A View from Afar / Commentary

The maddening Roland Alberg and the midfield domino effect

Photo: Earl Gardner

When Philadelphia Union have everyone healthy, they’re a very good team.

When they don’t, they get rolled.

The Union’s lack of center midfield depth killed them again on Saturday, as the absences of Alejandro Bedoya and Brian Carroll forced another domino effect to replace them. Once again, Roland Alberg hurt them defensively and failed to replicate Tranquillo Barnetta’s offensive influence at the No. 10, and while Barnetta put in a passable shift at the No. 8, he simply doesn’t match what Bedoya can bring to the role. Meanwhile, Warren Creavalle continues to be serviceable in center defensive midfield, but we notice him a lot more than we do Brian Carroll, which is never a good sign for a d-mid.

Alberg makes a mess

Let’s start with Alberg, who made an absolute defensive mess of things to open the scoring — for Chicago. Watch the build-up to that play.

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While Alberg was busy ball-watching and having a nice little walk on defense, Matt Polster cut behind him toward the penalty area. That is when Polster received the pass that led to the own goal. Alberg rushed back to try to recover, but then he made a mess of the tackle and caused an own goal.

The play is typical Alberg: Lackadaisical on defense, then overcompensating with a reckless tackle.

And it demonstrates why he can be such a frustrating player.

Alberg is one of the most talented soccer players to wear the Union uniform and may be the team’s best finisher. His problems seem to stem from other things that are required in addition to talent.

You see the chip on Alberg’s shoulder when he doesn’t start, the petulance whenever he is called for a hard foul obvious to everyone in the stadium but him, the lack of MLS-level fitness that still plagues him three-quarters of the way through the regular season, and the failure to fully invest himself in defense. (No, it’s not sufficient to occasionally make a hard, dirty tackle. That is just overcompensating for the defense that isn’t being played otherwise.) Add to that the fact that Alberg is gaining a growing reputation in the league as a diver, and you have all the makings of a soccer villain.

Everyone knows Alberg has ability. But talent alone is not enough. Hustle, smarts, and an honest shift are required too.

Alternatives to an Alberg/Barnetta pairing at the 10/8

Once Alberg’s own goal put the Union down, they had to chase the game. On another day, they might pull it off, but on this day, they were lacking the key parts in Bedoya and Carroll to provide defensive cover while the team went forward.

Tranquillo Barnetta may have played, but when Barnetta plays the No. 8 instead of the No. 10 attacking midfield role, there is a significant drop-off on both the offensive and defensive ends. It has become clear that Barnetta needs to start at the No. 10 whenever possible.

That means the Union, when missing Bedoya or Carroll, need to consider alternatives to shifting Barnetta to the 8 and inserting Alberg at the 10. Yes, they had early success with Alberg and Barnetta paired together like that, but the rest of the league has scouted Alberg by now. They know what they’re getting: A talented goal-poacher, but not a midfielder. The Union’s center midfield becomes a thruway for opponents with the domino effect created by his insertion into the lineup.

So what are the options if Bedoya is unavailable again?

  1. Maurice Edu: Edu played 32 minutes on loan for Bethlehem Steel on Sunday. That’s a positive step, but he’s a long ways off.
  2. Derrick Jones: The new homegrown signing remains raw, but he has been one of Bethlehem’s best players this season in the No. 8 role.
  3. Leo Fernandes: Fernandes has typically featured in attacking midfield, but he has been little more than a bit player there. Could he play the No. 8? (Maybe, but don’t bet on it happening.)
  4. Keegan Rosenberry: He may be an all-star, but he is also a former center midfielder. Backup Ray Gaddis is good enough to start for many MLS clubs and could fill in adeptly at right back, but he is not the same type of player there.
  5. Creavalle/Carroll at the No. 6/8: The two featured in a double pivot role earlier this season when needed, and this may be the most likely option once Carroll returns from injury. It doesn’t exactly strike fear in opponents’ hearts though.

