Player ratings

Analysis and Player Ratings: Timbers 2-1 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Portland Timbers

Philadelphia Union began the 2016 season riding a strong defense and CJ Sapong’s impressive blend of offensive and defensive contributions up front. After a dispiriting loss to Dallas, they rebounded and showed how attacking the ball with vigor could allow a team without superstars to compete in MLS.

Fast forward to September and the Union defense is cracking on a weekly basis. CJ Sapong is snakebitten to the point that Chris Pontius spent time up top against Portland.

But on the plus side, Andre Blake has emerged as a potential star in the making.

Inertia of the wrong kind

The Union have rarely looked unbeatable in 2016. But at times they have shown that they can raise their level to compete with the best in the Eastern Conference. To get there, though, they need to play as a unit, and control either the middle of the pitch or the flanks for a significant period of a match.

Fabinho passing mins 1-15 (L), and mins 16-80 (R).

Fabinho passing mins 1-15 (L), and mins 16-80 (R).

On Saturday, the Union controlled the left wing for the first fifteen minutes. Fabinho moved forward, Chris Pontius curled inside, and the team looked to have a route from back to front in a difficult environment.

Once the Timbers adjusted, however, Philly struggled to respond.

To be clear, the Union were not run out of the building. Fifteen shots — eight on target — is a healthy return in Portland, where nobody but the home side has really done well this season. For the Union, the issue was that once they lost Fabinho’s push up the left, the only route forward they had was through the center. And the Timbers often sat back in a tight back four with Diego Chara and Jack Jewsbury protecting, and absorbing pressure. Philly’s wingers both tucked inside, and their fullbacks failed to make a regular impression in the final third. As a result, the Union were only able to dent the home defense with crosses, but they were rarely in the right place to, well, cross the ball.

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Above, you can see Philly get stuck in a very static attack. By the end of the move, three players are on the Portland back line, Rosenberry is wide, and there is nobody occupying space in the center that could pull someone out of the back and create a chance to penetrate.

This was symptomatic of the Union’s issues all night: Poor offensive spacing allowed Portland to transition too easily and, as a result, Philly’s midfield became more and more separated, with Alejandro Bedoya and Brian Carroll deep behind Tranquillo Barnetta and neither player stepping forward to provide a central option.

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Compared to Portland's key passes (below), the Union only generated chances from wide areas, but they rarely got the ball wide.

Compared to Portland’s key passes (below), the Union only generated chances from wide areas, but they rarely got the ball wide.

In the video above, Barnetta makes the most out of a bad situation. After Bedoya plays the ball forward, he stops. Brian Carroll has stepped back as a square option and also isn’t stepping. This means that once the Union have advanced down the right, they have no way to switch fields. This was a common problem that haunted them all match.

When Rosenberry advanced, he was often tracked, and Fabinho ceased going forward after the first 15 minutes. Philly became narrow, and — even worse — they often became flat.

As a result, even though the Union were able to consistently run at the Timbers (who often sat deep to organize against such threats), they rarely penetrated or created the type of chaos that has haunted their own defense for months now. Below, you can see one of Philly’s better chances. However, you can also see that it comes from CJ Sapong collecting the ball at the edge of the box with space between him and Liam Ridgewell and immediately playing it wide. This is a very defensible decision, but it isn’t the right one for a striker. It is incredibly difficult to find space to attack a center back one on one as a striker, and if Sapong drives at Ridgewell, he puts the defender in a position where he must get a tackle perfect or not make it. Furthermore, Sapong will have Diego Chara on his back. Essentially, this situation greatly favors Sapong, yet he doesn’t consider taking advantage of it. It’s not an indictment of Sapong as a player, but it is a glaringly clear example of a striker low on confidence in front of goal.

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Individual battles

Another reason the Union leave Portland without points is that they largely failed to win their individual/close-to-individual battles. Fanendo Adi bossed the center backs, Darren Mattocks got the best of Rosenberry, and — perhaps most importantly — Darlington Nagbe rang Bedoya’s bell.

Portland’s American international midfielder was far better than Philly’s, and it was obvious all night. There are caveats: Bedoya was tasked with a far more responsible role, and Brian Carroll wasn’t moving the ball forward and attracting attention like Diego Chara. But Nagbe was still special.

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Don’t write off Bedoya, though. Remember that he is adjusting to the league, to a new role, and playing with a new midfield partner, while Nagbe is carrying none of that weight. But Bedoya needs to produce more like a two-way player going forward if the Union are going to make noise in the postseason.

