Analysis / Season Reviews / Union

A creativity problem — the Union’s No. 10s

Photo: Paul Rudderow

In the final match of the 2017 season, Ilsinho tore Orlando City SC apart. The Brazilian found space with late runs, distributed quickly in transition, and played what little defense was required against a visiting side that was only in Chester because they had to be.

Afterwards, Union head coach Jim Curtin said, “The one thing that was talked about a lot this year was the No. 10 spot, and I guarantee if you take Ilsinho and Roland [Alberg]’s production in that spot, in hindsight now when you look back on it, it’s going to be pretty darn impressive in terms of the numbers they put up, goals and assists. Having to remember now, probably six to seven games [Alejandro Bedoya] played at the 10 as well, there was an Adam Najem game at the 10, so if you just separate all that and you look at those two on their production, it’s a lot better than I think we all gave them credit for.”

Delaware County Times reporter Matt De George took the coach’s claim literally and dove into the offensive numbers. Check out his piece because it does a good job of confronting Curtin’s statement head on.

Digging deeper, though, we can explore whether Philly’s No. 10s were perhaps quite productive in 2017, but in ways that traditional statistics failed to capture.

The stats: Ilsinho

Drawing from American Soccer Analysis’s (ASA) invaluable database, we can see that Ilsinho scored six goals this season but has an expected goals stat of 2.35. This is a pretty large gap (about as big as the gap between Chris Pontius’ expected goals number and actual goals in 2016, in fact) that suggests the Brazilian may have been a bit lucky to notch as many as he did.

Ilsinho also had three assists on the season and an expected assists stat of 2.31.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling, Ilsinho only collected 17 key passes all season, or approximately 0.86 KP/game. Key passes are passes that set up shots; it’s a stat that allows you to see if a player is creating even if a team’s finishing is lacking.

The stats: Roland Alberg

Roland Alberg’s seven-goal output is quite good, if not remarkable, given the stop-and-start season he had. But Alberg’s expected goals number is only 4.48, indicating that, like Ilsinho, he may be benefiting from a bit of luck.

Alberg finished the season without an assist, which is about what the model expected.

He did, however, average 1.11 key passes per match while only taking 3% of the team’s touches when he was on the pitch. Thus, there might be reason to believe the Dutchman has more untapped creative potential (though perhaps he simply took more corner kicks than I remember).

A broader view of the system and the numbers

Still, perhaps the Union’s transition system, which often involved playing into a central player, who would then try to release the front three, meant that even key passes isn’t properly quantifying these players’ impact on the offense.

To address that issue, ASA recently calculated xG Chain and xBuildup GC stats for MLS. Both stats try to take another step back from key passes and give credit for shot creation to the players that contributed to creating the shot by making a pass earlier in the possession.

For instance, you can calculate an xG stat for Fafa Picault’s goal below, and that number represents the percent of the time that the specific shot Picault is taking (a header off a cross, from the area on the pitch Picault hits it, along with a lot of other variables mixed in) will result in a goal.

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xG Chain gives credit for creating that specific shot to every player involved in the possession that led to the shot. So on Picault’s goal, Fabinho plays the ball to Haris Medunjanin, he plays it to Ilsinho, Ilsinho finds Marcus Epps, back to Ilsinho, and then onto Picault’s head. Each player that made a pass is credited with whatever the xG was on that goal (and no, Ilsinho doesn’t get double credit for making two passes). And even if the shot doesn’t go in, like in Orlando’s chance below, each player involved in the build-up gets credit for creating a shot of that quality.

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Long story short, xG Chain is a stat that tells you how often a player was involved in creating a shot beyond simply playing the final ball or shooting it.

xBuildup GC just takes a player’s xG Chain stat and removes all possessions in which that player a) made the final pass or b) took the shot.

As you might expect, players that are only get involved at the end of possessions look a lot worse in xBuildup GC. Roland Alberg, for example, looks a lot more like a striker in these stats than a creator: His xG Chain stat puts him between NYCFC’s midfielder Maxi Morales and New England striker Kei Kamara, but his xBuildup GC groups him with Kamara rather than Morales.