Fortunately for the Union, they’ll get two weeks off when Bedoya leaves for international duty again in October. They’ll need it, because none of the options above are likely to be sufficient in the short term.

The final stretch

The Union have six games left in the regular season:

  1. Sept. 10: Montreal
  2. Sept. 17: at Portland
  3. Sept. 24: at Toronto
  4. Oct. 1: at NYRB
  5. Oct. 16: Orlando
  6. Oct. 23: NYRB

Not an easy schedule. That’s the type of schedule that creates losing streaks.

Seventh place Orlando (31 pts.) has two more games left to play than the Union, who sit in fourth place on 40 points, while sixth place D.C. United (32 pts.) has one more left. Though it’s not likely, it’s possible the Union could miss the playoffs.

If they are to make a deep run in the playoffs, the Union need both Bedoya and Carroll available to man center midfield together and free Barnetta to play the No. 10. With both available, the Union are a top contender. Without them, they’re just another bunch of red liners.


  1. This team has to have Bedoya and Barnetta in the 8 and 10 roles or it’s a mess. I don’t think there’s any reliable depth here. If Carroll is in the 6 spot rather than Warren, you may be able to get away with Barnetta and Alberg in the 8 and 10 roles, but still… This team really needs Bedoya and Barnetta right now.

  2. Lucky Striker says:

    Alberg has 2 cannons for legs, and right now there’s nobody else I’d rather have taking PK’s…..but he’s a man without a position and should never start unless they’re finally ready to pine CJ and can somehow convince him to high press at least.

    Philly’s pivot has been an incomplete walking disaster since day 1 in Tampa. Band-aid aside; it will likely end up being the main reason they failed to achieve all they could have had they provided themselves the resources needed to compete from the jump.

    Jimbo will never put Humpty-Dumpty together again…….his pivot wall suffered too great a fall.

  3. Hallelujah! I agree 100% with this entire article. Alberg is a 2nd striker type, not a CM. Barnetta not playing the 10 screws up everything.
    We lost to Chicago based on 1 decision and it’s domino effect…moving Barnetta to the 8.
    Out of the list of solutions my strong opinion is to K.I.S.S. The only player 100% fit and a true #8 is who? Derrick Jones, your home grown who just signed a home grown contract. He should fill in when Bedyoa is out. Mo played 30 min and didn’t look good to boot. Carroll/Creavalle has not worked in the past and will not work in the future save 1-2 games early in the year. Fernandes can’t defend the way an 8 needs to, and don’t move a rookie of the year candidate…just don’t.
    That leaves you with Jones. What is the worst that could happen? He scores an own goal and we lose 0-3 to a poor team? That just happened anyway. If he loses his mind you pull him at half time. All of the other scenarios move up in the pecking order. Best case, you have a compitant back up to Bedoya that’s home grown and makes you think about keeping him on the field as a 6 next to Bedoya. This is and should have been plan A on Saturday. Why else sign him to an MLS contract?

    • +1. Curtin keeps saying he wants to be known as a coach that plays the kids. If you want that, then play the kid.

    • Curtin has seemed unwilling to make major changes at certain positions unless he has been forced to

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Dan Walsh did an excellent job being thorough about all the possibilities. Two others come to mind, once you open the Pandora’s box of messing with the back line.
      There was a report once from those reporters who sometimes attend practice, that Ken Tribbett was playing at defensive center mid. It appeared right after BC went down when Creavalle was it at the 6 and they needed to have prepared some kind of emergency plan just in case.

      Further messing with the back line, and Jim Curtin going well out of character by breaking a public promise, you try Josh Yaro there.
      And down on the farm playing No. 6 well in the USL is Bolu Akinyode. Roster room and complexities make this move highly, highly unlikely. But in a direst emergency, … .

      • True, Tribbett is another possibility. So is Yaro, if you think about it. Both are unlikely. Akinyode would require a contract or short-term loan and I think neither is likely.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        We agree on the “unlikelinesses.”

