Warshaw: How the Philadelphia Union unlocked the best version of Ilsinho

Ilsinho - celebrates - Bedoya goal

Ilson Jr.
King Ilsinho.
Professor Ilsinho.
The best player in North America.

Whatever you want to call him (okay, I made up the last three), the Philadelphia Union attacker is the best game-changer in MLS at the moment.

Ilsinho has four game-winning goals or assists off the bench this year; three of the games the Union won by a single goal. That’s nine points that you can attribute almost single-handedly to the Brazilian. He almost won two others on his own, as well. He’s basically made the league his personal video game the last two months.

Grab a glass of wine and enjoy this masterpiece:

It’s gotten to the point that when he gets the ball near the sideline, you know he is going to beat the defender; you are just watching to see how.

It culminated in one of the vintage performances in MLS history over the weekend, in which Ilsinho scored twice, added an assist, and stole at least three souls en route to helping the Union rally from 2-0 down to a 3-2 victory over the New York Red Bulls. If you haven’t seen the highlights, take the time to do so:

It’s been both an exhilarating run of games and a learning opportunity. The Ilsinho Experience hasn’t come by accident. It’s been an event in the making, and one other clubs can and should replicate.

Ilsinho has always had this in him. He’s shown moments of it throughout his three-plus years in Philadelphia… not to mention the 19 UEFA Champions League appearances in his career. Unfortunately, the genius has been masked by some less-than-stellar performances in MLS, as well. Jim Curtin’s task over the last three has been to fix the balance, to acknowledge the struggles but not give up on the ridiculous ability. 

How do you accentuate the talent and hide the deficiencies? It’s been a three-year process of trial and error.

Here are the four specific things that Curtin, his coaching staff, and the leaders on the team have done well to bring out the best in one of the league’s most talented players:

  • Curtin hasn’t tried to change Ilsinho. There’s a novel's worth of South American players who got scouted into MLS because of their skill and were then scolded for attempting to show their skill. There’s certainly a boundary on how many tricks a player should show, and tricks tend to ruin a team’s flow, but tricks also win games; entire 90 minutes are generally decided with six-second moments of magic. It’s a coach’s job to find a way to balance “play quick” with “do your thing.” It didn’t come right away for Curtin and Ilsinho — Curtin spent three years trying to squeeze Ilsinho into different spots — but, boy, have they figured it out.
  • Curtin has found a way to get Ilsinho to accept his current role. That’s not to say that Ilsinho is okay with the role — my understanding is that he would prefer to start every game — but Ilsinho accepts it. The coaching staff and leaders on the team have found a way to make the Brazlian feel valued despite coming off the bench. They’ve shown it’s possible to make someone feel like he’s the best and most important player on the team despite not starting. To Ilsinho’s credit, he’s played like he has a point to every time he has stepped on the field this year.
  • The Union wear teams down for the first 60 minutes of games. It’s helpful to think of soccer games as a relay race; you don’t need to win every leg (or 20-minute increment), you only need to be ahead at the end. Philadelphia pass and press the life out of teams and force opponents to expend energy in the early legs of the race. They make the game as fast as possible as early as possible. They know that when both teams get a little tired, they have the advantage; they have the best final-leg sprinter in the league.
  • Curtin hasn’t just tossed Ilsinho into the game and said “do your thing!” Curtin has actively adjusted the team to help the Brazilian, and players have accepted new roles to accommodate him. When Ilsinho enters the game, the Union’s shape changes. Ilsinho is given fewer defensive responsibilities and fewer possession duties than the person he replaced. Other players pick up his slack because they know what he offers.

It’s important to remember that Ilsinho’s breathtaking moments have not been random, but rather a collective, concerted effort.

To add one final point: I continue to find it weird how teams can watch what Ilsinho does at the end of games, or what Alan Gordon used to do, and don’t sign a similar player or hone a current player to do a similar job. If you can find the right player to be your super-sub, you can have such an advantage. I keep a running list of current MLS players I’d like to see refined into the role.

Are any of them good enough to be starters? Unclear. But they’ve all shown moments that can change a game. They have something that other players don’t have, and you can’t let it go to waste.

Curtin and the Union didn’t let Ilsinho go to waste. And now the dude is snaking guys for fun.