should probably be dropping back to protect the defense when Teal Bunbury cycles into the center. Instead, he steps forward and doesn’t follow Bunbury’s run. This leaves Bedoya in an odd position, and he smartly stays a step deeper and is first to close down the ball when Bunbury eventually pops up in the space Creavalle should’ve been monitoring.

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You can see the knock-on effects of Bedoya’s defensive intelligence below. Creavalle does what he does best, attacking the ball with speed to force a quick decision. Bedoya has dropped into the all-important zone on top of the box, which signals to Barnetta that he needs to come deeper to defend. Barnetta being a willing runner, he makes his way back and is in position to break up play.

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Fab ‘n Quillo 

As much as Jim Curtin is right that Bedoya allowed the Union to control the pace of the game in a way they haven’t since Vincent Nogueira sailed off, the Union’s success on Saturday owed a lot to the movement of Tranquillo Barnetta and Fabian Herbers. The former was constantly twisting through the Revolution defense (when he wasn’t being cynically hacked down), and the latter absolutely feasted on a disjointed back line in a way that few rookies would. Above, you can see Herbers drift into the hole Caldwell leaves when he drives forward. If the Union win the ball cleanly, Herbers becomes an easy outlet with enough time to let Barnetta and Pontius rejoin the attack.

There were simply too many good moments from both Barnetta and Herbers to highlight them all, so let’s look at two instances where a commitment to continual movement provides Barnetta with space to disrupt New England’s defense.

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Above, you see Caldwell with an uncharacteristic giveaway (forcing things) in his own half. As Pontius drives forward, Herbers peels out into the left channel so he has time to turn and find Barnetta as the Swiss midfielder storms through the center. Herbers is already so good at creating that extra yard of space, and as his decision-making and technical skills improve he should make an even greater impact going forward.

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The two connect again after some nifty work up the left. Once again, this sequence is all about Barnetta’s commitment to continual movement and Herbers’ ability to find just enough space to operate. Once he becomes an option, the rookie takes just a few steps away from Je-Vaughn Watson and ends up in a channel with an easy one touch pass to Barnetta.

Learning curve for Creavalle

Let’s return briefly to Warren Creavalle. Partnered with Brian Carroll, Creavalle took on a bit more responsibility to move the ball forward, with decidedly mixed results. On Saturday, the holding midfielder was overly ambitious with his passing at times, but it was more annoying than worrying. There were giveaways like the one below.

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And others where he was under more pressure.

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But the bigger worries were when Creavalle received the ball under pressure and gave it away in a bad position. This occurred more than once deep in the Union’s half, and the simple truth is that Creavalle just needs to keep things simple and the problem goes away. Easy to say from the outside, but after spending a good portion of the year working on being aggressive with the ball, it might take a few games for Creavalle to get comfortable with a more Carrollian “simple first, simple last, simple always” approach.

That said, let’s all hope he figures it out by next week because deep giveaways to a team with Giovinco can quickly get ugly.

A final note

Although there were plenty of positives for the Union, Creavalle’s passing issues point to some persistent problems that remain. One that has shown up over and over since the Montreal massacre is how to defend when a fullback steps high to slow a counter but then drops off. It happened in the buildup to Piatti’s belter…

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…and again on Saturday.

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Rosenberry steps up to Daigo Kobayashi but then peels off, and nobody pressures the man with the ball. This results in an easy pass behind Rosenberry that pulls Tribbett out of the middle and allows the Revs to directly attack the back line. Philly needs to figure out how to handle these moments because it is one thing to have Teal “Decision-paralysis” Bunbury running with space, and quite another to have someone who knows where they want to put the ball charging at you.

But let’s not end on that sour note. Instead, we go live to the finals of The MLS Bachelor, where the last two contestants anxiously await the big decision!

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My money’s on the dude who wore a shirt that looks like a freeze frame of a Men In Black memory flash.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 7

Untroubled but handled the few good looks New England had with ease.

