Photo: Earl Gardner
Let’s just take a moment and bask in That Shot (also, check out that ‘second wall’ Jim Curtin talked about post-game).
I’m sorry, what’s that Andre? You have something to add?
Alrighty then. That was… intense.
Tranquillo Barnetta’s shot was brilliant. It was tremendous. It took your breath away so your mind couldn’t process what it was seeing, then it went off freerunning through your cortices gleefully lighting off whatever adrenaline-fueled fireworks it could find.
Blake’s save, on the other hand, was unbelievable. Who makes unbelievable saves this regularly in their first year as a starter? Blake has bailed the Union out so often that it’s hard to tell the defensive boat has as many holes as it does.
But in between odd lapses of concentration, Philly’s defense has become more and more organized, particularly against teams attempting to penetrate the final third. And this organization has been matched by a steadily improving press that was at its best against Orlando City on Friday.
Same name, different game
Both teams employed some version of a defensive press, but calling them the same would be like saying tarsiers and chimpanzees are the same. They come from the same branch of the defensive tree, but they probably don’t hang out much.
Philly’s press is the same system they have used all season, except it was quicker and facing a midfield that was out of sync the entire first half. The uptempo defensive style rattled Orlando City, and they established a deep line from which to start buildups. Unfortunately, this played directly into Philly’s hands. Without Cyle Larin — or any true striker — the Lions struggled to stretch the field in the first half. So when they dropped deep with the ball, the entire Union shape pushed forward and squeezed the central spaces where Kaka was roaming as an outlet. The visitors have a midfield built to close down spaces quickly and advance the ball directly when they collect it. In other words, passing in tight spaces ain’t exactly their bread n’ butter.
And it showed: The only shot on target Philly allowed through the first 45 minutes was
Johnny Depp/Michael Keaton facesmash Aaron Winter’s sly touch-n-finish that evened the scoreline.
The Union press was particularly impressive because it featured Sebastien Le Toux, a player who has been running a one-man pressing operation in his head for the past however-many-years he has played soccer. Integrating Le Toux’s workrate into an effective team press has always been like buying clothes you like even when they don’t quite fit right. You convince yourself they’re close enough… but at some point you have to admit that it just isn’t working. Similarly, Le Toux’s energy seems perfect for an aggressive defensive posture, but his insistence on being a lone wolf has always made him like the guy who is gung-ho to go out drinking then disappears and leaves you with a big tab.
On Friday, Le Toux was more measured in his approach — and it helped — though there is still far more work to be done.
The Orlando press was of a different sort, and it’s use was likely borne from some very strange early decisions by head coach Adrian Heath. To compensate for the lack of a true center forward, Heath tucked his dangerous attacking wingers inside to take the spaces left when Richie Marquez and Ken Tribbett followed Kaka into midfield. This is not a flawed idea, per se, but it is a bit like taking off part of your roof to fix a hole in your wall. You solved the first problem but created one that could be far more damaging.
And sure enough, Orlando City was lost on the counter for most of the first half. Philly’s defensive soft spot, the channel between Tribbett and Rosenberry, was rarely attacked (Brek Shea’s absence hung nearly as heavy over the OCSC gameplan as Cyle Larin’s). Kevin Molino, operating off the right flank, is a limited player in possession, so whenever he drifted inside, he might as well have drifted into another dimension.
Credit where credit is due though: Heath recognized his errors and introduced a triggered press in the second half that gummed up the works of the Union attack.
The trigger is easy to see once you start looking for it. Ken Tribbett, who spent a good portion of the first half driving possession forward up the right channel, learned to empathize with King Koopa, as he had to face a round-ish Italian zipping toward him whenever he looked up. Heath sent Antonio Nocerino flying upfield toward Tribbett whenever Philly’s central defender had the ball. The goal was to keep Tribbett from moving up the pitch and drawing in defenders until Keegan Rosenberry or Vincent Nogueira got free for an attacking pass. On the other side, Richie Marquez occasionally saw pressure from Kevin Molino or Darwin Ceren, but with Marquez less inclined to venture forward, the Lions were equally disinclined to expend energy chasing him.
Once Nocerino pressed, however, the rest of the team charged into action, with Winter stepping to Rosenberry, Marquez pressed, and the entire Orlando midfield stepping forward to close space. The goal was to trap Philly near a touchline or force an errant pass that could be turned into a counterattack. It was a classic road system, and it worked far better than whatever Heath was trying in the initial frame. Nocerino’s pressure was exceptional, and that allowed the rest of the team the freedom to step forward without opening clean lanes.
It helped that the Union’s response was to sink deep and try to play short passes through midfield. With Roland Alberg fading as the match went on and staying upfield, connections through the middle were hard to come by. In the end, it took some daring substitutions by Jim Curtin to re-establish Philly’s momentum; the Lions only shot between the Barnetta/Herbers subs and extra time was a speculative Kaka effort from distance.
