(Published Aug. 9, 2016 in The Philly Soccer Page)
Every basketball streetballer knows a playground legend.
He’s the guy with the nasty handle and the thousand-mile J. He can break your ankles off the dribble, drop a dime in your eye, and call “water” before the net tells you, “Swish.” He’s got more tricks than a cereal-chasing rabbit, more smiles than a mile of models, more confidence than Mike Tyson on a Michael Spinks high, and the ability to do things with the ball nobody else can.
But he doesn’t play defense, and he doesn’t play well with a team.
In America, basketball is the streetballer’s game.
In Brazil, it’s soccer.
And the Brazilian Ilsinho looks like a playground legend.
Elasticos and dribble-throughs, look-away passes and “Oh no, he did not just do that” plays — Ilsinho has them in spades. He’s a walking highlight reel like no other that Philadelphia Union fans have ever seen wear the blue and gold. His pure soccer talent is off the charts. He can be ridiculously fun to watch.
If only he fit into the team better.
In what’s becoming a weekly tally, the Union are 4-6-2 when Ilsinho starts and 4-2-5 when he doesn’t.
His performance Saturday against D.C. United was one part epic highlight to four parts anonymity.
On one hand, Ilsinho made an absolutely brilliant, game-changing play when he picked Luciano Acosta’s pocket to steal the ball deep in United territory and then dropped a perfect no-look pass to set up the go-ahead goal from Chris Pontius.
On the other hand, that one play may not have been enough to make his performance a net positive for the Union.
As is typical for him, he often played fairly narrow in attack, pinching in toward the center from the right to create off the dribble. Overlap opportunities for right back Keegan Rosenberry proved rare, as they have been for weeks. Defensively, we can at least say that Ilsinho seemed the lone player moving to mark anyone on D.C. United out beyond the 18 on that key play in stoppage time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough to stop his mark from finding sufficient space to float a cross into the box that Steve Birnbaum headed in for the game-tying goal in stoppage time.
[gfycat data_id=UnhealthyFlamboyantCreature data_autoplay=false data_controls=false data_title=true]
Ilsinho is great fun to watch as an individual.
But soccer is a team sport. A team’s shape matters, both in attack and defense. So does defensive effort. So do flow, space and intuitive interaction with your teammates. So does the ability to blend well with your teammates and consistently make the team better.
Earlier in the season, you could make the case that Ilsinho was still getting to know his teammates and that chemistry would develop. Even now, you can perhaps grant a pass under the premise that Tranquillo Barnetta’s temporary move to the No. 8 center midfield spot has unsettled the the chemistry.
But you can’t deny that something is off.
The Union just traded away the team icon who had been the prime alternative to Ilsinho at right attacking midfield. New signing Alejandro Bedoya has spent plenty of time in that role, but most expect him to take Barnetta’s place at the No. 8 for the rest of the season to allow Barnetta to return to the No. 10 role at which he has flourished. Backup Walter Restrepo just dribbled himself out of contention for more minutes.
So Ilsinho still has time to show he can be more than just a streetball highlight reel. To be fair, there are definite signs he can be.
If not, Fabian Herbers is making it harder for his coaches to keep him off the field, and they’ll have to find somewhere for him to play. Maybe it’s right attacking midfield. Herbers may not hit the highlight reel as often as Ilsinho — although Herbers will hit it — but he seems to do the little things that make his teammates — and team — better. Right now, that’s what the Union need.