In defense of Roland Alberg

Photo: Earl Gardner

Roland Alberg is the most hated player on Philadelphia Union.

His critics can be found among the fans, the press box, and now almost assuredly in the Union locker room.

The ill will reached its apex Wednesday evening when Philadelphia dispatched Columbus Crew SC 3-0 at Talen Energy Stadium. In the 35th minute, C.J. Sapong was bowled over in the box, and the Union were awarded a penalty. A heated exchange between Alberg and Sapong followed, with both arguing they should be the one to take the shot from the spot.

After a three-minute delay, Alberg took the penalty – and failed to convert. Boos rained down from the River End and echoed throughout the stadium. They persisted until the 68th minute, when they reached their climax. Roland Alberg walked off the field to a chorus of catcalls and jeers from his own fans.

It was intense. Alberg won the battle of wills, but the spectacle marred a solid Philadelphia performance. Sapong had even raced to the sideline to plead his case with head coach Jim Curtin.

It was an ugly look for the Dutch midfielder. He was stealing the glory from his teammate, a player who not only leads the club in goals, but who has been the most valuable player for the Union so far this season.

The clash was more than just a dispute of players. It embodied two sides of the game that couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.

Sapong is the fan favorite. He does all the gritty hold up play. He runs. He fights. He leaves everything on the field. The forward is not concerned if his game is pretty.

Alberg is the enigma. He walks around the pitch, waiting for the play to come to him. When the Union enter the final third, he casts a static shadow, lingering just outside of the box. He doesn’t make that selfless run to draw defenders or create an angle. While Sapong’s smile radiates on the field, Alberg bickers with teammates and looks more apathetic than engaged.

The ugly truth

Here’s the thing:

Alberg was right. He’s the one who should have taken the shot.

Saying Sapong “earned” the penalty is a disservice to everything that led to it. While the striker was on the ball for a brief moment, it was Alberg’s brilliant through ball, perfectly weighted, that created the chance. Even Haris Medunjanin’s pass with the outside of his left foot to start the movement was integral to the final result.

Both Sapong and Alberg were selfish. All goalscorers should be. Was there anything more noble in Sapong’s reasoning? Why should Alberg have deferred to a player who wanted to set a personal record by scoring double digit goals for the first time in his career?

The Union were only up one goal. The most important thing should be to win. Philadelphia believes Alberg gives them the best chance from the spot. Captain Alejandro Bedoya echoed the sentiment after the game.

“We decided that if Roland is on the field, he’s the penalty taker,” Bedoya said, “and that’s what I said.”

If that was always the game plan, then shouldn’t the blame fall more on Sapong’s shoulders for the scene the captain had to settle – not Alberg’s?

There’s good reason why the Dutchman was chosen. Before the game, Alberg had converted every penalty he’d taken since joining the Union.

The Alberg fallacy

There is a reason the boos were quick to come for Alberg.

It’s impossible to deny that the midfielder has been a disappointment since joining the club. He was supposed to help carry the team to greater heights. He would provide the skill that so many elite MLS sides have. This hasn’t happened. Through injury and inconsistency, Alberg is just another cog in a middling team. He’s fallen well short of expectations.

But this has gone too far. Many believe the Union are a better team without Alberg on the field. The common arguments are that he doesn’t defend, he doesn’t pass, and he isn’t a No. 10.

The sad reality is the Union do not have an MLS caliber No. 10.

There are calls for rookie Adam Najem to start ahead of Alberg, but Najem isn’t good enough yet. His touch is still too heavy, his passing is still too loose, and he isn’t a real scoring threat. Najem needs time to develop.

Why not let him develop this year? The Union are currently fighting for a playoff spot. Abandoning that pursuit in favor of youth, regardless of whether the goal is realistic, would be a tough pill to swallow in the locker room.

When Alberg startsWhen Alberg sits
Points per game1.331.20
Goals per game1.671.26
Goals allowed per game1.171.13
Shutout %50%33%

The above table shows how the Union perform when Alberg starts compared to when he doesn’t. The numbers are there. Philadelphia are a better side, even if its just slightly,  with him than without. For every game he exited without contributing (the Union scored all three of their goals after he was subbed against the Red Bulls) there were moments where his late introduction into a match saved Philadelphia (like in Kansas City.)

It also dismisses the importance of Alberg’s defensive work rate. The Union have kept clean sheets in 50% of the games he’s started. No. 10s don’t need to defend for a team succeed. They need to contribute offensively.

