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Reflections on Skillsinho

Photo: Earl Gardner

The Skillsinho era is over in Philadelphia. 

Wednesday morning the Philadelphia Union announced that six-year Union midfielder Ilson Pereria Dias Junior — known to everyone as Ilsinho — would be retiring from football. The move comes after a 17-year career in professional football that included six seasons with Ukrainian super club Shaktar, and a handful of years in his native Brazil before a memorable final stint in Philadelphia. 

While playing for any club as notable as Shaktar is no doubt an achievement, it’s perhaps the Brazilians time in Philadelphia that took him from skillful midfielder to cult icon. However, before reminiscing on the gorgeous technical play of the midfielder who treated defenders more like training cones than humans, it’s important to contextualize Ilsinho’s role in transforming the Union into the perennial contenders we know today. 

2015 was a dark year for the Union. The club finished their MLS campaign 9th in the Eastern Conference, and 18th overall. That would have potentially been excusable if the club had captured the U.S. Open Cup that had eluded them last year, but yet again the Union fell in the final, and all that was left to celebrate come October 25 was the fact that the season was at last over.

However, while October 25 brought the end of the season, October 26 brought the beginning of an era: the Earnie Stewart Era. 

That day, news broke that the Union would be bringing in the former USMNT midfielder Earnie Stewart as technical director for the club. In his role, Stewart would focus on bringing players into the club and, in the words of Jay Sugarman, establish a “real firm direction” and “competitive edge in MLS.” While some hoped this meant finally throwing cash around and signing big name players, the reality was that Stewart was a Moneyball style technical director who focused on developing youth talent, and finding low-cost, high-reward players who could potentially improve a struggling Union side.

Enter Ilsinho. 

Signed as a free transfer on February 24, 2016, Ilsinho was the the fourth transfer brought in by Stewart, and the first who would make an immediate impact within the senior team. While the Union would lose the 2016 season opener, which doubled as Ilsinho’s debut, the club rebounded quickly, winning the next two contests, and scoring 5 goals between the two games. It was the first time the Union had won two in a row since May of 2015, and the first time the Union had tallied more than 4 goals in two games since the 2014 season. Though Ilsinho was largely absent on the stat sheets, his presence going forward in attack proved vital to the Union’s increased offensive production.

Thanks in large part to his reputation as a skilled dribbler, Ilsinho often attracted an overabundance of attention to his right side of the field, freeing up his teammates in the center of the park. The mere threat of what Ilsinho could do forced opposition defenders to stay tight on him at all times, and the reality of his skill on the ball often negated any close marking a defender had decided to do. With Ilsinho playing on the right side of the pitch the Union offense hummed to a then record 52 goals, a full ten more than the previous year.

In his two seasons as a regular starter, Ilsinho played a pivotal role in transforming a struggling Union offense into a competent attack that, while nothing to write home about, was a marked improvement from past seasons.

Yet, despite as a starter being a foundational player in the Unions ascent from the cellar of the eastern conference, it’s Ilsinho’s role as super sub that will go down in Union legend.

In 2018, due to a mixture of old age, and an overabundance of midfielders within the first team, Ilsinho saw his role shift from regular starter, to role-playing substitute. He quickly cemented himself as a super-sub, equaling his 2017 goal total (six) in only half the minutes. His hypnotic dribbling skills, and uncanny ability to find space where there was absolutely none made him a late game threat whenever he was brought on to the pitch.

Speaking of late game threats, there can’t be a piece about Ilsinho without talking about that game. When Ilsinho was brought on in the 53rd minute against New York Red Bulls on June 8, 2019, he was put on for a first season Brendan Aaronson, who was playing in only his 13th MLS start. Aaronson had been largely ineffective in the match due to Red Bull’s 4-2-3-1 limiting the Union’s midfield diamond. But subbing Aaronson for Ilsinho allowed the Union to change formations to counter New York, and Skillsinho delivered a performance for the ages: two goals and an assist in just twelve minutes. 

Having Ilsinho on the bench in 2019 and 2020 not only gave the Union a late game cheat code, but it allowed the club to experiment squad selection and formation. With Ilsinho waiting in the wings, Jim Curtin didn’t need to overthink inserting wildcards into the midfield. If something went wrong with the midfield shape, strategy, or even a singular player, Curtin could throw Ilsinho on the pitch with total confidence that the veteran would have an almost immediate positive impact.

