Player ratings

Analysis and Player Ratings: Chicago Fire 3-0 Union

Photo: Courtesy of Chicago Fire

After watching a rebuilding Chicago Fire — without their best attacker — score three goals against Philadelphia Union for the second time in 2016, it isn’t easy to pick out exactly what went wrong.

Union shot chart. That's not good.

Union shot chart. That’s not good.

Actually, there is a better way to phrase that: It is easy to point to a lot of things that went wrong, but it is difficult to identify what prevented the Union from a) creating big chances, and b) controlling the rhythm of the match. Chicago’s first two goals were a bit fluky, but they should not have been unexpected. The question remains: Why did so many of the Union’s flaws surface at the same time?

Flaws? What flaws?

At this point in the year, most MLS teams are a known quantity (with Chicago a notable exception as David Accam’s individualism and Veljko Paunovic’s team ethic push and pull for supremacy). The book on the Union is that they are constantly dangerous all the time, and far more difficult to break down with Alejandro Bedoya in the lineup. Again, let’s rephrase: The Union are always dangerous, but without Bedoya they are disturbingly easy to break down. There are three types of bullets the Union use to shoot themselves in the foot defensively when Tranquillo Barnetta drops into a deeper role. The first is midfield positioning.

Messy midfield

Let’s get this out of the way: Warren Creavalle is not perfect. He was third on the depth chart at holding midfield when the offseason dust settled, behind a player in Brian Carroll who wasn’t even certain to come back for 2016. But Creavalle isn’t as bad as he looked Saturday night.

From an outsider’s perspective, the biggest issue is that Creavalle channels his energy almost exclusively into closing down the ball. His singular focus on that task means that if he makes a recovery run to a bad position, he tends to adopt bad positions for the remainder of the play, keeping his eyes on the ball the whole time. It is important to remember that bad positioning is only really an issue if your opponent is good enough to take advantage of it. Against a team that doesn’t have a good shape and can’t provide options off the ball, Creavalle’s positioning is less of a problem because once a player puts his head down, few are better than Creavalle at closing space and heckling the ball carrier (sometimes the heckling turns into unnecessary fouling, but the basic movements remain the same).

Chicago doesn’t circulate the ball well, so even though it was obvious from the outset that Creavalle and Tranquillo Barnetta were positionally at sea, it took a while for the Fire to exploit the situation (and, ironically, it was Roland Alberg who looked like the goat when they did it).

Warren Creavalle's incredibly busy defensive first half. Very often pulled far from the center.

Warren Creavalle’s incredibly busy defensive first half. Very often pulled far from the center.

Above, you can see a set of midfield issues emerge in the third minute that would define the Union’s defensive woes for the remainder of the match. First, Matt Polster — the only member of the Chicago midfield that can play such balls accurately, is given space to spray the ball to Luis Solignac in the left corner. This was a primary method of advancing the ball that Chicago relied on, and it was already the second time they had tried it in the match (Rosenberry got to the first). Creavalle appropriately leaves Polster and recovers to the center to offer support and track runners. However, note that he ends up almost even with the back four even though there is no free man to cover. So at this moment, Creavalle is deeper than he needs to be, and if your eyes are roaming, you’ll spot Matt Polster at the top of the final third in acres of space because Tranquillo Barnetta was also drawn deep and to the wing by Solignac’s inside cut. Here is where Creavalle has a moment to step towards the middle and further from the backs. The Union have Rosenberry, Fabian Herbers, and Barnetta near the ball, yet Creavalle doesn’t look to adjust his position.

Although Chicago came up empty in this instance, Creavalle would again find himself deep and too far toward the ball in the 22nd minute when the Fire went ahead.

Again, Creavalle should not carry the burden alone. In that third minute clip, Roland Alberg leaves the passing lane to Polster to cover a less threatening player. Like Creavalle’s positional problems, Alberg’s shadowing is more a problem of focus than anything else. If you paused the tape for either player, it’s quite likely they could easily point out where they should be. But as good as the Union have been all season at the dirty running that Jim Curtin loves, they have often been just as bad at the small adjustments needed to prevent neutral or slightly threatening situations from becoming scoring opportunities.

Chicago Fire first half defense: Philly's inability to move the ball from wing to center meant they were trapped on their own right side after winning it back.

Chicago Fire first half defense: Philly’s inability to move the ball from wing to center meant they were trapped on their own right side after winning it back.

