CHESTER, Pa. -- Late in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Chicago Fire, Philadelphia Union midfielder Ilsinho had the ball at his feet, facing the goal, two Chicago players blocking his path.
The easy play at that point would have been to turn and pass the ball back to Keegan Rosenberry, positioned along the sideline as an outlet. Instead, Ilsinho took on both players, pulling off an elastico followed by a nutmeg to get himself free near the end line, before playing a perfect cross that could have easily resulted in a goal.
It was a dazzling display of individual brilliance that seemed to shock many of those in attendance at Toyota Park and watching the game at home.
But it was not at all surprising to his coaches and teammates, who see Ilsinho pull off stunts like that every day in practice.
“I can’t teach what he does,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “That’s in the Brazilian blood, I guess you would say. He does that on a consistent basis. Sometimes guys pull off these plays in games and it’s a one-off thing. But he does it at a clip where a coach will never second-guess it.”
Perhaps it is the Brazilian blood. When asked about those moves, Ilsinho said through a translator he’s been “doing it for a long time, since I was in the academy in Brazil.” He cited Rivellino -- the Brazilian legend who is credited with perfecting the “flip flap,” or elastico dribble -- as one of his big influences and who he “got it from” while watching highlights on TV.
He’s had a few memorable moves like that in his career, including one he recalled off the top of his head from a 2006 game with São Paulo. But he insists it’s not something he thinks about during a game.
“If it happens in a game, it happens in a game,” Ilsinho said. “It’s in the moment. I never plan before the game, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this move.’ It’s always on the spot.”
While Ilsinho may have some flashy moves in his repertoire, he is certainly not a showboat. Curtin called him a “humble person” and a “leader” who’d been eagerly diving into his English classes while serving as a mentor to the Union’s younger players (even if it still sometimes includes 'megging them in practice).
And during games, the first-year MLS player is capable of using his dribbling skills to turn nothing into something and set his teammates up with scoring chances they might not normally get.
“The danger is that I don’t want our guys to get into the mindset of giving him the ball and just watching,” Curtin said. “Sometimes that will happen. Guys will roll him the ball and say, ‘Good luck,’ and he’ll get himself out of a tight space. They have to realize when they do give him a ball, chances are he’s gonna beat the first man and get a cross in or a shot. So they have to be ready at all times and expect the unexpected with him, because he sees the game differently.”
One thing is for sure: Teammates and fans alike are enjoying all that Ilsinho has brought to this team in the short period of time he's been there. And they expect his eye-popping moves to continue the rest of the season, starting with Friday night’s showdown with fellow Brazilian Kaká and Orlando City at Talen Energy Stadium (7pm ET, UniMás).
“It’s nuts,” said teammate and translator Leo Fernandes, who grew up looking up to both Kaká and Ilsinho. “You see him do a snake and then he 'megs a guy -- that’s crazy. You just can’t wait to see the video after the game. It’s pretty cool. It was all over the place on Twitter.
“One against two, and he gets away with it,” he added, shaking his head in disbelief. “But he does that every day in practice.”