Keegan Rosenberry – 7

A welcome return to form for the rookie, who looked more comfortable with the spacious right wing and the Revs absolute refusal to attack with width up the left. This “chip al a cajones” was a real treat to see.

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Ken Tribbett – 7

Kei Kamara got off five shots, but only one on frame, a softie that Andre Blake easily collected. Tribbett played a huge role in controlling Kamara in the air, challenging everything and remaining close to the big striker without stranding Keegan Rosenberry on the outside.

Richie Marquez – 8

Another huge aerial presence in back, Marquez had a far better day with the ball than he did a week ago, too.

Fabinho – 8

A stunning second minute assist was supported by a very strong match that showed off Fabi’s confidence pushing the ball up the line. He still tends to look up the line a bit more often than needed, but one suspects that as Bedoya becomes more central to Union buildups, Fabinho will find him more often.

Warren Creavalle – 4

Creavalle had another frustrating match. His workrate is there and he’s trying to move the ball quickly, but problems remain with on-the-ball decision-making and proactive positioning. Creavalle can close on the ball so fast that sometimes he takes very odd angles and ends up letting players sneak behind him. Also, he chose a few vertical passes that could’ve been short dump offs to Bedoya, something that should change in the future.

Alejandro Bedoya – 7

Just a chill performance. See above.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 8

A masterful yet restrained performance from Barnetta, who excelled by providing the link that got the Union out of the midfield and into the final third. He was fouled an absurd seven times, five more fouls suffered than anybody else.

Ilsinho – 7

Good but not great defensive work, but more important was strong counterpressure and combination play up the wing to involve Rosenberry.

Chris Pontius – 8

Just doing what he does. Aerial ability is getting recognized but still so underrated.

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CJ Sapong – 7

Back among the scorers, hopefully he’s not out a while.


Fabian Herbers – 8

Sort of quietly, Herbers was fantastic. It was partially New England’s broken defense that allowed him to sneak through the channels so often. But it’s so easy to forget Herbers is a rookie when he finds so many holes in a defensive scheme. In the buildup to Pontius’ goal, it was Herbers who found a gigantic pocket of space and attacked the Revs defense. He lost the ball (decision-making…) but the idea was top shelf.

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Roland Alberg – 7

That was a rocket.

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Charlie Davies – 7

Slick combination play to set up a goal for a new teammate.

Geiger counter – 4

So Tranquillo Barnetta, how did you feel about Robert Sibiga’s performance?

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Sibiga didn’t have a bad night, but his inexperience at the MLS level showed. The Revs were clearly targeting Barnetta (seven fouls suffered, and a few went uncalled) but Sibiga didn’t use his book to protect the Union attacker. He also recognized but failed to penalize Lee Nguyen’s biggest contribution to the match, an egregious dive, and let this Andrew Farrell cleanout go without a card.

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Sibiga’s leniency wasn’t problematic because the Revs never acted like they had a real chance to get back into the match, but in a tighter contest things could have easily boiled over.


  1. Couldn’t watch, so thankful for these analyses. We’re so spoiled.

  2. can we please do whatever it takes to get Barnetta locked in beyond this year? Love his attitude and fight, and he’s such a key piece of what we’ve been able to do this year.

    • Over-30, big contract, replaceable. I hear you and I agree, but I think more Earnie-esque decision is letting him go.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        not replaceable with what is available immediately. I refer you to the Real Salt Lake game July 31st and what simply did not happen in the center of the mid.
        I would hope for a provision in his original deal for a one year team option to extend.
        He’s a competitor. If there’s a chance to win and a decent prospect of some days off here and there, I’d hope he might go for it.
        Given his age, there is little opportunity to sell him on at a proit outside China, and he’s not a big enough name for the Chinese to overspend.
        Keep him here and try to win, one more time, Quillo, baby!

      • Agreed.
        He is the perfect fit at the #10 with how the Union have been looking to play. You can see how different Alberg and Herbers play the position by comparison.
        The only way I’m ok with letting him go is if they use the money to bring in a high quality #8 and move Bedoya to the #10.

