It’s June 10th and the Philadelphia Union are in 1st place at the top of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference.

After pulling just two of nine points from a recent three-game home stand, Jim Curtin’s team rebounded by ripping off a pair of 3-2 wins in games where they honestly did not even play that well. That’s the sign of a good team, isn’t it? You find ways to win when you’re not totally clicking, and a lot of that can be credited to 33-year-old Brazilian winger Ilsinho, now in his fourth season with the team.

Ilsinho already held the title of “most skilled Union player of all time,” even before he broke out this year as a super sub and one-man wrecking crew. Saturday night the Union were losing 2-0 at halftime, he entered the game in the 53rd minute, and then went on to bag two goals and an assist in just 37 minutes on the field. It was one of the best individual Union performances I’ve ever seen, definitely right up there with the Roland Alberg and Sebastien Le Toux hat tricks and Freddy Adu’s first half against Red Bull more than six years ago.

Ilsinho is now up to 5 assists and 4 goals in just 551 minutes of play, having started just four games while coming off the bench in the other ten.

As such, we focus on his assists per-90 minutes and goals per-90 minutes, which look something like this:

  • A/p90 – 0.82
  • G/p90 – 0.65

That A/p90 number is #1 in Major League Soccer among players that have logged at least 500 minutes. Most other assist providers aren’t even close. For context, NYC’s Maxi Moralez is second with a 0.78 and the league-leader in total assists, Carlos Vela, has a 0.63 number. That math looks something like this, after the jump:

  • Ilsinho: 5 assists / 551 minutes = 0.82 A/p90
  • Moralez: 9 assists / 1,038 minutes = 0.78 A/p90
  • Vela: 10 assists / 1,429 minutes = 0.63 A/p90
  • Alejandro Pozuelo: 8 assists / 1,040 minutes = 0.69 A/p90
  • Nicolas Lodeiro: 8 assists / 1,242 = 0.58 A/p90

And don’t sleep on the G/p90 number. The only Union players with a better mark are David Accam and Sergio Santos, only one of whom remains on the team. Both have played less than 400 MLS minutes in 2019, so they don’t even qualify.

I’ve chopped up some still frames to look at, but first go through this video and watch the three specific sequences that Ilsinho presented us with on Saturday:

Nastiness right there. Just really, really dirty. The dirtiest of dirts, like you dug so far into the planet that rare Earths started coming out.

Anyway, Red Bull defended these sequences pretty well. Yeah, there was a stab or lunge here or there, but on two occasions Ilsinho beat double teams and on the third sequence he got some diagonal run help from a teammate.

On play one, look at where Ilsinho receives the ball and makes his first touch (yellow) –

He’s doubled up about a yard from the touchline, with Red Bull ignoring fullback Ray Gaddis (blue) as Alejandro Bedoya (white) pushes up the right flank instead. Ilsinho beat both guys to the endline and fired in the cross that Jamiro Monteiro turned home.

Play #2, starting point:

Again he picks up the double team with Gaddis moving up the field, but yet to be involved in the play. Ilsinho splits both dudes and toe pokes the equalizer off the center back’s leg. Just pure filth, like the Wildwood beach in August.

Play #3:

On this sequence New York pushed him towards the 18, Bedoya made his diagonal run, and Ilsinho dumped if off for a cross and handball, leading to a penalty.

Few thoughts here:

  1. Ilsinho receives the ball while facing goal with crazy frequency. The easiest way to defend space as a fullback or center back is to deny that space in the first place, so you get up on the attacker’s back before he can turn. It’s nearly impossible to do that when Ilsinho is already standing on the touchline, and in other instances his first touch is so good that he turns and faces with ease.
  2. The second thing you try to do as a defender is force a player onto his weaker foot, which is Ilsinho’s left. This results in two things with him – one, he’ll drive right at you and toe poke with his right foot while ignoring his left. Two, he can nutmeg you with the outside of his right or drop it off to a slashing teammate instead (Bedoya’s run).
  3. Ray Gaddis is usually completely ignored by defenders, since he doesn’t provide an attacking threat. Normally you can overlap or underlap a fullback to peel off the second defender and free up the dribbler, but in this case opposing squads don’t really bite. This results in Ray hanging back and mopping up loose balls while protecting the painfully slow Haris Medunjanin in transition. So even though it’s a detriment, it works to the Union’s benefit on many occasions.

I guess the difference between 2016 and 2019 is really very simple; Ilsinho lost weight and is playing fewer minutes at age 33. In his early Union tenure, he was fantastic at beating the first man but typically lost the ball on his second move. Now he’s able to run at tired defenders as a substitute, which helps him chain together multiple skill checks on a single possession.

Is it sustainable? Don’t teams have enough film on him by now?

The latter was my first thought after Saturdy’s game. Surely teams will have figured out how to defend him, but sometimes players are just that good, so you tip your hat and give credit where it’s due. Arjen Robben is similar in the way that defenders try to take away his left foot, yet he puts you in the blender and gets his looks anyway. Ricardo Quaresma has been doing similar things with the outside of his right foot for years now.

Ilsinho might not have the international clout that those players have, but he’s performing at their level, at least through four months of the 2019 MLS season. It’s been really fun to watch, almost a privilege to see him operate on the flanks. He’s one of the main reasons why the Union are in first place as we hit the Gold Cup break.

Please join me in appreciating Ilsinho’s contributions this year.