Offseason Issues

A chat about the 2017 Union: Part 2

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: PSP writers Peter Andrews and Dan Walsh get along. They both like soccer. They also disagree a lot. We figured some of those email conversations might make for interesting reading. If not, at least Peter is witty enough to make us laugh. Over the next few days, we’ll share their latest ongoing conversation about Philadelphia Union’s off-season.

Peter Andrews:

You’re right about Davies, I think. If he starts more than two games for the Union this year, something has gone very seriously wrong with the player recruitment. Whatever the cause, Sapong didn’t score enough goals to keep his starting spot, and Davies did nothing to show he deserved the minutes.

Like you said, Herbers is a bit different than the other two, so he’s more likely to end up in this mess of a midfield. Though Chris Pontius can be inked in to play left wing, the other four spots are completely up for grabs.

Let’s start with Ilsinho and Alberg, two players you’ve criticized sharply in the past. Though undeniably they both struggled at times in 2016, I am inclined to be more forgiving. (In this sense, I am the Darth Vader to your Emperor.) Both players were signed late in the preseason, and both had established Union veterans — Tranquillo Barnetta and Sebastien Le Toux — penciled in to start at their preferred positions. Neither player was put in a position to succeed either: Ilsinho struggled with injury for much of the season, while Alberg suffered a (deserved) red card against Seattle that led to Jim Curtin never quite trusting him again.

But when they’re on form both players are deeply valuable to the Union, because they balance a side that is a bit too conservative/defensive-minded. (Yes, the Union did allow a billion goals scored last year. We’ll get to the defense in a couple days.) When they attacked, the plodding Union were too often vulnerable to the counterattack. Ilsinho is so slippery with the ball that teams have to account for him, and you frequently see them bring a second defender down to trap him in. That makes the counterattack more difficult, as that’s one player who is already occupied down in the corner dealing with Ilsinho.

Plus, let’s be real here. The Union are simply more fun when Ilsinho is megging people for sport.

As for Alberg, it’s simple: the dude can score. The ball comes off his foot with more power than any player who’s ever worn a Union shirt. He also doesn’t get enough credit for his toughness on the ball. When he runs at players, he can shrug off defenders like an NFL running back. Not a bad set of skills for a central midfielder.

The criticism of Alberg mostly seems to revolve around body language, “attitude,” and similarly nebulous things. Maybe this is a personal pet peeve, but when I hear those critiques I wonder whether we’d be saying the same thing about American players — or even people more comfortable with English. (Call it the Bob Bradley effect.) Unless we hear from people around the team that Alberg is a Mbolhi-level diva, his personality should not outweigh his undeniable talent for putting the ball in the net.

The Union don’t have any players who can, more often than not, win a one-on-one battle — except for Ilsinho. And the Union don’t have any players with the ability to fire a game-changing rocket out of their boot — except for Alberg.

Now, maybe you’re right about their tactical fit in the 4-2-3-1. Maybe Alberg and Ilsinho don’t do enough “dirty” defensive work (boy, how I hate that phrase), or maybe they’re not positionally disciplined enough, or maybe they simply don’t create enough. But unless both of these guys are going to be transferred out in January, they’re going to be on the roster in 2017.

And it makes sense to me to incorporate their unique talents into the way the Union play. That could mean tweaking the midfield triangle to account for Alberg’s second-striker tendencies, or finding a new striker with the versatility to move about when Ilsinho and Alberg begin to freelance. A lot of that depends on what they do with Alejandro Bedoya, the million-dollar man who might be best used at either Alberg’s central midfield spot or Ilsinho’s wing position. It’s not totally clear to me that the three of them can form the core of a playoff-caliber midfield. If I’m Curtin and Stewart, I might keep all three of these players, knowing I’m only going to start two of them in a given game.

Alright, that’s enough ranting over here. How far off base am I on Alberg and Ilsinho? What would your ideal front four look like going into next season? And — the million dollar question — how do you get the most out of Alejandro Bedoya, who struggled at times in his half-season adjustment to MLS?

Dan Walsh:

First things first: Did you really just compare me to the Emperor? And just days after Carrie Fisher’s death? Oh, goodness, Peter, the generation gap has just been visited. I’m a Gen Xer who just realized that I married the closest thing I could find to the real life Leia. (I come to save the day, and she curses at me and kicks me into the garbage chute while somehow staying beautiful, witty and charming the whole time.) This is too soon, just too soon.