Shadowing passing lanes effectively is, frankly, essential in a defense that wants to put pressure on the ball in midfield. Pressure necessitates leaving shape, and shape is the safest thing a team has defensively. Good shape minimizes gaps between players, forces the opposition into less desirable spaces, and makes the movements of teammates more predictable. Stepping out of that shape to close the ball down means, almost definitionally, leaving a gap between yourself and teammates that can potentially be exploited by smart movement. Taking a good angle to the ball not only minimizes the ball carrier’s ability to play into the space you leave behind, it (equally importantly) acts as a signal to your teammates so they can complement your on-ball pressure by pressing the most likely recipients of a pass. Therefore, a player stepping to the ball needs to ensure that the space behind him is shadowed because it is the most vulnerable area of the pitch. Teammates are stepping to other players under the assumption that the ball cannot simply bypass the on-ball pressure.

One of the absolutely undervalued aspects of CJ Sapong’s game is how much better he has become at angling his runs to close off parts of the pitch he wants to protect. Only when he has his angle right does Sapong accelerate toward the ball. And that’s important as well.

Once the ball carrier knows pressure is coming, he will start to play faster, and the easiest thing to do is play the way he’s facing. If you are pressing from that direction, the player will have to put his head down to turn and find another option. Only then does acceleration become more important than angle of approach.

So that’s two positional problems in the Union midfield, but so far Barnetta has largely gotten off unscathed. This is because the Swiss man tends to have a fairly unsystematic approach to his defensive duties when dropped into a deeper role. He still runs, but he and Alberg don’t so much recover to a shape or position so much as pick up the nearest man and track them for a bit. This is a problem, and it has been a problem throughout Barnetta’s tenure as a pseudo-No. 8 midfielder.

That shouldn’t exonerate Barnetta, but his performance must be balanced against the fact that, unlike his midfield partners, he is a) learning a position on the fly and b) the only one of the three who could be called irreplaceable in the Union lineup. The calculus for Jim Curtin and his staff must be: Given that Barnetta will make some mistakes defensively, how can we help Creavalle account for those? Affirming the Union’s decision to continue not sending me a paycheck, I don’t have an answer. But I am comfortable saying that question has not been suitably answered this season.

Chasing the dream

Without Bedoya (or with Barnetta deeper, however you want to view it), the Union’s midfield positioning falls apart in transitions. However, this is only one issue haunting Philly’s defense when it doesn’t have a positionally sound holder next to Creavalle. The second problem is similar but less individualized.

When the Union midfield — often led by Sapong up top — manages to attack a team with their pressure, the defense is often left behind. The above clip is from the opening moments of the match. Sapong and Alberg force the ball wide where Pontius is quick to close on Kappelhof. The camera adds a brutal element of surprise when it zooms out to show that Kappelhof can loft a ball to John Goossens in more space than you give the gassy guy on the Blue Line. How did this happen?

First, Tranquillo Barnetta is caught in between stepping forward and sitting in (he should sit in; there’s no open man forward). Second, the defense is, like, way the heck behind the midfield. Why?

Here are the options: If Chicago doesn’t escape the pressure, they will play a long clearance ball. Between John McCarthy and the Union back four, they should be able to handle a poorly placed long ball even if they have stepped high. David Accam isn’t on the field, remember.

Option two is that Chicago escapes pressure and a player is able to pick his head up and play a ball long. As Ken Tribbett told PSP earlier this season, picking the head up is one of the cues the back line has to retreat. So that should be covered as well. But with the ball under threat and nobody who can just destroy a back line with speed in the Fire’s front line, why is the defense so far in their own half?

This violates what might as well be called the Law of Compactness. If a team wants to attack the ball in midfield, they cannot break that law, which states something like, “Hey, everybody try to keep X number of yards between you and the guy next to you and Y number of yards between you and the defensive line in front of you.” In no version of the law does Y equal 20-25 yards.

Another way to look at this issue is to ask what is riskier: A rushed long ball behind a high line or a player with time and space to turn and run at a now-retreating back four?

Dropping like it’s hot

One consistent problem Philly’s central defenders have struggled with this season is following attackers instead of handing them off or holding the offside line. Perhaps the symbolic example of this issue is Richie Marquez tracking a run across Ken Tribbett as the latter was turned inside by Jozy Altidore.

On Saturday, the Union continued to exhibit this odd tendency to value man coverage over their offsides line.

