For what would have been the ninth time this season, the Philadelphia Union appeared to be heading to the locker room with nothing to show for a few promising chances created in the first half on Wednesday night at home against the Chicago Fire.
But just when it looked like the trend would continue, Ilsinho lit up a pair of Fire defenders and made the fans already in the concourse regret leaving their seats early to get a beat on the concession lines.
“I’m looking for that ball for all 45 minutes, and thank god I had one chance in the last minute,” Ilsinho said post-game. “I’m so glad to score that goal.”
The 32-year-old Brazilian, inserted into the starting lineup for the first time since May 9, chested down a looping ball from Borek Dockal just inside the 18, weaved his way through both Brandon Vincent and Bastian Schweinsteiger and then rocketed a shot past goalkeeper Patrick McClain to give the Union that too often elusive first goal.
It was just the fifth time in 13 games that the Union offense found the back of the net in the first half. Goals in the first half is something all five of the team’s wins this season have in common.
“Credit to him because that is a big goal for us because again right before halftime where we did not play our best soccer still to go in 1-0 gives us momentum and most importantly makes Chicago have to change what they were doing a little bit,” head coach Jim Curtin said Wednesday. “I think that was the turning point for the game.”
The shift in Chicago’s formation was key to the Union having a better second half than they did the first. The visitors played a man-to-man style defense in the first half, frustrating the Union midfield and forcing the back line to step up into the offense on multiple occasions.
All four defenders — Ray Gaddis included — registered shots in the first half, which included a header from Mark McKenzie off a short corner that Patrick McClain robbed with a nice save. The other big scoring chance, a glancing header from Alejandro Bedoya that hit the post, also came off a set piece.
“I don’t think our guys would use it as an excuse but in terms of the uniqueness of it it’s a sweeper system with a pretty good player [Bastian Schweinsteiger] that can read the game behind it,” Curtin said. “Literally it is man to man. If Ale [Bedoya] or Borek [Dočkal] went to the sidelines [Tony] Tchani and others followed them to the sidelines.”
Dockal said he had never seen anything quite like it in his 10-year career.
“It was not easy to deal with that because we are not used to it and the three midfielders made it difficult for us to get on the ball,” Dockal said. “They actually allowed our center defenders to play so we just talked about how to deal with that and how they had to drive the ball a little bit more to advance and then pass the ball wide.”
Both of Dockal’s assists on the night came from wide areas, including a pass from Ray Gaddis that played Dockal into space to send in a pretty cross to the back post that Cory Burke headed home for the eventual game-winner. Dockal got a goal of his own from the penalty spot when Burke was taken down in the box.
But it was Ilsinho’s goal that he wanted to talk about after the game.
“After the goal we scored, they had to change their formation and the way they play so that’s why I think the goal in the last minute of the first half was so important,” Dockal said.
Curtin said the goal also continued a personal streak for Ilsinho.
“He tends to score when he has family in town,” Curtin said.
Maybe Ilsinho’s family should be in town more often. His three goals have all come in home wins this season.
“Actually, I was not that surprised because you see it in training and you guys have heard me talk about the things he does in the training all the time that you can’t coach, you can’t teach,” Curtin said. “Certain guys are special in that regard. I wouldn’t know how to defend it because you know it’s coming, you know he is going to snake the ball through but he has an ability to get defenders’ body weight on the wrong foot and kind of make them look foolish to be honest.”