Now on to Alberg and Ilsinho.

Rather, let’s start with Alberg, since he’s the more maddening of the two. You’re a little off base, and you’re a good bit spot on. Alberg’s value is that he can score, and that’s obviously a big deal. His drawbacks are everything else: He plays no positive role in the passing buildup game, fails to provide consistent defensive effort and overcompensates for it with obviously dirty fouls that draw bookings from capable officials. The way he carries himself on the field too is far less significant than those other points. True, we may not like it, but we didn’t like Jack McInerney’s theatrics either but were willing to accept it as long as he scored goals and made smart runs to open up goal-scoring opportunities for teammates.

And that’s the kicker. If Alberg can score 20 goals a year and improve his team as a whole, then maybe you take all that, but it requires a tactical decision from his manager to play with a second striker who is basically just a poacher rather than a No. 10 attacking midfielder who is a creator and more. Last season, Alberg scored five goals from the run of play in the regular season, averaging one per 235 minutes. When you consider the defensive sieve the Union became later in the season – not entirely his fault, mind you, but he was a factor – was that a net gain? I’d rather have a Tranquillo Barnetta type in that central attacking role, and I think Alejandro Bedoya (or even Fabian Herbers) could be an analogue for that.

As for Ilsinho, you get no arguments here. He is fun to watch. There are two questions on the Ilsinho front:

  1. Will he ever get fit enough to consistently produce plays that lead to goals?
  2. As talented and fun to watch as he is, does he improve the team as a whole or detract from it?

The answer to question No. 1 is fully on Ilsinho. I’m not sure about the second answer, because he has some defensive issues that, combined with his tendency to pinch inside in attack, create challenges for the right back and defensive midfielder behind him.

With all this though, we’re dealing with contingencies and domino effects based on personnel questions the Union have not yet answered.

  1. Will they sign a No. 8 box-to-box center midfielder? If not, then your best option there is Bedoya, unless the Union are willing to lay a risky bet that Maurice Edu will return healthy or that Derrick Jones is ready to start in MLS. Warren Creavalle is not the answer there.
  2. Will they sign a No. 6 defensive midfielder? Because that affects the domino effect too. (Edu is often viewed as a defensive midfielder, but he often played the No. 8 box-to-box role in Europe and has shown in Philly that’s where his tendencies lie.)
  3. Will they sign a top line striker? If so, that means C.J. Sapong becomes a regular depth option on the wing as well as at striker.

And that brings us to your question about how to get the most out of Bedoya. To me, that’s simple: Just be patient, let him adjust to the league, and play him primarily in a position where he feels most comfortable. My guess is that’s at the No. 10. What the Union do here will be affected by how the Union answer the aforementioned three personnel questions.

Bedoya has never been a superstar. What he has been, everywhere he’s gone (including the U.S. national team), is the ultimate glue player who made his teams better. Nearly every major mid-season European signing in MLS history has adapted slowly and needed a full training camp to adequately adjust to his team and the league’s demanding physicality and travel.

In an ideal world, I’d see Bedoya, Herbers and Ilsinho sharing time at the No. 10 and right wing spots, with at least one center midfield signing (preferably a Vincent Nogueira-type) at the No. 8 and Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle holding down the No. 6 spot until the Union see whether Edu can come back or not. (If he can’t, then you sign a quality No. 6 in the summer transfer window.)

What about you? What does your ideal Union midfield look like? Do you think the Union should even factor in Edu when looking ahead, or is he dead salary weight at this point? And regarding your suggestion that the Union incorporate Ilsinho’s and Alberg’s unique talents into the way the team plays: The Union tried that last year, to a degree, and failed. Is this coaching staff capable of successfully pulling it off in 2017?


  1. Of the two players — Alberg and Ilsinho — I think Ilsinho has the most potential to be a big part of the team. I like Alberg a lot, but agree he plays like a striker. Right now, I think he may be the best striker the Union have on their roster just as a pure goal scorer.

    Ilsinho, if fit, could be a real key in the midfield. He played most of his career on the right, but has lost a bit of the pace that made him particularly dangerous. I think he may be a really great #10. When he came in against Toronto in our last match of the season, he changed things dramatically. Maybe his ceiling is backup #10. Not sure. But I really like him and think he can contribute a lot more to the team in 2017.