Defensive depth (again)

I have so many videos of the Union center backs getting separated from the rest of the team that I don’t even know which ones to use. The one where Adi penetrates 15 yards into the Union half and the center backs stay goal side, creating a giant gap that lets Nagbe, Adi, and Valeri combine to quickly move into attack after a turnover?

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The one where Joshua Yaro’s retreat holds everyone onside?

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Or maybe the winning goal, when Richie Marquez lets himself get pushed far behind his teammates as if he was defending a basketball hoop instead of a soccer goal.

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This seems to be a persistent issue for Philly’s defense, and one that has popped up no matter who features in the middle. This isn’t a Joshua Yaro issue, a Richie Marquez issue, or a Ken Tribbett issue. In the end, it’s a coaching issue. These young players are consistently making the same class of mistake, and it is a correctable one. Below, you can see what a defensive line should do when faced with pressure.

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Portland second half passing in midfield

Portland second half passing in midfield

Uncompact pressing opens space in front of a defense.

Uncompact pressing opens space in front of a defense (via Spielverlagerung)

Is it a perfect comparison? Of course not. But Portland follows the theory that by holding a flat defensive line, you own the space behind that line. Yes, you can get beat with a great pass. But by holding a line, you ensure that a) the back four are closer to the ball, which b) gives the opposition less space to work with and, relatedly, c) allows the rest of your team to close down the ball because space is so compressed that there are fewer places for the attacking team to go. Nobody in modern soccer uses a sweeper because modern soccer is about owning space on the pitch as a team.

Look at the passing chart for Portland’s midfield. What should stand out is how many lengthy passes they are able to complete in the middle third. Those passes are difficult to pull off under pressure, but Portland wasn’t under much pressure because the Union defense was dropping off, which meant the Timbers could play through Adi, advance, and spread the ball around. They owned a lot of space on the pitch. And even if Barnetta’s relentless movement and Fabian Herbers’ drives toward goal meant Philly had real chances to take this match, they were rarely in control of it after the first 15 minutes.

Player ratings

Andre Blake – 8

A number of big saves, but he couldn’t do it all. He had no right making that save on Mattocks at the end.

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Keegan Rosenberry – 3

An extremely rough second half from the rookie as Mattocks got his number and kept it. Undid a solid first half, including a wonderful step to start the break that sent Herbers in on Gleeson. This won’t sit well with the rookie. Remember this weekend when Jordan Morris wins the Rookie of the Year award. Morris’ 10th goal of the year — assisted by Seattle’s epic midseason signing Nic Lodeiro — may have saved the Sounders’ season, while Jack Harrison collected two assists and Rosenberry lost his battle with Mattocks. 

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Joshua Yaro – 2

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The first yellow was situational, and quite soft on replay. But he could have gotten one for the arm in Mattocks’ face (inadvertent as it was). Also had a missed clearance that almost let Portland in and a deflection into Adi’s path that Blake saved. Overall, a very rough day but a lot of it came after the Union midfield lost its functionality. There was this unbelievable leg-stretching save, though.

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Richie Marquez – 3

It’s unclear why the Union center backs continue, week after week, to let the opposing striker dictate how much space is available. On Portland’s second goal, there was no reason for Marquez to let Adi be that deep in the box.

Fabinho – 4

Once he stopped going forward, Nagbe and Valeri had no reason to track back.

Brian Carroll – 4

Four tackles, four interceptions, and the most ambitious volley you’ll ever see him hit. But Carroll is not a player for a track race, and the second half was all about transitions.

Alejandro Bedoya – 3

Bedoya cannot continue to be so far behind Philly’s attacking forays. He should be, at minimum, arriving late to the box. Right now he spends far too much time cleaning up transitions because Philly’s offensive shape is so flat that any ball that pops out turns into a chance going the other way.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 7

A solid performance, including a wonderful run that should’ve been an assist to Sapong. He was working until the very end, though at times he took space he should have left for others, which left the middle wholly unoccupied.

Fabian Herbers – 6

Another assist, another solid outing, and a few more missed opportunities. Though others may dislike him deployed on the right, he continues to produce, this time moving central as Ilisnho often does, but actually creating a goal.

Chris Pontius – 5

A wonderful goal, and set up Herbers for another. But overall, Pontius was too narrow considering Fabinho rarely ventured forward after his initial forays.

CJ Sapong – 3

His shot on goal was a reaction shot, and a good one, but right at Gleeson. Sapong’s not dangerous enough around the box. He can be, but right now he isn’t.


Ilsinho – 4

As much as he can and should produce, he doesn’t. Below, you see an instance where Herbers would almost certainly have crashed the box. Ilsinho does not, and is in no position to defend the transition either.