Above, Marquez provides a rather extreme version of breaking the offsides line by following Solignac deep into his own box instead of holding the line. Before simply excoriating Marquez, however, the context needs to come into play. Brandon Vincent may have time to whip off a cross behind the back line (though perhaps not), so Marquez has to be aware of the space between him and John McCarthy, and he may not be as clear on McCarthy’s tendencies as he is on Andre Blake’s (a lack of clarity on goalie aggressiveness handed St. Vincent and the Grenadines a great chance against the US men’s national team last week).

But once it’s clear Vincent can’t get his cross off, Marquez needs to bring Solignac back to the rest of the defense. He is allowing Solignac to get too close to goal, and he is leaving a pocket of space between Tribbett and Fabinho that can quickly become problematic.

At this point, it’s worth noting that despite their myriad defensive issues in the match, the Union still only gave up one chance on goal aside from the Fire’s three tallies.

This is both a testament to the team’s ‘bend-don’t-break’ defensive ethos and the Fire’s inability to put the ball in dangerous areas after they advanced up the wings. In other words, the Union were not awful, but they did very clearly show off three of the big defensive flaws that have characterized their poorer performances this season. The re-insertion of Alejandro Bedoya will help, but these concerns need more attention before the playoffs.

Player ratings

John McCarthy – 6

I mean, what was he supposed to do?

Keegan Rosenberry – 5

With the arrival of Ilsinho, he pushed much higher and began feeding balls into the box. There was a strange tendency for Rosenberry to push high and Tribbett to pull almost to the sideline, which made it difficult for the Union to access the center of the pitch from the right.

Ken Tribbett – 5

Tribbett wasn’t great, but he cannot be scapegoated for this match. Chicago was determined to come after him up their left, and while he looked short on confidence at times (e.g., tucking in too tight to Rosenberry defensively or dropping too quickly), he was largely solid. One note that hearkens back to Tribbett getting turned by Altidore: He needs to box de Leeuw out of the middle on Chicago’s opener. Tribbett makes a great read to quickly get back to his spot to challenge de Leeuw, but doesn’t get goal side to cut off the striker’s run. 

Richie Marquez – 3

Not a great one for the big man in back. He dropped beyond his teammates to keep Solignac onside on the second Fire goal, and his giveaway in the 82nd minute should have been the third goal.

Fabinho – 5

Without much support, the Brazilian rarely got forward to much effect. Chicago didn’t have much width up the right to worry him.

Warren Creavalle first half passing: A lot of forcing it forward.

Warren Creavalle first half passing: A lot of forcing it forward.

Warren Creavalle – 2

This was just not a good night for Creavalle. He wasn’t the only problem or the major problem, but he was far from his best. Aside from the giveaways (like in the clip that ends with Tribbett’s block above), there were a lot of loose passes. But the biggest thing is still his tendency to get sucked out of the center defensively and his static movement going forward. Creavalle needs to move after passing the ball to give the Union’s wide players a second option besides going up the line.

Tranquillo Barnetta – 4

A bit all over the place, as he often is in a deeper role. Settled for long passes when he could’ve driven forward, and tried to cover for Alberg when the attacking midfielder stopped moving into wide spaces.

Roland Alberg – 3

He was fairly bright until his own goal, then the life seemed to drain from him. In the second half, the only forward pass he completed was below his own eighteen yard box (also, he didn’t get involved outside the narrow central third in the second half).

Chris Pontius – 5

Neither team played up his side much. Chicago sacrificed Kappelhof’s runs forward to keep Pontius at bay, and it worked. Only some fantasmic goalkeeping kept him off the board.

Fabian Herbers – 4

Needed to be very good to counter Chicago’s constant forays up his side. He was good, but not very good. Didn’t find much space with the Fire playing very tight lines.

CJ Sapong – 4

Sapong gets a 4 because his defensive workrate was even better than normal and did a lot to keep the Fire from establishing any sort of rhythm. This acted as an important barrier in front of a midfield that could have been ripped to shreds. However, Sapong has now gone five games without taking more than one shot in a match. Even with the Union spreading the scoring around, that’s not good enough. He has also gone three games without a shot on frame, and he has three goals in the past four months. The worrying thing isn’t the scoring, it’s the lack of chances.


Ilsinho – 5

This may be the most archetypal Ilsinho showing. Almost immediately after coming on, he had a great chance to score and blasted his shot on frame. Then, in the 20 minutes that followed, he completed lots of little passes just outside the final third without making much happen.