Even if he isn’t a No. 10, his passing ability is vastly underrated. That pass to Sapong in the box was on the first touch. He sprays accurate long balls into dangerous areas consistently. Only Medunjanin and center back Jack Elliott have claims as better passers on the team. Alberg’s issue as a No. 10 isn’t distribution.

His real problem is his desire to impose himself on the ball and work off of it. He doesn’t make the runs his teammates need him to make. Despite this, he does one thing better than anyone else on the Union.

Alberg scores, and he does so at a higher rate than any other player since coming to the side.

GoalsMinutesMinutes per Goal
Roland Alberg131728132.9
Fafa Picault51004200.8
C.J. Sapong174186246.2
Chris Pontius123960330.0
Fabian Herbers41685421.3

Only Fafa Picault comes close to Alberg’s minutes per goal production since the start of the 2016 season.

The Union need players like this. Sapong is having the best season of his career, but the team can’t be so reliant on one player. If he struggles so does the attack.

Alberg has more finishing skill than a lot players in the league. How many players can score the goal he did against D.C. United? He rescued a point in Kansas City. He almost did the same with a wonderful volley in Montreal. It’s why you can tolerate his tendency to hang around the edge of the box, even as you’re screaming for him to make the run.

Take a look at how he compares this season in minutes per goal among all of MLS:

NameMinutes per goal
1. Nemanja Nikolic109.1
2. Erick Torres117.8
3. David Accam118.9
4. David Villa122.8
5. Maximiliano Urruti136.7
6.Will Bruin140.4
7. Roland Alberg143.8
8.Sebastian Giovinco143.6
9.Juan Agudelo145.6
10. Ignacio Piatti148.4
11.Alberth Elis151.3
12.Roland Lamah154.4
13.C.J. Sapong165.1

Alberg ranks 7th among players who’ve registered over 500 minutes of action so far (Sapong ranks 13th). Penalty kicks inflate the number, but doesn’t every great scorer benefit from a few easy kicks from the spot?

Nothing highlights his contribution more than this. Every moment he spends on the field, the Union are that much more likely to score.

The conclusion

Alberg is an infuriating player.

He leaves so much to be desired for someone with so much inherent talent and skill.

The Union need to upgrade over Alberg. They need a true No. 10, one who can leave his mark on a match without scoring a goal from nothing. With his contract ending at the end of the year with a club option, Alberg hasn’t done enough to return in 2018. If that upgrade doesn’t during the summer transfer window, and the Union fall hopelessly out of contention, Najem should leapfrog the perplexing midfielder.

But until then, Philadelphia need Roland Alberg. He’s the best option they have at the No. 10, despite all his flaws.

The defense rests.


  1. Good stuff; fully concur!

    • phil in wilmington says:

      please send this article to any chump willing to pick up his contract. if it gets him gone, good riddance.

  2. Zizouisgod says:

    Great post, Nick. I don’t disagree with any of this, but struggle with the PK thing for the following reasons:

    1) Curtin’s reaction during the match when Sapong went to him to plead his case. Curtin didn’t say anything to Sapong or even acknowledge his presence. Totally ignored him.

    2) Curtin’s answer to the question about this incident after the match. He gave a long-winded and indirect answer instead of saying “Roland is our taker”.

    3) In the SKC match, when Alberg said to Sapong “bro, I need this” before taking the PK. Why?

    Everyone can see Alberg’s obvious talent, but something always seems to hold him back from being an automatic starter.

    • If he constantly moved on offense he would be a stud. But he doesn’t. He hangs around the top of the box and rarely helps in build up play. Look at what Najem did as soon as he came in. Constantly moving giving an option to his teammates and getting on the ball as much as possible. Alberg just doesn’t do that. I don’t even care about the defense, if he just made the runs on offense he would be a guaranteed starter and probably double his goal and assist numbers.

  3. This is good copy. Fantastic work.

    On the penalty, having a system has its virtues. I recall how Liverpool tapped Milner to take every penalty because he converted them. I’ve seen a lot of Union players miss badly on penalties, including Sapong. The main thing you want in that situation is the goal. It trumps CJ’s quest for 10.

    On Alberg generally, the guy’s qualities as a goal scorer are something else.I get why he’s an archetype Philly villain. We like our players to work hard for their quality. I said it earlier this year, I think, that he could be the team’s Diego Costa. Emotional, tempestuous and prone to going rogue, but you can’t doubt his ability to score a goal. The goal he scored last month against NE may be the best any player on this team has ever put away. We can’t blame the player for not fitting a system. The coaches need to find a way to take advantage of his abilities or admit they can’t do it and move on.