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Roland Alberg – 4

Didn’t do much. Also, let’s remember the match when Chris Pontius played striker and Roland Alberg played as a holding midfielder. Because that was weird.

Charlie Davies – 4

Jim Curtin said he did the dirty running, and that’s because he didn’t get much of the ball.

Geiger counter – 3

Chris Penso wasn’t that bad, and he certainly wasn’t the reason the Union lost the match. Make up your own mind about Yaro’s first card, but Penso could’ve shown one for the hand to Mattocks’ face later (he shouldn’t have, but he could’ve).

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  1. The defense really needs to work on dealing with pressure from the other team’s forwards. They had way too many turnovers.
    Ilsinho should be rated lower. On the one play where Rosenberry did stop Mattocks and strip the ball the Union still lost it because there was no outlet for Rosenberry to give the ball to from the corner.
    Penso did miss the call when he gave the first yellow to Yaro but it seemed like there were 2 or 3 others that easily could have been a yellow, and probably would have been if Yaro wasn’t already on one. It’s likely to really hurt the Union since Yaro probably would have been the better choice against Toronto.

  2. 3 for CJ says it all….. maybe Charlie isn’t the be all solution but he is a poacher and we’re getting to that spot where this will matter….
    moreover- about the manager….yeahhhhhh..Adjusting to adjustments…. the sign of a coach operating at a higher level of understanding then most.
    It seems more often then not our franchise comes out and plays pretty well for a bit then the other team takes the game to them.
    Oh I’d love to know what the sporting director is thinking.
    I’d love to know when he strolls the hall up there at YSC what he’s thinking too… what is this? I’m going to have to fix this…and this… there’s no chatter over there…there’s just this sense of ‘phrenic over here….yup and this needs to change too. Mental note after mental note….
    after mental note….

    • Watched a really good full session with Brian Kleiben when he was still with Chivas and part of his team talk was on the nature of chatter and it being of the UTMOST importance and highlighting how certain players will be bench warmers going forward if they do not pick up the on field talk… I tell you hand to GOD I never ONCE hear the Academy players up at YSC chatting it up on the field ( and I’m a single celled protozoan up there a good bit when the boys are training)… .
      “hey over here… turn turn turn… time time — man on… play him play him… NOTHING.”
      Okay rant over. IDK.

      • Couldn’t agree more with this. I can’t speak for hearing the boys at YSC or the actual team, but I know I play better when I’m thinking things aloud and absorbing others’ thoughts. A coach can never yell “TALK!” enough.

      • Yes, teammates talking on the field while the ball is in play is vital. That’s where if you have an experienced center half who can read the game well and organize people, it’s such an advantage.

      • The person who should be talking the most (or in the top 2) is the goalie…and sadly this is where blake seems to be his worst. He is too quiet and does not command his back four. Richie is the “talker” but that only goes so far as Dre is the one who can see it all!

  3. If Curtain has to have Sapong on the field for his work rate/defense, put him on the wing and Herbers up top. Just do something! Otherwise I will let Brad Pitt in Troy sum it up…
    “Is there no one else? Is there no one else?!”

  4. Maybe your best yet, Adam, for identifying systemic flaws as well as individual performances in the match. Blake has carried this team all season. Fixable problems, too. Unless the staff decides it ain’t broke.

    • Oh it is most certainly broke, and they will find this out even more when they are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. I believe the Union need at least 6 points in their last 4 games to make it in and right now I question whether that happens with the matchups they have left. To comfortably be in they need 8 points out of 4.

      • Assuming either Orlando or DC pull 10 pts from their final 5 (and they do play each other twice over the final couple weeks, meaning they’ll at least be taking points from each other), which is a tall order for teams with a 1.17 ppg, then the Union are in the playoffs with a whopping 4 pts in the final 4 games. There is really no reason that we shouldn’t be in.

        8 pts in 4 games means DC or Orlando would need 15 in 5 just to tie us. I would call that significantly more than comfortable.

      • Along these same lines, I’d point to the SEBA projections, which gave the Union >99% chance of making the playoffs even after dropping points against Montreal. That suggests Philly has to do a lot more losing and other teams have to do a lot more winning to make this a dire situation.

        Keep an eye out for updated SEBA projections this week (I assume)

      • Toronto clinched with 47 points so presumably anyone else with 47 would also clinch. That’s 6 points. I haven’t looked at the remaining schedule, but I’m guessing a tie or 2 involving Montreal, Orlando, New England, and DC would lower it even further to 45.

      • Play-in game. Must be at home to advance.