Leo Fernandes – 3

Unfortunately, another largely anonymous performance in a largely anonymous season. Fernandes has looked like a tweener this season: Probably a bit better than USL or NASL, but not quite quick enough on his feet for MLS. Yet?

Charlie Davies – 4

Good workrate, but the Union need to work on finding Davies running in behind. They’ve almost stopped looking for that ball.

Geiger counter – 4

Not great, but could’ve been worse. Chicago was playing rough and Toledo was letting it go. That said, he was fairly consistent so the Union should have engaged in more rough play instead of asking for the calls. Missed a fairly clear handball on Goossens, though.


  1. “The worrying thing isn’t the scoring, it’s the lack of chances.”

    I HOPE you mean the lack of chances he is able to create for himself, and aren’t attempting to place the blame on Sapong’s inadequacies on the rest of the team.

  2. Lucky Striker says:

    McCarthy and Tribbett did their best until goal #3.

    Pontius had a nice attempt denied.

    The rest should have stayed home.

  3. So glad I missed this game. I’d be apoplectic.
    not a philosophy of concern I subscribe to generally– but specifically for this past game… yes. Nice night on the porch, steady bluster out of the NE but a fizzled Hermine.

    • I abandoned watching to make friends with three strangers who I later shared Oreos with. It was better than anything the Union gave me that night.

  4. Unfortunately, I was away this weekend and unable to watch. Maybe I should rephrase…In any event, I have wondered about the defensive sag for some time. Adam, I am not sure that it doesn’t start up front. I see Sapong setting himself so deep that the rest of the structure simply cannot be seen in the offensive half of the field. With his abilities, it seems to me that he should be going laterally essentially the entire time, along the midfield line and as deep as he can force the defenders. (The best that I ever saw at this, man or woman was Marinette Pichon, of the Philadelphia Charge. She forced the defenders to play honest, and allowed the higher line defense that the Union needs to play.) Sure, it cost some offside calls on offense, but it also allowed offside calls on defense as well. Further, your commentary about the man defense is spot on- I can regularly be heard yelling at the field or the screen “Let him go! Why are you chasing him onside?” (I am not a lot of fun to have as game company.) I see better results from EVERYBODY if the offensive set shifts forward twenty yards. It seems like it helps prevent the Alberg wandering, which seems more like a lack of interest if offense isn’t being generated, and relieves pressure on the mids, since they can afford to be more aggressive with more field at their back. Again, not seeing this last disaster, I appreciate the film breakdown, but can’t address Chicago. By the way and not for nothing, it is great to be able to discuss strategy and tactics in some technical form, and I appreciate the column/presentation.

    • @Tim – Interesting point re: Sapong. I’ll pay closer attention to where he sets up going forward. I have been working under the assumption that he either a) Immediately attacks or b) Drops in, checks to see if the midfield is around, then attacks. But maybe there are some deeper changes to the shape taking place. Thanks for mentioning this!

  5. Old Soccer Coach says:

    The explanation of Barnetta’s flaws as a No. 8 is very helpful, find the nearest guy and mark him rather than recover to a shape and then begin marking.
    The point about Sapong’s shot attempts is devastating.
    In re Fernandes, he does not dominate when he plays with the Steel, but that may be attributable to playing with “teammates-for-a-day.”

    • @OSC – Thanks for the extra info on Leo. I don’t get to see enough of the Steel games to have a good sense of how he does there. I just know he was very good in NASL and looks like he should be able to compete with the USL talent I’ve seen. Any additional thoughts on him are welcome because USL/NASL are out of my wheelhouse until I have more time, unfortunately.

  6. For Crevalle to be effective, he must defend centrally only and never turn upfield since he has no vision with the ball. His job is to destroy and lay the ball off. In the first clip , all he had to do is lay off the ball to the forward facing man. He has no idea so why expose him..Why do defenders leave the middle to close peripherally? You cant press without a holding mid in place.In answer to why is the defense so deep. At that moment there were 6 attackers in the attacking zone with the ball deep and in control by the central defense. Where was the holding mid? Bad time to press. Force the ball toward the sideline, then press. There is no unity in these presses, just a concept without any real rules. This has the potential for major failure. If the Rosenberry block and movement was significant, then this was some pathetic game.With Tribett bailing out Creavalle, it was Rosenberry ball watching who was not doing his job. These players look like theey are told to close the ball down but not told when not to do it. There seems to be very little practical application, only concepts of pressing with good intention but poor tactical preparation. A hallmark of a good but not very good team destined to lose the big one.

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