    • When did sapong miss a penalty?

      • I believe he missed in the usoc final vs kc. Still, I agree with the sentiment of thw article. If the team decides that alberg is the pk taker–much like letoux was–then he takes it.

        I really don’t understand the dislike of roland. He has more offensive weapons than almost anyone on the team.

      • Sapong missed a penalty against New England in the open cup last year.

    • He doesn’t fit any system. Unless there is a system that asks a player to only stand at the top of the box and wait for the ball. Dude needs to get involved more.

  4. If the question is how does he contribute to the team through the run of play, would like to see all of those goal numbers minus the penalty kicks. that goes for the guys from the other teams too.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      Just looked it up for transparency’s sake.

      Roland would be 28th. Picault comes in at 11th with Sapong at 25th.

      These are just goals from open play, though, so they don’t include set pieces.

      • SilverRey says:

        This is a better number to look at since PK’s could have been given to anyone on the team with the likelihood that it would result in a goal.

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    There’s one major flaw in your argument. Several of those losses early in the season were a direct result of Alberg not being in good enough fitness to start the season. Prior to the first NYCFC game he played a total of less than 45 minutes. The fact that he wasn’t ready to go 90 forced the Union to play Bedoya out of position. If Alberg had been able to play those games, the Union might be a bit closer to the cut line.
    And for me, being the only one on the team not ready to play on opening day (excluding injury) is pure selfishness and based on the above numbers hurts the team significantly more than the small boost they get when he decides he wants to play.

  6. I am possibly Alberg’s biggest detractor among the commentators on this blog, so I will chime in to dissent, as I must, though I promise to be reasoned in doing so.

    Alberg has, basically, one skill. It is a fine skill indeed, but that’s all he does. I simply do not see this “vastly underrated passing ability” that you mention. I will give him credit for the excellent through-ball to CJ that earned the PK; he hardly ever does any such thing.

    I also vehemently disagree with the idea that a #10 does not need to play defense. That may be true for some teams… or if your last name is “Messi”… but it certainly doesn’t fit Jim Curtin’s system.

    And here we get to the true crux of the problem, which is, of course, that Alberg simply does not fit our system At. All. The guy certainly has talent, at least in one important area, and it could be put to use as a second (or third) striker on a team that plays with more than one. If we had a 2-striker set, having him play OFF CJ might actually be fantastic! Imagine Sapong occupying the CBs, playing hold-up, laying off to Alberg at the top of the box… but that’s a whole new structure, which we don’t have, and we are not going to have, per Earnie Stewart’s directives.

    And given the Stewart/Curtin system, there is no place for this guy. CERTAINLY not the 10 spot. He doesn’t do ANYTHING you want a #10 to do. He doesn’t distribute, he doesn’t involve teammates, he doesn’t take people on… the thought of Alberg running an offense is laughable. His second-greatest skill, after shooting, is whining at referees and taking himself out of the play. And his absence in that position, when he is on the pitch, has all sorts of knock-on effects that I would have to leave Adam Cann to explain far better than I ever could.

    And we haven’t even gotten to the fact that he is probably locker room poison. I don’t absolutely know that 100%, since I’m not there, but we can certainly infer it by the fact that every single on-field disagreement between players seems to involve him. He’s the most sullen and divisive Union player since Rais M’Bolhi.

    So, nice piece, credit for the attempt, but no no no on Roland Alberg for the Union. I am sure he will not be back next year, and I really hope he doesn’t play much this year, barring another horrible run of injuries and absences.

    • I agree with everything except where you say he’d be a good second striker running off Sapong. He doesn’t run off of anyone. He waits and hopes the ball falls to him. He has a ton of talent and does the hardest thing better than almost everyone but it’s mostly wasted because he literally does nothing else. He’s literally a black hole in build up play.

      • I didn’t say RUN off Sapong. I said PLAY off Sapong. He’s the kind of guy who gets into the right position and waits for the ball to show up, just as you say. He’s a poacher, with the extra benefit of having a fantastic long-distance shot, so he can also be something of a long-range poacher.

      • I don’t think he’s a poacher though because he’s not constantly in good places for easy tap in, he’s a waiter, he’s just kinda around the box and if the ball falls to him he’s talented enough to pound it home, even in tough situations.