Focus on the fullbacks
Sometimes it’s what doesn’t happen that draws attention to a position. Brek Shea is in many ways a terrible fullback. His positioning and isolated defending are more inconsistent than Nick Sakiewicz’s roster-building strategy, and his forward runs are often embarked upon with little consideration for the world around him. But boy oh boy, did Orlando miss him on Friday.
Heath tucked his wingers narrow to take the space normally occupied by a central striker, but this left the flanks more empty than a cupboard labeled, “Jurgen Klinsmann’s Tactical Ideas.” In Rafael Ramos and Brek Shea, the Lions have two players that can dominate wide areas and disrupt teams that look to compress Kaka’s space in the center. But Luke Boden is a less consistent offensive contributor, and Ramos’ brain only showed up at halftime and seemed jetlagged during its brief appearance.
Philly’s fullbacks were far more influential, with Fabinho advancing up the left and sending in his usual array of both pretty and profoundly unnecessary crosses. Lost among the Brazilian fullback’s disturbingly consistent ability to pair attacking power with nightmare-fuel defensive errors is the undeniable fact that Fabinho looked a lost cause early last season. Forget lapses, he was a flat-out bad defender, with many of Brek Shea’s flaws and only Brek Shea’s inconsistent crossing as a makeweight.
Fabinho is competent now, and that’s a big step compared to where he was. There will still be games like the season opener, and teams that can catch Fabi on the ball in deep positions will reap immediate rewards, but there is no escaping the defender’s growth. That Chris Pontius can cheat across the formation to press central defenders is a testament to Fabinho’s improved positional sense; that teams can still remove the Brazilian from a play by exploiting his aggression with simple one-twos is a reminder that he still has learning to do.
On the opposite flank, Keegan Rosenberry continues to raise all sorts of interesting questions for the Union and for the league. Questions like: Why is that tiny box-to-box midfielder playing at right back?
I am hardly the most informed MLS mind, but I have trouble thinking of another fullback that plays so much like a midfielder. Rosenberry advances without the ball like a fullback, but on the ball he shares little DNA with the modern attacking wingbacks that are prized in today’s game. When Rosenberry attacks with the ball, he does it through little give-and-goes with the midfield. When he passes out of trouble, he makes lengthy, at-times dangerous passes that would generate disciplinary action from a coach if any other fullback tried them. His crosses are not the hard curlers that most wide men send in, but straight, lofted balls designed to die in corners the way midfielders hit them for strikers. And defensively, Rosenberry often gets locked in on the ball, thinking about when to attack it instead of tracking his runner and leaving the press to his winger. It’s odd to watch because there is nothing inherently wrong with how Rosenberry plays fullback — though there are the clear defensive flaws to fix — but it’s definitely different.
In the second half, the full range of Rosenberry was on display. There was a phenomenal inside run that established Philly in the offensive third (seriously, this is a great, great run). And there were numerous skip-passes to Marquez that relieved pressure when Orlando City thought they had the Union trapped.
But there were also the defensive brainfarts like turning off when Tribbett stepped up to pressure, and cheating toward the wide man at the edge of the box and leaving Tribbett with two to defend. These are the mental lapses of a player still learning to play at a level where he isn’t orders of magnitude better than his opponent on most nights. MLS teams, and good MLS players, do not always execute expansive tactical gameplans effectively, but many are very adept at pushing hard at a pressure point once they find it. The league knows there are chances to be had down the Union’s right, and it is just a matter of parsing out how to best attack that space.
Rosenberry should not bear all the blame, though. Unlike Fabinho, he has not had a consistent partner ahead of him. Chris Pontius is no defensive superstar, but he recovers to the right positions and doesn’t overextend pressure very often. Meanwhile, Rosenberry has now been behind Leo Fernandes, Ilsinho, and Sebastien Le Toux this season. Ilsinho put in one stellar defensive showing and an iffier one. Fernandes did not come back far enough to help, and Le Toux showed he can learn, but still struggles to resist donning his mental Speed Racer outfit and go racing around the field after the ball.
Speed of play
In a match that neither team dominated, chances often appeared out of absolutely nowhere. Both sides generated few good opportunities with extended build-ups, Kaka’s layoff for Winter that brought a videogame parry out of Saveasaurus Blake being the best of the bunch.
Notably, though, the Union tended to control the tempo of the match with a quicker speed of play that forced OCSC to chase across the pitch. Though Alberg was a useful tool in the center, playing quickly and occupying space in front of the defense, the Union missed Ilsinho’s ability to drive at defenders from a central position. Orlando City’s defense is easily stretched, but it also recovers to shape surprisingly well. Being able to play behind it and immediately advance the ball pays dividends, as the Union showed when they drew fouls in delicious positions in the center.