      • Not necessarily. Look at our potential opponents:

        Toronto, NYRB – definitely the teams you don’t want to travel to in a play-in game
        NYC – pedestrian at home this year
        Montreal – crap at home right now (0-3-1, -8 GD in their last 4)
        NE – we usually play well there

      • I’m with you on that Eric. This loss would be eating at me if I thought a #2 seed and a bye was available still. But that was a long shot goal even before this loss, and one that certainly involves 2 wins against NYRB.
        Instead, I’d argue its more important to have a concrete plan/lineup that has gelled together than home field. Yesterday was the first time Carroll and Bedoya have played together, Edu is coming back to throw a wrench into the works, and we absolutely need to find a way to get CJ’s head right or come up with a viable plan to replace him (keyword: Viable, im guessing Charlie Davies can’t go 90, dude had cancer. Takes some recovery time). I’d rather play a road game with a team that knows how to win together and has confidence than a home game with a team that’s still very unsure and has blatant holes.

  5. Personally I think you’re a bit low on Carroll as he had a solid night no the second half in transition not his best, but a clear upgrade from Creavalle. Carroll also allowed Bedoya more freedom however I don’t think Bedoya used it that well in this game. Time and again I see the same things written in the player rating “Barnetta: A solid performance, including a wonderful run that should’ve been an assist to Sapong.” “Sapong’s not dangerous enough around the box.” It’s obvious to everyone Sapong should be riding the pine as he just doesn’t put the ball in the net when he should. The lack of a ST that has yet to have double digit goals ever in his career is mind boggling. How does he keep starting and how can people defend that he should be a starter.

    • I used to be one of those defenders. My argument was that Sapong’s defense as the first line of the press justified keeping him on the field through goal droughts. But then I watched Bradley Wright-Phillips yesterday, and discovered that a striker can both score *and* press.

  6. “Sapong’s not dangerous enough around the box. He can be, but right now he isn’t.”

    Who says he can be? Even when he was scoring goals earlier in the year, all of them were of the “cleaning up” variety.

    In a weekend where we saw Adi and Altidore bossing CBs, turning to create shots, making dangerous runs into the box and dragging CBs everywhere, all we saw from Sapong was someone sitting on the CBs and losing battle after battle.

    • @James – I would argue that, to a reasonable extent, the Union’s offense is designed to get Sapong those kinds of ‘cleaning up’ chances. They have always favored a system in which he collects the ball, plays wide, and crashes, with the flank players looking primarily for low, near post crosses.

      That said, I totally see your point. Even when Altidore has gone through dry spells in front of goal, or failed to use his body effectively (a problem throughout his career), he has always had past seasons to point to as proof that he *can* produce, while Sapong doesn’t have the same history of success in front of goal.

    • To me the worst part about CJ is not the lack of shots or goals, it’s the fact that he basically refuses to make runs behind the defense to provide space to others. Other teams have him fully scouted and know he’ll always look to play with his back to the goal while the Union are in possession. They can safely keep their line high and compress the space our midfielders have to operate.
      For all of his good work on D he’s really hurting our shape on offense. AND he’s not scoring.
      Sure wish we still had Le2 to either play up top or push Herbers to the forward spot. Davies hasn’t seemed too offer much so far.

  7. Adam, I’d just like to point out that Herbers and Barnetta(a lot less than Herbers), also spent time up top, not just Pontius. This seems to be a change in tactics by the manager, which I believe actually started with the match against Montreal.

    • @All4U – That’s a great point, and I debated adding it in, but I’m trying to shorten these a bit because >2000 words just seems like a lot to throw at people at once.

      The main takeaway there for me was that Curtin talked about getting CJ and Herbers to be more dynamic with their movement and switch around a bit. I interpreted that as meaning they should do it in the flow of play, meaning at times the back line would be unoccupied and unsure where to go, giving Philly more uncertainty to work with. Instead, it meant literally asking those guys to change positions for set amounts of time, which – and this is purely a personal opinion – I don’t like because I think the cost is greater than the potential rewards.

      So that might be something for a different post altogether. Thanks for mentioning it though, definitely an important point.

      • Never be afraid to give us too much information Adam. You can be the water, and “we” can be the sponge. Though if it’s taking away from more pressing and important matters in your life, I believe “we” understand. You’ve given me more information in the past 2+ years than I had gotten collectively in the previous 30+.

      • Agree on the position switch. I feel as though good strikers play the game like a chess match. They can spend an entire half getting a CB accustomed to one move (example, receiving a long ball with pressure on the back leads to a short dump off to the nearest winger). Then after showing them that same look 5 or 6 times, they change it up and create a scoring opportunity (in the example, turning toward goal and dribbling after the defender tries to sneak toward the dump off pass). Losing this continuity I think ultimately costs scoring chances that are gained from poking around for weaknesses.