  2. Good conversation. There are some positives to the club having an identity/system (pressing 4-2-3-1) but I think you have to make some adjustments to get the most out of the players you have. Do we have to play a 4-2-3-1? Why can’t we can combine a style (team pressing, quick transition to attack) with a formation tweak that fits the players? Ideas:

    Back 4
    Carrol or Edu at CDM
    ST: 2 of Alberg/NEW STRIKER
    Herbers/CJ/Ayuk as attacking subs
    (maybe best against park-the-bus type teams?)



    3-5-2 or 3-4-3 (for high-level opposition)
    Ilsinho/Alberg (defensive liabilities limited here?)
    NEW STRIKER–Alberg/Pontius

    Pontius plays like a poacher – right time/right place goal scorer. And he’s strong and solid in the air – why can’t he play as one of a 2 ST set?

    *this could play to our CBs and FBs strengths (speed of Marquez and Yaro, attacking tendencies of Fabi) while getting most of Tribbett (good in air, but going to get beat if pulled outside and challenged for speed)

    Or, in 3-4-3 Attacking trident with some combo of Alberg/Pontius/New Striker

    I’m not pretending be some genius, but these are things I would at least consider as viable options for getting the most out of the roster.

    World class managers who love to press like Pep, Conte, Klopp, Pochettino, Simeone – they always have their players pressing as a team to recover the ball and turn a quick transition, but they tweak their formation to get the most out of the players they have and/or tailor approach to an opponent.

    • I would love a 3-5-2 for this team, but Carroll becomes completely useless in that role. You need both of your cms to be #8 in that setup I think.

    • I think the team’s roster suits a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 better than a 4-3-2-1, but talking formations is a waste of time. Both Curtin and Stewart have expressed their belief many times that they want to build a Union system/identity and make the roster fir the system, not the other way around.

      Personally, I’d love to see a 3-5-2 tried in a situation other than when we’re down a goal late game, but, again, it’s not going to happen under this management group.

      • Aware of the statements by ES and JC, but do you agree that style/system doesn’t have to mean one formation?

        What do you guys think of Pontius as a ST in a 2 St set?

        Also – fun to a follow a team if you can’t even talk formations! lol

      • And if we’re going to be glued to 4-2-3-1, why were Ernie’s first acquisitions not suited to it?

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Reverse your question.
        Assume they were known not to be formation fits before they were signed.
        So the question becomes why were they signed if they would not fit well?
        I need not continue, I suspect, Given that Earnie Stewart is a successful executive.

      • OSC – are you pointing out that if they were signed knowing they don’t fit the 4231, that they were signed to add tactical flexibility?

      • I agree with that, although they have said they want to fullbacks to push up and the #6 to drop back in attack which basically allows us to form a 3-4-3 in attack and Edu would fit that role great. Who knows though.

      • I’m with you. I guess my point is that if we don’t have the players for that, just play the damn 3-5-2/3-4-3 until we do. Yup – who knows!

      • I think, Eggman, to answer your questions, on why the players, my guess is that Curtin et. al. feel like they were stuck filling gaps they didn’t plan on. Edu at #6, Nogs at #8 and even Barnetta was injured for a time. The starting core on the drawing board never happened. Ilsinho and Alberg were acquired for depth.

        As for playing different formations, I think Curtin is just really stubborn. He’s like the poor man’s Guardiola. He’s going to play his style and preferred formation win or lose. I’m actually really high on Curtin, but I’m not a fan of stubbornness in managers in general. I think best managers should have plans and goals but be willing to bend to the roster they have.

      • Hey Pete – agreed they got stuck trying to fill gaps and in fairness I’m willing to withhold some judgement. I like Jim as a man manager and want him to succeed. I just feel that when stuff happens and plan A is out the door, its OK to open your mind and find another way to “skin the cat”.

      • agree

      • To me, the roster (as is) looks like a 4-4-1-1 would get the best players on the field.
        Depth Chart:
        GK – Blake, McCarthy
        RB – Rosenberry, Gaddis
        RCB – Yaro, Tribbet
        LCB – Marquez, Trusty
        LB – Fabinho, Gaddis
        RM – Ilsinho, Herbers, Bedoya, Ayuk
        RCM (#8s)- Bedoya, Creavalle, Jones
        LCM (#6s)- Edu, Carroll, Creavalle
        LM – Pontius, Herbers, Sapong, Fernandes*
        CF/ST – Alberg, Herbers,
        ST – Sapong, Davies
        * have not heard that he was resigned but he is still listed on roster.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        He was available in the waiver draft..
        My guess is that dorr to his return has the lock’s key in it, but the key has not yet been turned.

