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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Monday, July 24, 2017

The imperfect 10: Union's struggles lead straight through middle of the pitch

For Roland Alberg and the Union attack, there hasn't been much
to smile about the last three games. (For DFM/Mikey Reeves)
In their last three games, the latest a 1-0 loss to Columbus Saturday night, the Union have all of four shots on target, including a penalty kick. That is suboptimal; with the club amidst a stretch of winnable games against Eastern Conference opposition, it’s one of the worst times this could occur.

Connecting the dots here isn’t difficult. The Union aren’t creating chances why? Because they lack an elite chance creator in their front four. Specifically, they lack anything approaching a standout No. 10 in a system that demands one.

My position on this matter is on record: The Union should sell out this summer, find their starting No. 10 of the future and cut bait on options whose contracts can be escaped at season’s end. But I think that argument requires a little refinement. So allow me three points to burnish that position:

- The 90-minute fallacy. Roland Alberg is playing the best soccer of his Union tenure. Ilsinho can be one of the league’s premier game-changers. These are positions that manager Jim Curtin has advanced about his existing options in the middle of the pitch.

Both are patently false. And even if there are slivers of truth, they are overridden by a singular verity: Neither is a 90-minute performer in MLS.

This is beyond the realm of speculation; it’s verifiably proven. Alberg has logged the full 90 minutes four times in 41 MLS matches, 18 of them starts. (Yes, through a season and a half, Alberg is averaging 12 starts a season.) The adjustment phase has ended; we’re seeing Roland Alberg for what he is.

Ilsinho has gone 90 minutes just twice in 41 MLS matches, 29 starts. He turns 32 in October. His fitness drastically improving is about as likely as me hitting that elusive growth spurt to get on NBA teams’ radars.

Neither is a 90-minute player. As evidence, I submit that neither has ever been a 90-minute player in MLS.

- Not exactly apple pie. The argument I got plenty of on Twitter Saturday night was what I fear will remain in vogue for a while: The season’s lost, let Adam Najem play. Indeed, the Union have two creative midfield options of the future in Najem and newly signed Homegrown Player Anthony Fontana, whose contract goes into effect in Jan. 2018. That’s solid depth, so why not cultivate it?

Counterpoint: Name me the American No. 10s currently starting for MLS teams. Sacha Kljestan is one. Lee Nguyen is another. Darlington Nagbe is half-credit, since Diego Valeri is the primary chance-creator on the Timbers. Same for Benny Feilhaber, who occupies a deeper lying position in the Sporting Kansas City 4-3-3.

It seems audaciously hopeful to think that Najem or Fontana will ascend to those heights. It’s foolhardy to think either will do so at 23 and 18, respectively, next year. (Note that all of the above save for Nagbe spent significant time in Europe.) The Union have their depth options solidified. No more trolling the Costa Rican league or Colombian second division for young, promising attacking talent. But if you think Fontana and Najem are going to step into the starting XI next year and combine for 10 goals and 20 assists, you’re wrong. They are going to continue to get minutes at Steel next year while serving as bench options behind a starting caliber No. 10.

- A lesson in fungiblity. Two one-ounce pieces of gold have the same value as one two-once piece of gold. Two one-carat diamonds do not have the same value as one two-carat diamond, other factors being equal.

No. 10s fall into the second category, a non-fungible asset for reasons that would devolve into even more philosophy. Alberg and Ilsinho combine for a 2017 salary-cap hit of $815,000 and around $912,000 in guaranteed compensation. In the last two seasons, those two have combined for 17 goals and five assists, which sounds decently impressive. But remember that’s for two spots in the lineup; when you divide by their combined minutes total of more than 4,000 thought Saturday, Alberg and Ilsinho are accounting for just under one goal or assist every two games.

Now, let’s take that salary and apply it to one player – Kljestan at a $650,000 cap hit, Mauro Diaz at $784,000, Victor Vazquez at an affordable $630,000 and, on the high side, Federico Higuain at $1.05 million. Each of those players by themselves are more productive per 90 minutes than Alberg and Ilsinho are total, some decisively so.

Goals and assists per 90 minutes since start of 2016.
Seriously: Though Alberg's goal total last year makes them high on the goal-production rate per 90 minutes (and it must be noted that seven of those combined goals are on PKs), their assist numbers are so woeful. Vazquez, Diaz and Kljestan all have assist rates that are nearly six times that of Alberg AND Ilsinho. 

Sure, they’re surrounded by superior talent. But part of the reason that the Union’s duo doesn’t have a better supporting cast is that they’re clogging up half of the front four spots. At some point, the talent around them is lacking because they are the lacking talent around them.

All this fuels into the argument that the Union need an elite No. 10. Mauro Diazes don’t grow on trees, and I don’t suggest that the Union can wade through South America and magically pluck a bunch of all-star caliber attacking talents. But it’s the Union’s front-office job to make those connections and find players at the right price.

Again, I’ve argued that this summer is the time to find that difference maker. Ilsinho and Alberg have contracts that expire at year’s end. Keep one, jettison the other – either way, the argument for retention is equivalently flimsy. Alberg is younger, cheaper and scores goals when the mood strikes him; Ilsinho does elasticos, but the infatuation with Marcus Epps makes the Union two-deep at each wing spot, with Fafa Picault legitimately deserving to start (or you could argue that Alejandro Bedoya on the wing with Haris Medunjanin and Derrick Jones in the middle is a stronger posture, but let’s not plummet down that rabbit hole). Financially, you can clear upwards of $1.5 million between Alberg, Ilsinho and Maurice Edu, which will buy you a heck of a lot, even if an Andre Blake sale doesn't materialize. 

Get a starting No. 10, alternate Fontana and Najem as your reserve options while playing them at Bethlehem. That’s the blueprint for the future.

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Anonymous SilverRey said...

You could already tell last year that Alberg wasn't a fit for this team. Sure he put in a few good individual efforts for goals, but for him it's just that, individual effort. He yells at Fafa for taking a shot instead of the easy pass for a gimme goal - right after he has done the same thing, over, and over.

July 26, 2017 at 10:55 AM 
Anonymous SilverRey said...

btw do you have an RSS feed for the blog?

July 26, 2017 at 11:16 AM 

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