A View from Afar / Commentary

Fabian Herbers and blooding young players in MLS

Photo: Daniel Studio

Fabian Herbers was the best Philadelphia Union player on the field Saturday.

Then Herbers left the game in the 67th minute, and Toronto scored three minutes later on an attack down their left flank through the space where his replacement, Ilsinho, should have been.

The primary point here isn’t to criticize Ilsinho, who had slowly jogged back after a brief, fruitless press before coming to a stop well away from the play. (Criticizing Ilsinho is merely a secondary point.) Neither is it to criticize Union manager Jim Curtin, who chose to replace a player some observers felt was pretty gassed. If you’re going to pull Herbers, Ilsinho is the logical substitution.

Rather, the goal here is to note just how good Herbers has played lately and how his emergence, much like the play of Keegan Rosenberry, Andre Blake and others, demonstrates the importance of giving young players playing time.

Give youth a chance: The Pareja model

Today, the two MLS conference leaders are FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls. It’s no coincidence that they also have probably the two best academies in MLS.

Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja should be the model for coaches looking to improve teams with young players. It was in Colorado that he first showed a willingness to blood his young players early, regardless of their pedigree. By the end of his second season in 2013, the Rapids had become one of the league’s most entertaining and young teams. (Pablo Mastroeni subsequently rolled back most of that progress.)

Upon Pareja’s return to Dallas, where he was the former Academy director, he has remained long enough to see his efforts flower in full. Now in his third season, Pareja’s starting lineup routinely includes Walker Zimmerman, Matt Hedges, Victor Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta, Carlos Grueza, Mauro Diaz, all players who were regular Dallas starters by the age of 23. (Ulloa and Acosta both joined the team through its academy.) That list doesn’t include Fabian Castillo, who fit that description before transferring to the Turkish league this summer, and Michael Barrios and Ryan Hollingshead, who became regular starters for Dallas at age 24.

Pareja’s international signings have been primarily Latin American players under age 25. Dallas imports players not with this season in mind, but rather with the next three to five years in mind, and that parallels their model for acquiring American players as well.

There is a tendency in American soccer circles to get most excited about soccer imports from established European leagues. There’s nothing wrong with that, provided we don’t simultaneously undervalue those who come up through the American system.

This isn’t nativism either. Herbers is German, not American, and even played as a youth in FC Twente’s system. More significantly, he is a player who entered MLS via the draft after playing for Creighton University in Nebraska. He is a product, albeit partially, of the American soccer system.

Rosenberry is even more representative of that system: Pennsylvania-born and bred, linked to the Union Academy as an amateur, a product of Georgetown University and the MLS draft.

It’s worth recalling how much more excited many observers were back in February about the signings of Ilsinho and Roland Alberg than they were about Rosenberry and Herbers (or Josh Yaro, Ken Tribbett and even Chris Pontius). Those observers may have been justified back then, but the end result is that Rosenberry and Herbers have had a more positive impact on the club this year — and probably will for years to come.

Herbers in the ascendancy

Curtin did something very smart with Herbers this year. He gave him minutes early and consistently. Sure, those minutes were limited early on, but the important thing is they were there. Herbers impressed many with his movement and awareness, but not so much his place on the stat sheet, primarily because those minutes were so limited. But the more he played, the more he adjusted to the quicker pace of MLS and the better he got.

When Herbers finally got a chance to start a game in July, he recorded one assist in three games and generally showed some good signs. Then it was back to the bench.

Herbers got another extended crack at the starting lineup beginning Aug. 27, this time at right attacking midfield. Since then, he has 1 goal, 3 assists and 6 shots on goal in 6 starts. He put two fantastic chances on goal Saturday, just barely missed the far corner with a third shot, and assisted on Bedoya’s beautifully chipped goal. He now leads the Union in assists with 7, PSP readers for noting this.)

For all the concerns about C.J. Sapong’s goal drought, the Union can still play well with him doing all the other little things specifically because they have a pair of quality wide attacking midfielders in Herbers and Chris Pontius who can be dangerous in on goal.

Herbers shouldn’t be going back to the bench anytime soon.


  1. Play the yout! Love Tranquillo, but that discussion has a place here too- if we could have found an Argentinian 22 yr old for a 10? And we needed talent this year, so I’m not criticizing the signing, but going forward to fill this hole, they need to think long term.

    • There is an almost 17-year old #10 who has had a couple of starts and several substitution appearances with the Steel, Anthony Fontana. His first step is to earn fulltime practice with the Steel, not the Academy U-18s.
      I will try to figure out how that might work going forward.

  2. And he was ready for his chance when it came in part because he had maintained and improved his game readiness by playing consistently with Bethlehem Steel FC in their earliest games of the season. He started six of the first ten games Bethlehem played.
    He illustrates well how the Steel allows the first-team to maintain a useable bench.

  3. How about a mention that Fabian is leading the team in assists with 7 (compared to 5 for Seba and Chris)?

  4. Honestly the Rosenberry HomeGrown snub will always annoy me. If just from a PR and marketing perspective.

    It’s already awesome and amazing that he is a All Star and legit ROTY candidate at RB his first season, after playing every minute. and that most people expect (and want) to see him called up soon.

    But just imagine all that AND he is doing it as a homegrown philly kid. that would be amazinger.

  5. I’ll stipulate to your entire thesis if you’ll stipulate to my rebuttal that Fabian Herbers is a youngish player only….more of the same from me I understand but I am a stickler for this detail… He’d be at least three years into a professional career elsewhere.

    • While you could say elsewhere he would be three years into his career. You could also argue that previously the development of players by the Union has been poor, either with playing time, development of positional awareness, or development of playing style. Herbers has been the one individual that I have seen changing that structure. So you could argue for what in this league may be considered a young player they are for once doing things correctly.