    • This is incontestable IMO. Chicago is TERRIBLE.
      I’da rather lost 3-0 with Jones playing (which would NOT of happened BTW) than 3-0 with a ramshackle team on the field and your best player handcuffed… isn’t the WHOLE point of the academy and BSFC a cohesion of play. Look…one thing americans make is a decent defensive minded 6 or 8.
      mean to tell me ‘cuffing Barnetta in the name of losing 3-0 (which is NOT hindsight) is the right choice. VET THE KID. Its one game and invaluable experience. He’s young and plastic… show him what he did well and what he needs to do better…. then pat him on the ass and say get em next time.
      inexcusable. you need a 0-0 draw and a point… PARK THE BUS if you have to… whatever.

      • Holy crap. Did el p just suggest parking the bus? I mean I agree completely, but someone mark this day down.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        There’s an art form for beeping that thing into its spot too… at times.

      • I disagree. During the first half, NYRB finished off their 1-0 road win so the Union really needed 3 to keep pace. Plus the difference between a win and a draw is twice as big as the difference between a loss and a draw. There are only two times to play for a draw. One is if you are woefully outclassed (for example, newly promoted team is playing Real Madrid). The other is when you are losing…and once you’re no longer losing you should play for the win unless there is no time left.

      • Parking the bus was only a tongue in cheek comment by me… I’m for using a rookie to maintain my system of play…
        There are times however…to alter your philosophy in the name of a sacred point or road draw.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Begrudgingly, most certainly.
        At times securing a point can be the holy grail.
        Given the strong potential for a three or four game losing streak starting Saturday, going for three pointsseemed wisets to me.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Gonzhao, I agree. The Mighty Elephant suggested pragmatically Parking the Bus.
        1:16 PM EDT 09/06/2016.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Actually, I liked them better without Accam because they seemed more like an integrated team all working together.
        Somewhere in the last day or two someone wrote that – my paraphrase – Chicago is a tension between David Accam’s individualism and Pauno’s team concept.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        I have every confidence the decision-makers discussed it. We can only conclude they thought what they did was the better option.
        A home-grown signing means they think the kid will benefit from PRACTICING with the first team. Put another way, the signing has learned all he can learn by practicing with the lower team.
        Technically it is possible that sometimes Steel practice consists of 11 or 12 field players. That is an ideal teaching size for individual work, and small-sided stuff, and introducing concepts without using an opposition.
        And most of the time there will be more than 11 or 12 as they bring in these academy boys and perhaps that first team reserve or maybe the other one.
        But at sometime you need the larger group consistently.

  4. It strikes me that he is probably best suited to the final 30-35 mins of a game when he can go full out and not worry about tired running on defensive cover. .
    I would argue our best option may be (as much as I HATE to say it) is Carroll/Creavalle, with Alberg entering for Creavalle around 55 mins or so. None of the their options you put up seem likely at the moment. Let’s hope Edu gets better fast.
    Is there any possible chance that we go with a 4-4-2, or with CJ as a withdrawn forward with Davies running off of him? Also, how viable would Ilsinho be playing the number 10 role?

  5. ” … the lack of MLS-level fitness that still plagues him …”.
    The privilege of talking to Coach Burke once a week has taught me many things along the way that are obvious to others who have played the game competitively.
    I suspect if we tested your thesis quoted above, Dan, and subjected him to the “beep” test – the one that only Ryan Richter passed the first day of preseason training camp under Nowak however many years ago – Roland Alberg would do just fine.
    An alternative to physical conditioning might be speed of mental recognition and the mindset for instant mental transition.
    Had a player of mine shown similar mental characteristics many years ago, I would like to think I would have thought of a possible teaching device that just came into my head.
    To wit, create a basketball game with the best fast break players available, put Alberg into it, and require him to beat the other team down the floor in transition when the ball is lost. The first time he fails is free. The second cost one suicide at the end of practice. The third, two. the fourth, four. the fifth, eight. The pattern is x squared. Then, after he shows progress do it with a soccer ball on the soccer pitch with appropriate restrictions so he has a snowball’s chance, and call it Roland’s Drill. Positive reinforcement from everybody, encouragement, the whole nine yards. All the explanations why every time. But he does it until it becomes instinctive.
    And make Ilsinho and Restrepo do it with him.
    They are proud athletes. If their peers support them, if their coaches explain support and encourage, they will work at it with a will. You have to have the Alleged DI’s judgment to know exactly how far you can push and when you have to back off and stop for the day. It always has to be possible to do it, whatever it happens to be.