    • Great conversation on the 3-5-2 prospects here. Definitely provides some food for thought that may pop up in a column on PSP. With Yaro and Tribbett, you could have two center backs that could fit that sort of back line.

  3. Dan….Pete….And all the staff and contributors to this site. Special thanks to Ed for the constant news and up dates! I wish you all a Happy New Year! This back and forth between you gentlemen is (so far) just fantastic! I think Illsinho may be the most fun to watch. The ball looks stuck to his feet on the dribble. Albergs goal scoring is great to watch but the slow walk back to defend is cringe worthy. Looking forward to more from this series. Great job as usual!

  4. The problem with Ilsinho is that he comes in and, no doubt, bosses the came for 15 minutes. Everything runs through him, which is great… for 15 minutes. After that he falls off, hard and has little impact, whether it’s as a starter or sub. For me, he’s an impact sub – and potentially a very good one if he can start making his creativity impact the scoresheet.

    For Alberg, I think he might be the most talented (though mercurial) player on the team. I remember sitting in the River End when he hit an absolute screamer from 20+ yards out against KC (he and Barnetta combined for a very perdy goal that game, and Alberg should have had another if not for a terrific save from KC’s keeper). Don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball hit that hard in person. As Kinkead often notes, Alberg is a tweener and doesn’t really fit in Curtin’s system, but if we are willing to adjust to a 4-4-2 in some games, which I actually think fits Bedoya really well in CM, he’d be an amazing second striker. But like we all keep saying, where does he fit?

    • +1. Although I could see Alberg improving on some of his “weaknesses” this year. He was definitely trying harder on defense by the end of the year (he never had to do that before) and He could improve on his build up play with a more consistent lineup around him.

  5. Can we think for just a second about the truth to your comment about not having players capable of winning 1v1 battles with the ball?
    This brings us squarely back to the article both yesterday and on the other side of today regarding of all things youth development. Compulsory skill. We have professional players that at times look like newborn mammals on the ball when under pressure…
    Ilsinho gets ohhs and ahhs cause he gets a defender leaning and cuts the other way… simple stuff cause the ball is his friend and has been since he was a kid.
    Hopefully this lack of compulsory skill is being washed away with each young kid aspiring to be the next Pulisic or Messi or Greizmann.

    • I just love the building up of players like Herbers and the tearing down of players like I and A.

      For all the talk of I and A disappearing and being shackled at times – what about Herbers? Herbers is worse of all. There are plenty of times he has disappeared in games!

      But players like I an A can work out of it because of their sheer skill and talent. What does H have? Does he have the dribbling skills to draw in an extra defender – and still get past them sometimes anyway? Does he have the rocket shot that can test a keeper from outside the box? Does he have a first touch? Does he have the speed to even beat FBs with speed?

      No, in fact. When you hear compliments of H, it’s usually platitudes like “he’s smart” or “he makes good runs”. But that’s not good enough. Those are the entry level soccer compliments. Is that good enough for a starting RW in 2017? I don’t think so.

      But hey, we hate I and A because they remind us talent doesn’t come cheap, and because one time Alberg looked mad!

      • While you consider making good run entry level skill Herbers does that and is willing to continue to do it all game long, which is more than can be said of many (most) other attackers on this team and honestly the league.

      • Thats nice, but we’re going to need a lot more than making nice runs sometimes (again remember Herbers disappeared plenty and it’s not that difficult to take him out of a game) from a starting RW on a team we expect to make the playoffs.

        Ilsinho is a lot closer to the type of skillset the MLS is evolving to expect from it’s attacking players than Herbers is.

        Also, I don’t consider the skill itself to be. I consider the compliment itself to be. Namely, I was making a dig that hearing the “he makes good runs!” is really a meh compliment because I would much rather hear things like “He’s good 1v1, he can take on defenders, he can beat defenders on the ball, etcetcetc”.