While so many Union faithful will remember his late-game heroics and impossibly fast footwork, Ilsinho’s greatest contribution to the club may have been his reliability and stalwart consistency as a super-sub that allowed the Union to experiment in the midfield, and play their kids. 

14 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    A footnote to this excellent summary is the red card he received in his first preseason game against Red Bulls, and the subsequent scuffle that broke out afterward. Philly Tough from the very beginning.

    https://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/02/25/ilsinho-signs-union-red-carded/

  2. His performance in “the game”, was the most exciting sporting event I ever attended, and I saw Pele play in DC and bend a free kick to goal from the 18, which was incredible to see back in the late 70’s. Pele comes in second. Will always remember how electric the stadium became when the announcer introduced IILLL-SEEEENN-YO!! One of a kind.

  3. Andy Muenz says:

    I remember in midseason 2019 when MLS.com was putting together their midseason best XI for the league and they had 10 LAFC players and Ilsinho.
    .
    While I haven’t seen anyone suggest he was the best player ever for the Union, when he was at his best, I think he was the most exciting and fun to watch. And best of all, he was tons better in Chester with the crowd behind him than he was on the road.

    • I think that’s exactly right, Andy. The Union have had plenty of players who saw more minutes, scored more goals, or were “better” players. But few — if any — lit up the crowd like Ilsinho.

  4. We Americans who did not grow up with the game remain amazed by individual technical skill.
    .
    But those who grew up with the game take such individual technical skill for granted, the sine qua non foundation for discussion of other playing characteristics.
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    When Union and Union II technical staffers discuss players, only rarely do their comments focus on individual technique. Instead they talk about elite athleticism, or instinctively reading the game, or picking the killer pass.
    .
    Hanlding the ball is a given, like Amun-Ra driving the chariot of the sun across the sky every day in Upper Egypt.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      This is absolutly 100% spot on. I’ve been inside the PreAcademy and Academy for many years.
      .
      I’ve watched the coaching. I’ve seen the sessions and the players strengths and weaknesses.
      .
      Always… athleticism above all other qualitites. Quite frankly, it is an albatross… becasue it leads all the way up to the first team and the brand of game they play.
      .
      My son was inside PreAcademy and halfway through the third season it finally dawned on me The Gatekeepers were more concerned with a player’s ability to get the ball back— he had just lost– then in keeping the ball (as an individual or team), in the first place.
      .
      I knew then, among other things our time at YSC was coming to an end.
      .

    • Ilsinho is not a run of the mill dribbler even in Brazil, it’s obvious that the union academy doesn’t focus on flair but the assertion that in every other country academy kids are just naturally playing like ilsinho is nonsense

  5. It’s really amazing to think he spent six years with the Union. In MLS terms, that’s practically a life time. I’m not sure where that ranks in the history of the Union, but I can’t imagine we have had that many players who have stayed with the club for 6 seasons; LeToux, Gaddis, Blake and Brian Carroll are the only ones that come to mind for me. Kind of makes me wonder if Ilsinho is Ring of Honor material.

  6. I will never get tired of watching his elastico past Bastian Schweinsteiger and rocket of a goal against Chicago Fire….

  7. I also think MLS coaches could learn from having a role player like Ilsinho. It was okay that he wasn’t a starter – he didn’t need to be. He needed to be a 20-30 minute “make a huge impact” player. Kind of like Alan Gordon was for many years.
    .
    I think of this whenever I read about Jonathan Lewis and how he is a super sub but “if only he could be a full time starter”. He’s not effective as a starter, and he’s super effective as a sub. So use him as a super sub!
    .
    I think it was Bobby Warsaw who pointed out that it doesn’t matter if your team is winning after 60 minutes; it only matters if your team is winning after 90 minutes. Ilsinho always improved the Union’s chances of that.

  8. One of his first games my teenage son says “Dad, does he have stickum on his shoes! How does he do that!!” I laughed and told him thats the Brazilian way! They learn to control the ball at their feet!
    Illsinho was a fun player and always has a great smile! You could see he enjoyed life and football! He will be missed!

  9. Cliff of Union Despair says:

    Fair thee well Ilsinho… may your travels be bountiful with cookies… you sir have earned them.

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