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Season review: Ilsinho redefines what it means to be a “super sub”

Photo: Rob Simmons

The 2019 Philadelphia Union will go down as the best iteration of the team to date. Winning their first playoff game in franchise history, the club was defined by a collective of players outperforming preseason expectations.

Forward Kacper Przybylko, buried on the depth chart in February, finished tied for fifth in MLS with 15 goals. Jamiro Monteiro, who couldn’t see the field in France’s Ligue 2, added dynamism to Philadelphia’s midfield.  His veteran counterparts, Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, proved age is just a number. The former posted another double-digit assist season while facing early criticism, and the latter infected the club with the tenacity and drive reflective of his captaincy.

Along the back line Kai Wagner burst onto the scene from Germany’s third flight, ending the Union’s historic search for a left back. Jack Elliott, who lost his place last year, played every minute while anchoring the defense.

But in the Union’s most successful season, their most impactful player was a 34-year-old Brazilian who started only seven games.

As he did in nearly every game this year, Ilsinho enters this feature halfway through.

A super “super sub”

In 2019, 21 of Ilsinho’s 28 appearances came as a substitute. He totaled just 1,083 minutes of game action. For comparison, six players on the Union played at least twice as much this year. Overall, it’s fitting Ilsinho finished 12th on the team in minutes played as he was generally the first player head coach Jim Curtin called off the bench.

What’s astounding is what the Brazilian accomplished in so little time.

Including playoffs, the Union scored 62 goals while conceding 55. Don’t reach for your calculator. That’s a goal differential of +7 — respectable, but not dynamic.

When Ilsinho was on the field, however, the Union posted an unbelievable +24 goal differential. Only MLS Supporters’ Shield winning LAFC posted better numbers as a team.

Ilsinho’s personal numbers support the team’s success when he’s on the field. He finished first in MLS in both expected expected assists per 96 min. (0.39) and successful dribbles per 90/min. (4.60). As of Sep. 3, Ilsinho sat behind only league MVP Carlos Vela in non-penalty goals plus assists per 90 min.

Seven of the Brazilian’s eight assists came as a substitute as did three of his five goals.

With the ball at his feet, no player was more electric in MLS than Ilsinho.

The man they call Skillsinho

One of the more disappointing moments of the MLS season was when then Orlando City manager James O’Connor failed to name Ilsinho to the league’s All Star team. No player would’ve been more entertaining for a 15 minute cameo.

The real joy of Ilsinho wasn’t in the stats he posted but in the way he played. Never has there been a more electrifying, game-breaking substitute in MLS.

Everything changed when he took the game.

The Union, if in their preferred 4-4-2 diamond, would shift to a 4-2-3-1 with the 34-year-old occupying the space on the right wing. This allowed Ilsinho to isolate defenders and attack in the final third. If the opposing teams didn’t provide help, the Brazilian would embarrass unlucky left backs. Sometimes defensive support wouldn’t matter. He routinely sliced through multiples challengers while driving toward goal.

When that support did come, though, it left space for the rest of the Union to exploit. He would single-handily destabilize any defensive structure. It’s why the Union’s goal differential when he’s on the field highlighted his impact more than any individual stat.

Ilsinho sparked comeback victories against playoff teams Atlanta United, Minnesota United, and FC Dallas this year. In that first-ever postseason win, the Union trailed New York Red Bulls 3-1 before Philly’s “super sub” entered the match. But the defining moment of “Skillsinho” came in the Union’s first comeback win over the Red Bulls.

Back on June 8th, Philadelphia trailed 2-0 against their I-95 rivals. Ilsinho’s introduction swung the outcome drastically, with the rest of the match serving as a highlight reel for Brazilian flair. It was the defining moment of a remarkable season.

What’s next?

Ilsinho came to Philadelphia ahead the 2016 campaign from Ukrainian powerhouse Shaktar Donetsk where he won enough silverware for a lifetime and competed in the Champions League. He won an Olympic bronze medal with Brazil and was close to retiring before the opportunity with the Union presented itself.

Since arriving, he’s struggled with fitness— never playing more 1,848 minutes in a season for Philadelphia. On the field, his substance rarely equaled his style with his performances mired by inconsistency. Ilsinho took a lesser wage before the 2018 season to return to Philadelphia and had featured as a No. 10 before the arrival of Borek Dockal.

2019 not only served as the best version of Ilsinho in Philadelphia, but the best version of a substitute in MLS. His role allowed for the momentary bursts of magic which worked best in his 40 minute intervals.

With the Union looking to build on their success, they may be without their game breaker. Currently, Ilsinho is without a contract ahead of the 2020 season.

As sporting director Ernst Tanner searches for personnel better suited for the 4-4-2, it’s conceivable the Union could move on from a winger in his mid thirties. But if the two sides agree, the Union would benefit from another year of Ilsinho.

Down a goal in the second half, who better to call than the “super sub” Skillsinho?


  1. PRH Continuum says:

    Zlatan and LA Galaxy parted ways. If the Union REALLY wants to prove to the fanbase they’re all in for 2020? Open the bank vault and #SignTheZlatan

    • Transfermarkt down to $3.5M.
      Can you imagine Ds trying to a tandem of Zlatan and Kacper? Doubt he’d do much for our high press though.

  2. awhile back Antione Hoppenot chimed in on twitter and i thought “man, remember when we considered him a Super Sub?!” no knock to Antione but Ilsinho is next level.

  3. Teams became really scared of Ilsinho. I enjoyed watching them collapse 3-4 guys on him when he had the ball, only to see him pop out of the scrum dribbling away. No wonder we scored so much, everyone else was wiiiide open!

    • The scary flipside narrative is that the Union were -17GD without him! =~o
      We were definitely a 2nd half team this year – which I am perfectly happy with. It made for some incredibly exciting games.

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