What the numbers really show

Digging into these numbers suggests that Philly’s creative hubs were neither creative nor hubs.

Roland Alberg’s xG Chain for 2017 was 6.31. This means that about six goals were likely scored from possessions that a) ended in a shot, and b) involved Roland Alberg in some way.

But Alberg’s xBuildup GC was 1.41. This means that most of the time Alberg was involved in a possession that ended in a shot, he was the one shooting or laying off the pass to shoot.  78% of the time that he was involved in a possession that ended in a shot, Alberg was either the shooter or making the final pass. Both Alberg’s Expected Assists stat and actual assists should tell you which of those he was usually doing.

Ilsinho’s xG Chain was 7.68, and his XBuildup GC was 3.53. This is, at least, far more like a creator than Alberg. 45% of the time Ilsinho was involved in a possession that ended with a shot, he was not the player taking the shot or playing the final ball.

This is almost exactly the same percentage as Medunjanin, but Ilsinho was far less influential than Medunjanin. His xG Chain/game was 0.39, which is on par with Chris Pontius, Kyle Beckerman, and Matt Polster. In short, he did not act as a driving creative force despite playing in a position that would, in theory, require such contributions. For context, players like Joao Plata, David Villa, and Clint Dempsey sit near the top of the 2017 xG Chain standings with around a 0.90. Albert Rusnak, RSL’s talented creative midfielder, sported a 0.66 xG Chain.

These numbers are not good enough. Ilsinho only moved to the center this season, so perhaps he can improve going forward. But the Brazilian is on the wrong side of the aging curve and remains a defensive liability. And Alberg looks, as he does almost any way you twist his numbers, like a striker.

If you start from the assumption that they wanted to make the playoffs, it is unclear how to defend the way Philadelphia Union as a club handled the No. 10 role this season. The team had a hot striker and a potentially dangerous mix of speed and aerial ability on the wings, and they had central players in Bedoya and Medunjanin that needed somebody further up the pitch to control play and let them get forward. Sapong did it at times, but only when he wasn’t mobbed by opponents or robbed by refs who reliably treat him as too strong to be fouled.

There do not appear to be publicly available numbers that suggest Ilsinho or Alberg were contributing enough to the Union attack to justify the club’s decision to sit pat at the transfer deadline in a conference that did everything possible to make the playoffs available to everyone.


  1. Fake news now being propagated by Curtin. Keeping up with the times I guess. If he truly believes this load, then there’s even more to worry about than I thought.

  2. So basically what all these numbers are saying is that we can trust our eyes in regards to the number 10 spot and these two guys in particular. This is probably about what we all would have expected prior to the season as well.
    On another note, really really frightening comment there from Curtin. More and more I think there will not be any significant changes or upgrades.

  3. el Pachyderm says:

    The idea I’m some dumb cluck soccer noob by Jim Curtin is insulting.
    See Jim here the difference between me and the Casuals you think this gets past.
    Keep all the xBuildups, slope intercepts. I watch off the ball. My eyes don’t lie.
    Yesterday, I was the guy watching Napoli while the others were watching the Eagles.
    The hell you take me for.

  4. Maybe Jim Curtin thinks these guys were legit #10s. It’s doubtful because most of the scoring # comes from Alberg and he rarely played. Most like it’s coach speak to not burn players that potentially could be back or could be sold/not to burn bridges. Why fans still put any stock in to press conferences is beyond me.

    • phil in wilmington says:

      If he thinks these guys are legit #10’s he has no business coaching professional soccer. Full Stop.

