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Super sub Ilsinho adapting to Philadelphia Union’s new tactical approach

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

CHESTER, Pa.— There are few teams in Major League Soccer who can bring a quality super sub off the bench like the Philadelphia Union have in Ilsinho. 

The 33-year-old Brazilian reinforced how much of a difference maker he can be for the Union in Saturday’s 2-1 win over FC Dallas. 

As Union head coach Jim Curtin said during his weekly press conference, few people are capable of playing the chipped ball Ilsinho sent in the direction of Alejandro Bedoya in the 92nd minute against FC Dallas. 

“The ball he plays to Ale on the game-winning goal, not many people can do that,” Curtin said. “I don’t say that just in MLS. I say that in soccer.” 

Saturday’s assist landed Ilsinho in a select Union group as the fourth player in club history to record 10-plus goals and assists. Sebastien Le Toux, C.J. Sapong and Chris Pontius are the other three. 

While Ilsinho may make the game look easy when he comes off the bench, he has had to make some alterations along with the Union’s tactical shifts to be a consistent contributor as a substitute at the start of the 2019 season. 

The Brazilian is a natural right-sided winger, a position he’s played at for the majority of his career after starting as a right back. 

The 4-2-3-1 system the Union used under former sporting director Earnie Stewart admittedly suited the Brazilian’s skill set more. 

Ilsinho’s most impactful performances this season came in a 4-2-3-1 against the Columbus Crew and on the right wing in a 3-5-2 system used in the final 15 minutes of Saturday’s game against FC Dallas. 

“Personally to be honest I prefer the other (formation),” Ilsinho said. “I scored against Columbus in a 4-2-3-1 and (the FC Dallas) game we changed the system and we put a lot of pressure on (FC Dallas) and played better than them.”

“Personally, I prefer the 4-2-3-1, but the 4-4-2 diamond has already showed the results,” Ilsinho said. “We have to respect that, but we have to play in different situations in different formations.” 

Mar 23, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Ilsinho (25) plays the ball past Columbus Crew midfielder Hector Jimenez (16) during the first half at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

During the offseason, Union sporting director Ernst Tanner and Curtin installed a 4-4-2 diamond as the base formation for the the club to work out of. 

As a natural winger, Ilsinho could have been on the outside looking in at the start of the season, but his own tactical flexibility has helped the Union integrate him with ease.

“They are the bosses and put in the system,” Ilsinho said. “We are just here to win and work hard. For the first game, I tried to be a No. 8, but I’m just there to help and do different things when we have the ball.” 

“I’m naturally on the right side of the field, but everyone here is capable of playing every position,” Ilsinho said. “Ale (Bedoya) showed to us last game he can play right back, midfield. I think a couple times with the national team he played winger.” 

Although the Union have started most games in the 4-4-2 diamond, Curtin has adjusted on the fly, including twice to a three-man back line against Toronto FC and FC Dallas at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“Jim already showed that sometimes we can play 3-5-2 to get results,” Ilsinho said. “Sometimes we play 4-2-3-1 and now 4-4-2. It’s good. Nobody knows what we can show and it’s hard for the other teams to come here, and then with 15 minutes left in the game, we get into a different formation.” 

Regardless of which system the Union are playing when Ilsinho enters the field, the process of getting up to speed in every game isn’t as easy as he makes it look. 

“Sometimes it looks easier because everyone thinks they are tired and you have fresh legs,” Ilsinho said. “But some games it’s tricky because the game is already hard and going at 100 miles per hour. And then you have to warm up and get a touch.”

“If you have a good first touch, it’s good for you, but if you miss the first ball, you start to fight with yourself,” Ilsinho said. “Every game and every situation is different. Every left back likes to play a different way.” 

Even if the first touch doesn’t go his way, Ilsinho has the full confidence of Curtin, who believes he has a unique roster piece in the Brazilian that few MLS teams possess. 

“(Ilsinho)’s the last kind of player people want to see coming off the bench with 30 minutes left,” Curtin said. “Maybe the outside back is a little fatigued. He’s going to go at you over and over again. What he does, if you talk about one-on-one ability, there’s probably not a player in the league more difficult to contain when he’s on his game. He was on his game the other night.” 

With one goal and one assist already to his name in 2019, and the tactical flexibility Ilsinho has shown, Saturday’s game should be just the start of another strong year for the Brazilian super sub. 

“Players are the ones that change the game, it’s not coaches when they decide to make substitutions,” Curtin said. “I believe that players impact games, players win games.” 

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