      • Imagine Alberg next to Jozy with Gio at the 10. If I’m Toronto im calling.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      I’m a bigger Alberg detractor than you! 😉

      Nick wrote a great piece though, and that’s the only comment you get from me. 🙂

  7. I’m reminded of Buddy Ryan’s quote about why he cut Cris Carter, ” All he does is catch touchdowns.”


    Alberg doesn’t have a position in this formation. He’s not a 10… pretty clear to me he would excel as a withdrawn striker, but that’s never going to happen here because Curtin’s formation is more important than winning. He’s probably the best finisher this team has ever had, particularly in relation to goals/minutes.


    Admittedly, his body language and reactions can suck, but I hate this blue-collar Philadelphia nonsense. I’d like to see a winning Union team sometime in my lifetime.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Recall in reference to Buddy Ryan cutting Chris Carter that the real reason was a recreational mind-altering substance issue that we learned much later when Carter was established as a Minnesota star.

      • HopkinsMD says:

        Accurate. Admitted by Carter later and he cited Ryan’s decision as a pivot point in his life on and off the field.

    • If you take away the PK’s alberg has, his minutes per goal drops to 246. That makes fafa our best finisher. The difference of course is that fafa plays within the system.

      Also, I gaurantee that our goal differential would not be what it is if we changed formations to fit the abilities of one player who’s stats are inflated wth PK’s.

    • Just because he is a good finisher and a bad possession player doesn’t mean he’d be a good second striker. He’d play it exactly the same way he plays the 10. Waiting around for everyone else to get him the bad somewhat around the goal without even trying to get involved or even get into really dangerous positions.

    • Fafa also has more assists and key passes than alberg this year which is more important for a 10 to have Han a winger but I don’t see anyone wanting to change the formation to fit fafa.

    • scottymac says:

      I agree, but we’re in love with hard working mediocrity.

  8. Your numbers are very interesting. I am an Alberg critic, full disclosure.
    In fairness to him, remind ourselves, please that he is from another culture, and that holding him to American cultural standards of body language is unfair.
    Russians during the cold war were always characterized by us as dour and unsmiling. From direct experience in the Moscow metro in 1985 I can see why Americans think that. But from that same experience, I must testify that when you earn a smile, it is a memorable experience, akin to the sun rising at a beach facing east on a clear day.
    Russians feel that our constant smiling and so forth is insincere and devious.
    Interpreting cross cultural behaviors without cross-cultural knowledge is dangerous.

    • This is a fair point in the abstract. But I am not aware of any typology of the Dutch as being sullen, grouchy, or argumentative. If there is someone who knows the Eredivisie well and can state otherwise, please correct me.

  9. He’s lazy, thus fits no system (get that “he just doesn’t fit the system” argument out of your head). He showed up for camp fat and out of shape. He contributes nothing to possession by trying anything like defense (looks like work man). He’s the guy who shoots at goal from the kickoff in rec games. Aside from PKs and receiving service, no valuable skills. Really he shouldn’t be a pro unless you like bad soccer. Philly is not a blue collar town – it’s just a town that expects effort from everybody (except from team owners … that’s another discussion). These and similar reasons are why Alberg is getting hammered. He’s an unsympathetic nothing.

  10. OneManWolfpack says:

    I can literally put up with anything if they guy scores consistently. I don’t need the whole “Philly tough” BS to exist in every player. The problem, that many have already said, is that Alberg is lazy and to me should be a sub that comes on when you need one and is specifically out there to score and try to tie or win the game. To count on him as a 10 who is gonna create all game is dumb. So when I see him out there for 70+ minutes and for maybe 4 of them he appears to have given an effort, I’m gonna get pretty fired up.

  11. Nice stats and words Nick. Don’t care. Don’t want him here. Got a bag of balls? He’s yours.

  12. 6. Will Bruin 140.4
    7. Roland Alberg 143.8
    8. Sebastian Giovinco 143.6

  13. Interesting read, but no. I see a disruptive influence on the field, a lack of participation in defense, and what makes me nuts is the fact that despite not bothering to defend, he is not in position to help as much on offense as would justify it. The display on the PK is not, by itself the issue. Combined with the on field disputes and a general lack of involvement as described above, I am not sure that he is worth his salt. The discussion above of showing for the season out of shape is new to me, but color me unsurprised. The stats are always interesting and I cannot dispute them, but numbers don’t always show heart. I see none.

  14. Nice read Nick! I was reading this and watching the replay of the game. Hard to be pleased with Albergs play when just watching him. Lots of distance shots. Not necessarily on target. And lots of slow jogs up the middle to just outside the box.then really not much movement. Hard to argue with the stats. But the eye test just makes him look lazy. On a different note. Marcus Epps looked pretty dangerous all night! Great to see him score!

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