    • They need to get Alberg off the books, so yeah, they don’t want to chase off the next buyer.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      With respect A., this final notion in your commentary is a given and I recall it being made by you previously so for the record—
      —-Curtin’s comments are no less carion to comment over.
      this is the whole point of these platforms……(that other media people get paid to sit behind a microphone cajoling, waiting or baiting a caller to opine over,) like at noon on a Monday.
      It’s a given can we stop hearing about it. It’s as insulting to my discernment as Curtin’s comments are just plain dumb.
      I rail because it’s fun.
      Allows me to be nice to old ladies, crossing guards with excessively big hands or people who pick up their dogs shit, bag it, then leave it curbed anyway.

      • Rail away man. I’m fully in support of your constant drive to push the conversation in the right direction.

  5. phil in wilmington says:

    “in hindsight now when you look back on it, it’s going to be pretty darn impressive in terms of”

    I can jee that turning into one of those Getting-Smacked-by- Cartoon-Batman memes with the reply “LIES!”

  6. Those are very cool statistics, and I can imagine them uncovering some intriguing things. But in this case, all they do is verify what anybody with eyes and a half-ounce of soccer sense knew from watching the Union. Ilsinho has creative potential but was incredibly hot-and-cold, and more often the latter. And Alberg has about as much business being a #10 as Oguchi Onyewu.

    • Well, I guess that means the stats are measuring the correct thing. At least when it comes to showing who is not productive. Which would be a good tool to rule out potential new players if they don’t score high enough in these values.

  7. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The difficulty with this discussion is that we have no details of the contracts.
    Club behavior suggests they are what was called long ago “no cut” contracts.
    I was intrigued that the coach was responding to the “internet comment-o- sphere”.

  8. So I guess I could say I was right with stating that alberg should have been up top with sapong. Although stats weren’t great for ilsinho, I still believe he was probably the best #10 we had on this squad this season. This guy played in the champion’s league and played for shaktar and the Brazilian national team. He knows the real game and how it should be played. I think a misunderstanding about him is that he has players around him and a coach who honestly lack the knowledge and skill of how the game should be played. I believe he is used to players moving on and off the ball 90% of the time instead of the lack of movement from this team. Having Creavalle and Jones in the middle would have helped a lot in that aspect in my opinion. Harris’ passing was exceptional for most of the season but he was slow as hell and was a tree through out the year. Bedoyas prowess getting forward was bad this year as well. I would have rather seen him out wide more often tbh. Again, Yaros skillset is exceptional if you know anything about how the game should really be played. His passing out of the back was exceptional and his ability to get out of pressure and his decision making was one of a kind. But, he had two bad tackles that led to reds so then Curtin sits him for the rest of the season? He should have been back on the field immediately getting more and more comfortable on the pitch. I don’t recall him having any major injuries through out the season. A players touch and decision making is everything. It doesn’t seem to me that Curtin is really stressing that, thus, he should be fired. For this reason and many many more. Players who should be released : epps,winjaldum,Simpson,edu,pontuis, Blake – only if its official that they are getting someone who is world class and can make an impact immediately.

    • I agree with a lot of this but you are giving Ilsinho too much credit. He’s only dangerous going 1 on 1 when there is no other defensive support. If the rest of the team was drawing attention away from the defense he’s deadly. Otherwise he’s just a give away machine and doesn’t get into good positions. His only good skill is dribbling, and it’s great, but he lacks literally everywhere else.

      • Unionmilan5 says:

        Point taken A, I think he could have done a lot better in many aspects as well but, his passing ability looked horrible bc of this team lacking movement and getting open on good positions. Don’t misunderstand me though, I agree that he could have done the same with his own game as well and could have been more productive . I think they should bring back ilsinho next year even if it is as a sub. He has the quality to be very dangerous and effective for this team but the tactics next year have to be different in the sense that they should look to possess before anything else. That means moving into space , creating your own space and options for passes etc. etc. every team is a ” counter attacking team ” so when Curtin stresses that this is the unions identity I can only laugh. This team has to learn to possess next year and quit forcing the ball upfield. Let the creativity and play making come on it’s own.

      • True I agree. I’m fine with him coming back, but it’s gotta be a lot cheaper and, like you said, as a sub.

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