Dave Zeitlin is a beat writer who covers Philadelphia Union for MLSsoccer.com. You can read all of his work here.
For much of the season, the Philadelphia Union have been searching for the right No. 10, trying out Alejandro Bedoya and Roland Alberg in that role.
Turns out, the answer might have been on the wing all along.
For the second straight game, with Bedoya settled into his more comfortable No. 8 spot and Alberg dealing with a quad injury, Ilsinho pulled the strings in the attacking midfield and delivered a dazzling performance.
The crafty Brazilian pulled off some nifty moves, as he’s known to do, to help set up Fafa Picault’s opening goal, before scoring one of his own to lead the Union to a 2-0 home win over the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night. The result marked the Eastern Conference club’s third straight victory after an 0-4-4 start to the year.
“He’s a talented player,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “I think we’ve all seen his ability to go 1-v-1 at defenders. It’s almost a little strange that now a lot of the things we were trying to get him to do as a winger — to get in behind and really stretch the defense — he’s doing a good job at them as the No. 10.”
Ilsinho showed just how much of a handful he can be on Wednesday, slicing apart the Dynamo defense with some clever passing and, at one point midway through the first half, racing all the way down the middle of the field before blasting a shot from distance off the post.
But while the Brazilian is best known for his creativity on the ball, his goal was workmanlike and efficient. On the 38th-minute play, Ilsinho found space in the box and slotted home a pass from Chris Pontius.
For Ilsinho, making runs into the box is something the coaching staff has been stressing to him as he’s taken over a new role — one that he's only played a few other times in his 12-year professional career.
“For me, everything is new,” Ilsinho said. “I just tried to help my teammates. I think I have more freedom in the No. 10. I can move from both sides, I can move to the right side, left side. I need to run a little bit more to help on defense. But I think now everybody has confidence in me.”
Ilsinho admitted that moving from the flanks to the center of the field has been “hard.” But he certainly does seem to inspire a lot of confidence in his teammates — particularly the two midfielders playing behind him, Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin.
“Jim asked me my opinion when Roland went down who should play there because he didn’t want to switch around me and Haris,” said Bedoya, who started the first five games of the season in the attacking midfield spot. “I told him I thought Ilsinho would be the best bet there and I would feel most comfortable with him. I see him in training, I see his technical ability.
"Normally when he plays on the wing, he likes to tuck inside. He’s got a great touch, great technique, and he can help us there a lot. And if we push him, he can do some of the dirty work, as well.”
Still, it is the creative work that the Union are hoping to see a lot more of in the near future. They believe they will, too.
“Ilsinho is a great player,” Medunjanin added. “I think he is the real No. 10.”