    • +1 except for the fact we are talking about “top tier” professionals (please note the quotes). This level is not the place for this type of instruction; it has to happen earlier at the academy, high school levels or younger.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        When you have to remediate, you have to remediate and you do whatever it takes.
        Whatever they did to remediate Restrepo from his habits at the beginning of the season, it worked.
        So far, remediation with Alberg has failed.
        Do whatever it takes. He’s getting paid, handsomely, to do whatever that is.

  6. So while I can agree with this to a degree. Everyone is always harping on Alberg on D when at the 10 granted he does not play D well, but it is improved from the beginning of the season. I want to see him as a striker at the 9. CJ is just to slow he is a step behind in every thought process on this team and it clearer when he is a step behind on all his attempts on goal. But also where is the discussion of Barnetta’s defense at the 8 it is clear to me he pushes up more covers less space deep and leaves the CBs out to dry causing Marquez and Tribbett problems on whether to step or drop. (This could be covered by Carroll in the 6 but not Creavalle). Becuause somewhere in that hole that Barnetta leaves when he makes runs is Creavalle and no one can ever know where Creavalle will be positionally. For an example look at that video where is Barnetta, from what I can see he is actually positioned higher than Alberg. Creavalle gets pulled wide when he didn’t need to make an attempt on the ball hence a huge gap in the middle of the field. Yes Alberg is ball watching and makes an attempt on the play late, but the space never should’ve been there. If you ask me that spot that was vacant in the middle of the field was Barnetta’s cover as he is strolling up top playing higher than Alberg. Did anyone play it right no, hence the goal, but to me Barnetta has to play at the 10 or wing not CDM and Alberg needs to either be a late offensive sub at the 10 play the wing or put him at the 9 starting CJ isn’t doing anything much up there.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      “But also where is the discussion of Barnetta’s defense at the 8 … .”

      Actually, Doc, Adam Cann has just analyzed exactly that point in his breakdown of what happened in Chicago, the piece in which he gives his ratings. I commend it to your attention.
      My Very Poor summary is that Barnett does not recover to a “shape” when the ball is lost, he recovers to the nearest opposing player and marks him.
      Read Adam’s piece. He will make much more sense.

      • Ok yeah I hadn’t read that part of Adam’s piece just thought it was something that certainly needed mentioning here as well as it certainly affects Albergs position and how his defensive nature looks.

  7. I think the analysis in terms of Albert’s flaws is spot on. However, I would really like to see Alberg get some time at the 10 when Bedoya is at the 8. The positional chaos and overall mess that occurs when we have Creavalle/Barnetta at the 6 & 8 throws everyone off. That, and, in his recent sub cameos, he has shown previously unseen hustle.
    Even on the first video above, you can watch as the midfield evaporates. Alberg has to show more awareness and hustle on that play – no doubt – but it’s insane that Creavalle gets pulled out of position like he did. With BC or Edu back there, Alberh is covered and by not shadowing Polster back to our 18 he has an opportunity to start a counterattack.
    I’m definitely being soft on Alberg, but it’s absurd that he even has to track back that far in a routine play.

    • Very good counterpoint, particularly that he would fare better with at the 10 with Bedoya (and preferably Carroll) behind him.

  8. I understand the game is fluid and positions shift and many players can excel at numerous roles. But to me the number 10 is your quarterback. You would never see an NFL team move the quarterback to the fullback or tight end spot when a starter at one of those spots goes down.

    Plain and simple. Barnetta is your 10.

    • A better (if imperfect) analogy would be a point guard in basketball. And you do see point guards move positions. It’s just not something you often want to do.

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