  8. OneManWolfpack says:

    If Pontius has to play up top, then why is CJ even in the game. Dude needs a game to clear his head. How can Curtin not understand this?
    And the recurring theme of the back line consistently getting pushed deep, week after week… again, how has our DEFENSIVE MINDED (and ex-CB) manager… not address this?!
    Great stuff as always Adam. I learn something every week from these posts.

    • He probably does, but I think CJ is also our backup left midfielder.

    • I have no earthly clue. He’s run CJ into the ground every game, the goals have dried up, give the kid a week off. Stick Herbers back up there, heck, roll the Alberg at the 9 trick back out again if you want. Show TFC a different look, we’re not likely to get a result anyway (especially now that it’s going to be Tribbett, not Yaro). Just anything different please.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        And this is where my main beef with Curtin is. He is out of ideas, because he is limited as a manager. It’s obvious something must change, I just don’t think he knows what or how to do it. One change, triggers other changes. This completely goes against Curtin’s regimented sub plan of the SAME ONES EVERY GAME.

      • Yeah, that’s the most frustrating bit. We can still see a good foundation scheme that he and Earnie have put together here, and I appreciate that. But he has a one track mind and doesn’t show the flex needed to tweak it given the players available to him.
        For fun, I’m going to advocate for a 4-2-4 (or 4-2-1-3 if you’d rather) next game. We don’t need a stinking striker. Let the defensive base remain the same, but play Pontius, Alberg, Herbers, and Barnetta (or maybe even Ilsinho?) off the back line and give the defense no clue as to who to pick up at any given time. Just make TFC think.

  9. Did our subs even touch the ball this game?
    Richie has been playing scared for a few weeks now. His partners have gotten the attention but I think he’s been the one mainly setting up so deep and it’s killing us.
    Is Bedoya really a 6? Kinda seems like that’s how he’s playing. If so we still need an 8. Barnetta needs support. Maybe Bedoya forgot that Creavalle wasn’t in and was still trying to cover everything.

  10. I have been thinking about how to break CJ’s slump and I believe there are only 3 real options:
    1) Let him play through it.
    2) Sit him on the bench.
    3) Alter the team to try to put him in more successful situations.
    The argument for letting him play through it is that he is doing everything else asked of him and that it shows him that the staff has confidence in him. The argument for sitting him would be to watch the way the opponent is playing before coming on against tired legs (I’m not listing a benching as a way to “motivate” him because I do not think CJ’s problem is motivation). And the final option would be to change the team to try to help him – an example would be that maybe a more of a 4-4-2 shape would get him isolated on one of the centerbacks more often during the course of the game, another example would be designing a set piece play designed to get him a good look.

    • I only see the option of benching him. He is late to react, late to see the play develop, and late to the ball, hence no goals. I see a simple solution to this although there are other options. One person who is never late to a scoring opportunity and sees the play coming is Alberg. I say just run him up at the 9 even if it is for one game its the least amount of change you can make to the structure of the team and its worth a shot.

      • I’ve started to lean toward that option too. Sit him and let Herbers start up top (I’m under the impression that Davies is not even 60mins fit, understandably from his recovery).
        I have just seen a few comments about what can be done to break him out of this funk and thought I’d list my thoughts.
        I’ll also say I do not think #3 would/will happen with all the talk about “we play the same way” and how Earnie has build the team around a system rather then build a system around the team.

      • Alberg is not a lone forward. He’s basically a poacher, and that will not do unless paired with someone else. Now starting him up top WITH Sapong is a notion. Presumably you drop Herbers to the bench then, though the change in formation might hurt more than help. Maybe another option is to leave the formation nominally the same, but tell Herbers to spend a bunch of the game playing in a very forward position.

  11. Lately, I have been entertaining myself by going back to the January/February/March comments and comparing them to what certain folks are saying now. Too funny some of this stuff.

    • der Fussballzuschauer says:

      When is it going to be okay to say that the Philadelphia Union’s off-season signings of Leo Fernandes and Walter Restrepo didn’t quite pan out?

      This to speak nothing of the acquisition of the Brazilian centerback Anderson Conceicao, of course.

      • Now is fine, You can never expect all moves to pan out. You just hope to shot above .500. Against the “didn’t pan out” ledger is the draft, Chris Pontius deal, Ilsinho, Alberg… Likely Bedoya. Verdict isn’t in for Davies.

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