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Raves: Ilson Pereira Dias Júnior, the Wizard of Ahs

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This is the first of a PSP series titled, “Raves,” in which PSP writers take a break from critical analysis and straight reporting to rave about a particular person from the Philadelphia soccer scene. For more about the series, read the introduction here. To read all posts in the Raves series, click here.

There is little more mystical in the sport that is international football than the Brazilian player. The greats possessed unrivaled skill and dazzled on the pitch. Their sense of time, space and touch is unrivaled as a people. So great are the Brazilians that they need only one name: Pele, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Garrincha, Kaka.

In a league not known for its collection of Brazilian magicians, the Philadelphia Union’s Ilson Jr. — or Ilisnho as we all know him — truly stands out.

We didn’t know much about Ilsinho when he joined the club in Feb. 24, 2016. It was the beginning of the first full season of new sporting director Earnie Stewart, whose acquisitions that year included the mercurial Dutch midfielder Roland Alberg and Brazilian defender Anderson Conceição, who never did make an impression for the first team. Ilsinho was an unknown entity, a player whose biggest impact had been as a regular for the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk.

“We’re extremely excited to land a player of Ilsinho’s caliber and that he chose Philadelphia over other options,” Stewart said at the time, adding, “His elite-level attacking ability speaks for itself, and we’re confident he’ll have an immediate impact.”

For some, Ilsinho may never have lived up to that promise. Some say he was too slow. He didn’t defend. He didn’t always seem to care.

All of it slander, as far as I’m concerned.

For me, Ilsinho has been a bright light of quality and skill on a team — and in a league — that doesn’t always have much of either on display.

Ilsinho first wowed me in that game against Chicago on April 2, 2016.

Facing two defenders, just outside the box to the right, Ilsinho brought his right foot to the ball as if he were about to move left, pulled the ball back to his right instead and just as rapidly moved it forward and left right through the legs of Chicago’s Michael Harrington. He slipped his own body between Harrington and the other defender and emerged with the ball at his feet, his defenders embarrassed and trailing behind. The move, known as the elastico, to the best of my knowledge has never been employed by a Union attacker prior. 

“I can’t teach what he does,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the match. “That’s in the Brazilian blood, I guess you would say.”

Over 72 appearances for the Union — 47 of them starts — Ilsinho hasn’t always shone as bright as that day, but as an attacking player, when he’s been allowed to roam that right side of the attacking third, you can smell the fear on those defenders forced to face him.

Are they going to be the next Michael Harrington?

Will their ankles be similarly broken by the agile 32-year-old?  

Will he unravel a run of pure magic as he did in his last goal against NYCFC on Aug. 18?

When Ilsinho has struggles, it has usually been a failure by the manager to put him in his best position (he was never a No. 10) or to play him with equivalent quality. (So often in the past I’d watch him dribble through defenders, only to be left isolated while his teammates stood around gawking at him, as if they had forgotten they’re actually playing in a game, not watching one.)

I fail to think of any other player MLS who makes me hold my breath just a bit the way Ilsinho does when he gets on the ball. Especially in that sweet spot to the right of the box in the attacking third.

So here’s to Ilsinho, the best Brazilian to ever set foot in Chester, Pa. Long may he step over and meg nuts for the Philadelphia Union.

3 Comments

  1. By way of explanation, lest readers think this was an unsolicited piece of pure fan gushing, this piece is part of a series PSP writers have taken on to hold particular players and other figures in a positive light. Hence the distinction of “Raves.” More entries from other writers will follow this.

    That is not, however, to say that I’m being disingenuous here. I do really like Ilsinho on this team and think he provides something few other players have to offer. When subjects for raves were solicited, Ilsinho was my first choice.

  2. Great way to restart this series!

  3. The guy is fun to watch. And he has improved aspects of his game to for his role on the team. Nice job Pete!

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