      • I can answer your question in a few words. He produced. 10 goals created in line 1300 minutes if I remember. Yea that’s good. And he’s going. Argument made.

      • I would be hesitant to look at stats and call it over. Yes it’s possible he has that underdog career and gives us 10 assists each year, but it’s equally possibly he reverts back to his skill level which besides “makes good runs” and “plays defense”, is limited.

        In lieu of a time machine, I’d like to look at his skillset and what it can offer us going foward. And I just think we are at a point we re we want to see more from an attacking player.

        But hey, if he keeps on keeping on, I was wrong.

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        Well the biggest difference is that he was a rookie, compared to two fairly seasoned pros. Theoretically he’s far from a complete player. You would think Ilsinho might play a little better if he gets in shape but really how much better? To me the jury still out on Alberg, at times he looks like he could be a star and other times he just looks like he’s going through the motions. Herbers looks like he’s hustling but the game hasn’t slowed down for him yet. His first goal was a thing of beauty breaking the defender’s legs and curling in a perfect shot.

      • Everything John O’Donnell Jr just said.

        That’s all. 🙂

  6. Okay, serious question: is Ilsinho better or worse than Maidana? Maidana could drift in and out of games and not give effort, but he often did a great job of providing an outlet for the deeper mids and created for others. I didn’t watch enough this year to form my own opinion on Ilsinho, so this is me legitimately asking for your opinions. Similarly, by the sounds of it, Alberg would work best as a second striker, but is there any chance he could work as a lone striker? He’s obviously too small to be a hold-up target player, but does he have the finishing skills to go it alone up top like Le Toux used to?
    And really, if neither Ilsinho (generally same flaws as Maidana) and Alberg (bad fit for formation) aren’t starters, why are they even here? Ayuk can provide wing dribbling to nowhere for a fraction of the price of Ilsinho, right? Davies and Alberg are pretty much duplicative, right? Why pay Ilsinho and Alberg when neither can start and we have so many holes.
    Speaking of holes, it was glossed over in this chat, but if either Creavalle or Carroll are penciled in as opening day starters, I’m just going to assume that Earnie Stewart is highly incompetent at his job. Saying that right now. You all know I’m not his biggest fan, but they’re simply not MLS-starter quality, and our ceiling is extremely limited as long as we’re relying on them as anything more than defensive subs and injury fill-ins.

    • If you are really saying a straight swap of Ilsinho for Ayuk or Davies for Alberg is even in the same solar system, then we really are so screwed.

      I love how people bitch and moan about not having talent on the team, but then want to squeeze out the two players with talent on the team just because they don’t fit into the perfect price point.

      With all due respect to these two, Ayuk and Davies suck compated to Alberg and Ilsinho. To even insinuate you would be happy with Ayuk and Davies in their play is minor league.

    • As of now Creavlle and Carroll are backups to Edu and Bedoya. They need another midfielder though at minimum great depth but probably starter quality.
      In my opinion Ilsinho and Madiana are completely different players. Ilsinho didn’t totally break the formation like Madiana did and he at least tries sometimes on defense. He is also not as painfully slow as Madiana and is willing to take shots (although he usually misses).

      • Maidana is a pure playmaker. Ilsinho is a much stronger 1-on-1 attacker, though seemed to struggle linking up with others (Le toux delivered more production on the RW with less flair). Interesting weapon that they need to figure out how to use still.

  7. I simply do not get the love for Roland Alberg. He did have an amazing scoring run, yes. But then he disappeared from games so thoroughly that we might as well have been playing a man down. People who want to put him at CAM must be smoking something powerful. As Dan writes, he does not participate in the passing build-up whatsoever. The last thing this guy can do is run an offense! And he doesn’t give the greatest defensive effort either. Bedoya is clearly the much better choice for #10.

    • Not that I am the biggest Alberg fan, but the dude does the hardest thing in soccer really well and that is score goals. I think it’s more the fact that we are sitting on a goalscorer and should be able to figure out how to use him than anything else.

      • +1. The guy has a desire and ability to score goals that is pretty much unmatched on the roster. It’s somewhat raw potential, but potential nonetheless.

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Of the two organizational professional teams, Steel FC did more tactical adjusting last season than did the Union. The Union’s primary change was the difference between how Herbers played rfm, as compared to Le Toux, as compared to Ilsinho, that is until the were down a goal late and went with three in the back.

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