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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

A perfect 10? Curtin gives Ilsinho high marks in new role

Ilsinho, here splitting a pair of D.C. United defenders in the April trip
to RFK Stadium, performed admirably in the No. 10 role last week.
(For Digital First Media/Mike Reeves)
CHESTER >> For the 16 or so months that Ilsinho has been with the Philadelphia Union, a false equivalency has sprung up around him.

The Brazilian is impeccably creative, capable of summoning tricks with a soccer ball that many dare not dream attempting. A career winger in Europe whose upbringing in the Brazilian ranks occurred as an outside back, Ilsinho has played his entire career on the flanks. But his skillset, to an American audience, mimics what is expected from a No. 10 – the passing, the runs, the danger but reticence to shoot, the diminished defensive responsibility.

To slide him centrally by 20 or so yards couldn’t be that different for him, right?

“Everything is different at this position,” Ilsinho said Tuesday.

Well, then.

Ilsinho capably handled matters in the middle of the park in Saturday’s 4-0 win over D.C. United. He made way in the 64th, just before Oguchi Onyewu’s second goal sent the visitors flying toward a rout. But his first foray of the season in the No. 10 role in the absence of Roland Alberg was promising, even if it entailed a good deal of change for the 31-year-old.

“Everything is new for me because I just played it two times last year, just the first two games,” Ilsinho said. “I have to move different, I have to run different. I have to look for some space, look for the final pass for other guys.”

For as different as the position might have felt to Ilsinho, manager Jim Curtin thought it extracted some of the traits the staff sought from him out wide. And while the final touch remains lacking – see the 21st-minute passage in which he does magnificently to create space but curls a meek effort straight at goalie Bill Hamid – the initial signs are encouraging for a player who hasn’t played there since the opening two games of 2016 when Tranquillo Barnetta was injured.

“I thought a lot of things we worked on him as a winger came out in the game,” Curtin said Tuesday. “We’ve been trying to get him to run in behind the defense a little more, since he has a tendency to come inside and not stretch them as much and hold the ball at his field. Strangely, as a No. 10, you saw the ball that Fabinho plays him over the top where he’s running behind aggressively, the one that (Steve) Birnbaum makes that hell of a play in the box to defend otherwise that’s a great goal, a tap-in from Ilsinho and a really good action from Chris (Pontius). To get him to do that, to run hard in the box, was really eye-opening, was good.”

“It’s different but the good point is that I have more freedom, I can move to both sides, left or right,” Ilsinho said. “But I need to run at it a little bit more. But it’s good. I just try to help my teammates, and I try looking for CJ (Sapong) or Fafa (Picault) or Chris when I get the ball. It’s different, but it’s good.”

Ilsinho’s mantra for adapting centrally is “help.” He’s the primary conduit attack-wise, and with Curtin’s holistic system of pressure and team defense, Ilsinho is also commanded to sizeable roles in pressing and denying opponents routes of egress through the middle of the pitch.

By staying connected to his wingers, he can facilitate chance creation. He could more tightly link with Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya, but then that problem isn’t unique to Ilsinho. All season, whether it’s been Alberg or Bedoya in the attacking role, Curtin has lamented not getting them on the ball enough, and all three players approach the position in drastically different ways.

So what are Ilsinho’s personal embellishments on the role? Curtin highlighted his two-step burst of speed with the ball in the feet that the manager rates as among the best in MLS. He doesn’t approach it with the natural aptitude that Alberg has honed over decades. But Ilsinho’s wing sensibilities help him relate to the overlapping wide players and where they want the ball.

“I think the difference is that it’s the original positon for Roland. That’s his position,” Ilsinho said. “He knows what is better for him or better for everybody. And me, I just try to run in for help to the other guys. …

“We play in the same position, and I know what (the wingers) think. And when I get the ball, I know where they are. I think game-by-game it’s different.”

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