  3. ruth wininger says:

    I appreciate your insight. So glad to hear Herbers is adjusting and contributing.

  4. Great stuff as always, Adam. I especially love the Watson chip clip.

    Was curious to hear your thoughts on Creavalle’s technique when receiving the ball or making the pass. It seems like the rest of his body moves in such exaggerated ways (e – raising of the kicking/trapping leg, elbows, shoulders, etc.) that many times, his next move or action seems to be telegraphed. I’m not sure whether he does this in order to settle the ball or just to try and create space by shielding a defender. It was pretty pronounced on Sat.

    It does seem like teams have targeted Creavalle and Tribbett as weak links when in possession. You can almost see the wheels spinning in Tribbett’s head when he gets in those situations as he typically gets the ball played back to him. It seems like it’s always after a spell of possession between Rosenbery, Ilsinho and one of our central midfielders when the defense finally floods the zone with multiple defenders and it gets played back to Tribbett under heavy pressure. Clearly, being a former central midfielder, Tribbett is more comfortable on the ball so he’s more than willing to try and hold it rather than taking the no-nonsense route as you pointed out that Marquez does. It feels like our left hand side is more direct with Fabi and Pontius so perhaps that’s why Curtin plays Tribbett/Yaro and Marquez in this manner.

    In the future, I would love to see some analysis of Pontius’s movement. It always seems like he pops up in great spots in the attacking third and I’m sure that this is no accident.

    • @Zizou – You’re getting into some of the things that I’d love to go back and zero in on in the future. It’s so hard to put together ideas that trace across games during the season because there’s always another match to focus on, but both the Creavalle and Pontius points are things I’ll remember once we’re out of the week-in-week-out to go back and focus on. You’re right, Pontius deserves recognition for how he’s always ready to contribute despite being relatively uninvolved.

  5. Analogy with Jesse Marsch is on point.

  6. After the home win against NE someone on here compared Shuttleworth to a 1950”s sidekick villain, with the greased slick back hair, the gum chewing, and his reactive expressions…now I just laugh every time I see him. It reached top shelf when he threw the ball at his defender after Alberg’s lefty rocket. It’s like 2/3 into the movie, our heroes have just humiliated Shuttleworth in front of the pretty girl, and he responds by lashing out on one of his cronies

  7. Adam- I noted earlier that I thought that Bedoya, Barnetta and Pontius worked well together, but thanks for pointing out the “handshake formation” that Bedoya and Barnetta need to work on (so close together that they can shake hands). You are correct that they were shadowing each other pretty frequently, something that had not been as apparent to me in real time. I was positive early on about Tribbett, but lost a bit of confidence in him after I think that he had a series of dangerous giveaways over several games. He again dribbled into trouble at least once on Saturday that I recall. Good to see him handle Kamara, who can kill the UNion, but I can only hope that Tribbett’s success against him inspires more performances like that.

    • @Tim – Those are great points about things to look at going forward. Definitely some areas where it’ll be interesting to see how the midfield and Tribbett develop.

      re: Tribbett, there’s a (maybe too) easy John Stones analogy to be made there. He seems to take the “trust your feet” notion to heart, and doesn’t have a clear sense of where to put the ball when he can’t pick out a clean pass.

      On Barnetta, one of the interesting things to watch going forward is how well he creates space just outside the final third for Bedoya. Philly hasn’t had a deeper mid who gallops forward since…???… and Bedoya has the ability. Also, it’ll require Ilsinho vacating those interior holes a bit quicker. Right now, he sets up in those holes and tends to get stuck there.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    “Calling Lee Nguyen listless is like calling Jesse Marsch a bit of a crybaby; just a huge understatement.” — GOD DAMN THAT’S GOOD… subtle yet destructive. So well done 🙂

  9. With Edu still out, Carroll out, and Crevalle giving the ball away so much I would be interested to see what Tribbet could do at the 6. Having heard that he’s played there before I can see some of his tendencies. If he gets pushed up he has more options to who he can distribute the ball to this might make him a little quicker on the ball. Still solid on the defensive side, but would need to learn how to compensate for his lack of speed. This would put Yaro in behind him and I think that could be an interesting setup. Tribbet can still drop and mark the tougher stronger more physical ST. With some of the time Crevalle was given on Saturday I think Tribbet might be able to distribute more quickly. Plus Yaro in behind is a better coverage system if Tribbet gives the ball away just like Crevalle. Might be worth a shot to see this option played.