    • I might also argue he would be 3 years into his career elsewhere…with minute totals combined lower than just what he’s played this year for the Union…

    • He might be, or they might have given up on him when he was 18, as happened with Dom Dwyer and so many others. There are plenty of drawbacks to the American system, as you correctly allude to, but Europe has its own flaws and is not the idyllic soccer paradise the Eurosnobs make it out to be. It looks much better from far away than it does up close from where I’m sitting in Europe.

      • well played. Nothing is ever idyllic…. I bring it up because ‘youth’ is in the center of the discussion circle these days.
        I fully respect players going to college to play in NBA and NFL and MLB and NHL because college is an excellent preparatory vehicle for those sports… not so much for the world’s game which has their academies outside the education mechanism. A 23 year old rookie is in his mid twenties if he’s lucky with any real experience…
        Ultimately IMO a paradigm shift is needed and hopefully slowly occurring for MLS regarding this very important aspect of development. I don’t feel I’m being a eurosnob, presuming the slight was directed toward me.

  6. I agree that Herbers has locked the starting right mid job but, as hinted in the article, is Ilsinho the best sub going forward? It definitely depends situationally but when trying to close out games does his skill with possession outweigh his lack of defensive abilities? I don’t know if they do but who do you bring in in those situations?

    • Interesting as it seems late goals against tend to be coming from his side of the field… or at least it seems that way… as I have not paid close enough attention and generally read it here as being the case.
      Wonder if anyone could speak more thoroughly on that point?

      • This is getting annoying.

        After a certain point you need to take the bad with the good. Illsinho is a great offensive player.

        Yes, we lose defense with him on the field. but you know what? either get better defensively elsewhere (or as a whole) or we might as well just play elite defensive players at every position and play like it’s 2001 for the rest of our lives.

        Dempsey sucks defensively. So does Kamara and Loderio and Giovinco. And any other good offensive player with a skillset and background like Illsinho. Those teams seem to manage.

        So either stop whining and call for a 11 behind the ball “omg none of these guys are weak defensively so i am happy!!!” playstyle or suck it up and figure out the best way to maximize Illsinho’s strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.

        I’ll throw in a bone: How about a 6 that can actually cover ground and is athletic enough to cover both sides of the field where needed but is smart enough not to get burned? I feel like that can be Edu. Evidence: His above average career both in Europe and with the NT where he played that role very well.

      • We all know I will disagree on your Edu comment, but lets move past that. I can agree with your comment that those following players do not do their fair share defensively (Dempsey, Kamara,Loderio, Giovinco) however their style of play on those teams doesn’t call for it. All those players are setup as either the lone striker or in a pair not many of them are out on the wing. Also to say take the good with the bad depends on how you view Ilsinho. I’m not sure I see him as adding much to the team. Yes he maintains possession, but at times it is at the risk of slowing the momentum down. This was the problem when Ilsinho was starting. I don’t doubt that he can make a difference on this team the question is how. I don’t think he has made a great impact so far. I think if you put Ilsinho or Alberg in for that matter as a withdrawn striker and drop to a flat 4 you could then compensate for any defensive drop off. This is not how the Union will play though so his defensive work rate does come into question clearly on style of play alone.

      • The thing about Ilsinho is he doesn’t really have a good to go with the bad. Yes he does pretty things with the ball at his feet, but it doesn’t result in anything. He has 2 goals and 2 assists vs Herbers who has started less games and played less minutes and has 2 goals and 7 assists. Plus Herbers actually defends and isn’t found standing around the center circle watching during a certain recent goal scored against the Union. And as was pointed out by Dr. Union, those players you mentioned: 1. Actually get goals and assists. 2. Mostly play forward or similar.

      • You lost me at “Illsinho is a great offensive player.” Dr Union explains my view (above).

      • … there’s that most oft overused word again James, Great.
        I stopped listening once that popped in around sentence 2.

      • Remember that scene in the Indiana Jones movie where the guy in the street market threatens Jones by flashing a huge sword all over the place looking like he’s about cut Indy in half…And then Jones, looking annoyed, pulls out a gun and calmly shoots him? It’s a lot like that. All flash not a lot of substance From Illsinho so far.
        Maybe Illsinho is a “great” ballhandling showman. Maybe he’d be “great” on a street corner, hat held out for change, wowing the passing pedestrians with “feets” of derring-do (See what I did there?).
        I’ve seen him with at *least* 6 pretty wide open looks this season and TIME…and not even a single shot attempt in those situations. (Usually a pass that’s too late or to a teamate that is just as shocked as everyone else that he didn’t TAKE THE DAMNED SHOT!)
        I like him, but I’m not loving him.

  7. With his offensive skill set, I believe saying he can’t play defense is giving llsinho a free pass. playing offense takes a skill set. playing defense takes a mind set, Focus,determination and hard work,he simply needs to apply himself.

  8. Um, he’s slow. Doesn’t matter how assiduously he applies himself. He’s slow.

    • assiduously. Well played. Checkmate. You win.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Well, actually, in a straight sprint he’s not that bad on pace since about mid season.
      What he’s not is balanced and agile while sprinting flat out. He neither stops quickly nor changes direction well. I’m not good enough at deconstructing running technique to get specific, but instinctively you know that when he’s sprinting at you, you can deke him and leave him in the nearest cornfield.

      • Wow! That’s a funny analogy. I think my Suburban has a better turning radius at speed. Not saying Illsinho is big as a Burb… Just less nimble at full song. When he is got time to play with the ball it’s entirely fun to watch.

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