On the road next week against a squad that has had plenty of systemic defensive problems, the Union may consider a more selfish player in the center of the attack. Potentially one that looks like a character Matthew McConaghy will try to play when he goes for an Oscar and hits heavenly free kicks…
Now, if you’ve read this far, here’s your prize: One of the better Jim Curtin “What the hell is going on?” faces I’ve ever seen.
Andre Blake – 9
The dude earns his team points. Blake’s distribution remains fairly hilarious, but who is going to complain when he keeps competing against himself for Save of the Week honors.
Keegan Rosenberry – 6
Seriously, he’s a midfielder playing defense. It’s a lot to say he’s redefining a position, but he’s certainly approaching it in a different way than most. As strong as Ken Tribbett has been, it would be nice for Rosenberry to have a vet next to him as he develops defensively. That said, if both Tribbett and Rosenberry grow together, Philly’s right side will strong on the ball for years to come.
Ken Tribbett – 7
Still working out the kinks on when to follow into midfield and when to hold deep. Tribbett also needs to figure out his spacing with Marquez and Rosenberry, as he can get sucked too far central at times. Also, how did he not open his account?? Joe Bendik’s gigantic cheekbones barely denied the Drexel product his first MLS goal. Carrying the ball out of the back in the first half, Tribbett showed a calm, technical side to his game that has been somewhat dormant. Tribbett might’ve lost a few points if he had injured Blake when the two collided in the second half.
Richie Marquez – 6
I will never tire of watching Marquez run down attackers from behind. I always expect him to be dripping blue or orange sweat afterwards because the total effort involved makes it seem like a Gatorade commercial is being filmed right in front of me. Marquez was excellent on Kaka and Molino in the first half, but he became less sure of himself once Orlando City spread the field and started sending runners in from wide angles. Still, another solid performance from a guy who has absolutely solidified his spot in front of Anderson.
Fabinho – 6
Calmness in his own half and patience in the final third? NOPE! But Fabinho gotta Fabinho. That means aggressive defense, pushing play forward, and living on the edge. Marquez’s athleticism papers over some of the Brazilian’s weak spots, but this was one of those matches where the left back definitely contributed more than he cost.
Brian Carroll – 8
The unsung hero in the middle, Carroll produced another one of those excellent performances that knocks back the haters. As long as he is not isolated on a playmaker, Carroll can provide the support necessary to free up the rest of the midfield to chase and attack.
Vincent Nogueira – 7
A fine return to the lineup for Nogueira, who, particularly in the first half, provided the link that allowed Philly to move the ball with speed and avoid Orlando’s aggressive midfield.
Roland Alberg – 6
A solid first half of distribution, but the Dutch distributor faded in the second half and was the right man to exit when Barnetta came on.
Sebastien Le Toux – 5
Nothing spectacular from the Frenchman, but a reminder that he can still be a solid contributor. Le Toux pinned Luke Boden deep, meaning Orlando City could not exploit wide spaces in the first half.
Chris Pontius – 5
Like Le Toux, Pontius did a lot of dirty work but was surprisingly muted in the final third. His ability to pop up late looks like it will be more of a feature when Philly plays a more counterattacking game during road matches.
CJ Sapong – 8
It is fair to say Sapong seemed a changed player after missing a few matches following an off-the-field incident last season. But this season he has turned it up another gear. To gauge where Sapong’s confidence is now, look no further than the final 30 minutes of Friday’s match. Moved to the wing to make room for Fabian Herbers, Sapong relentlessly attacked when he got the ball, driving directly at Orlando City’s defense. It was direct, powerful, and exactly what Jim Curtin would have wanted when he took a chance putting Sapong in a wide position.
Tranquillo Barnetta – 9
An effortful if somewhat fruitless showing before The Goal. But then… The Goal. Not just a brilliant hit, but one that infused belief into a Union support that has been desperate for something special to nurture as they become more confident that this hot start is more than a mirage.
Fabian Herbers – 6
Get used to the ratings for Herbers being a point higher than expected. Even though he had a nervous touch and flubbed a good chance off a rebound, Herbers was a positive influence on the match because his movement is so disruptive. Without the strength to post up like Sapong, Herbers flows between the lines and cuts into corners to pull defenders around. It may take a while before he adapts to the pace of the MLS game, but he is already trying backheeled passes in the box, and he’s doing it because he’s in the right position when the ball comes in. Big hopes for him.
Leo Fernandes – n/a
Geiger counter – 5
A solid performance from Jair Marrufo, though one has to wonder how many more fouls Nocerino would have to commit before he qualified for persistent infringement.