  10. Adam, for real, your sarcasm speaks to my heart in all the right ways. I literally laughed uncontrollably no less than 3 times while reading this analysis (the cojones chip and that the Revs never acting like they had a real chance of getting back into the match were my favorites). Seriously though, I’ve learned a ton about the tactical side of the game from reading these articles. Great work always from you and the rest of the team.

  11. I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but let’s play devil’s advocate with Creavalle. He might have actually deserved a 5 for this match. I went back and watched his movement on the night and keyed in on how it related to one Lee Nguyen, the guy who I assumed would be highlighted in any gameplan to slow New England. Any time Lee drifted wide or deep, Creavalle kept his positioning and allowed him to play his way out of the game. On the instances he did try to get into threatening locations, he was quick to close down or marked tightly enough to discourage a pass altogether.
    All that being said, yes, his decision making on the ball needs to improve leaps and bounds before I feel safe with him there. But it’s worth noting that Warren’s pregame instructions were probably just a picture of Nguyen with a giant red X through it. And Ngyuen went on to do absolutely nothing.

    • Fair.
      Personally, outside of the offensive side of things, Crevalle vacates the middle too quick and too often for my liking. If he was playing a ball-winning #8 then I’m all about it. But as a #6, I would rather he above-all sit in the opponents “zone 14” to shut down in the most dangerous area of the field.

    • @Gonzhao – I actually agree with you in a sense. I think the big leap forward for Creavalle has been that he is more dedicated to following the positional gameplan, but when he’s around the ball he still gets locked in and tends to cheat toward the player he sees in front of him even if that isn’t the best place to go. So a big step forward, but still little errors in the more intense moments.

      And I think having someone like Bedoya in the mix should, over the course of a few games, help Creavalle simplify his game offensively and focus on those major defensive positioning decisions. Even with his flaws, he has been heads and shoulders above expectations given that he didn’t look great in midfield last year.

  12. Thought on Sibiga as well: I thought his decisions made less and less sense as the night wore on. At the end of the first half you could have talked me into saying he had a good game. But afterward, I won’t hear any of that. What’s interesting is that he also called the 2nd game against Columbus, (the one with that ridiculous Casey red card that gave us one of the best moments of the year: Rosenface) and it was very much the same story. A good 60 minutes or so then bodies started to fly, he did nothing, and then WHAM, Casey’s gone over nothing. Just totally lost the script at the end in both matches.

  13. The Little Fish says:

    With respect to the criticism of Ken Tribbett keep in mind he’s still a rookie and rookies make mistakes. I can accept those growing pains because he and Richie Marquez continue to gel and already effectively control the airspace around Dre. I’m fine with that pairing chiseled in to the lineup card. My question is with the injury to BC do we try Yaro at D-Mid? I know he prefers the backline. I know Jim Curtain said “he’s a center back” but…..

    • Would guess that Jim and Earnie made Yaro the Union’s top draft pick because they believe he is going to be really good. Seems like they would feel the need to have a plan to get that ability on the field unless he is injured. Since Yaro is a little undersized for for CB anyway, but is very good defensively, calm on the ball and a good passer, DMid seems logical. Would guess that he would want to pickup games at BSFC at that position though first rather than just jumping into it in MLS.

  14. I think playing guys out of position is a bad move. Look back at the last few games. I respect the opinion and thought process of getting the best option the pitch. I think with most players though they have a hard time adjusting. That’s just my opinion. Also want to say it’s good to see the defense have a better game. They needed to get some confidence back.

  15. Lucky Striker says:

    easiest ratings ever:

    Creavalle-not real good.

    Everybody else = pretty good.

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