For Pete's Sake

On defense, no news is good news

Photo: Earl Gardner

The expression “no news is good news” doesn’t apply to every situation.

If you’re waiting to get into college, and you’re staring at a blank mailbox when everyone around you starts texting about acceptances… no news probably isn’t good news.

But once you get in, and you’re getting ready to go, the only news you can hear from school is bad news.

(“Uh, hi, Pete, it turns out that we actually meant to reject you. Sorry!” *click*)

In other words, no news is better when you’re playing defense.

So perhaps Saturday’s 0-0 matinee between the Philadelphia Union and Columbus Crew SC wasn’t the most scintillating game of soccer ever played. In fact, I considered turning the match off in the later stages to go watch some paint dry.

But when you’re Jim Curtin, trying to string together a defense with three players under 25 and one ancient, rocket-propelled Brazilian, that relative lack of excitement comes as a relief.

The Union’s defense, supposed to be their weakest point, has been impregnable through two matches.

No news on the Columbus side of the scoresheet is, it turns out, good news.

(Boy, that was a tortured analogy, huh?)

Raw strength

Through the first 180 minutes of the regular season, the Union are yet to give up a goal.

Most impressively, that mark has very little to do with Andre Blake. Sure, the Jamaican sensation has made a couple of necessary saves so far. But he’s not bailing out the men in front of him like we saw in both 2016 and 2017. That’s because those men don’t seem to need the bailout.

In our limited sample size, Auston Trusty has been nothing short of a revelation. He’s shown off tremendous defensive instincts, combined with outstanding athleticism and individual tackling to offset any temporary positional lapses. He’s confident enough with the ball at his feet that it can be easy to mistake him for a midfielder when the Union set up shop in an opponent’s half.

He’s not the only defender turning heads. Jack Elliott has earned two MLS Team of the Week nods already despite being, to my eyes, possibly the least impressive of the Union’s two center backs. His spectacular long ball led directly to the Union’s second goal against New England.

At right back, Keegan Rosenberry looks more like his barnstorming 2016 self than whatever he was last year. Rosenberry seems a step ahead of the opponents, using his positioning to make interceptions and to spring forward into the attack. The chemistry isn’t there yet with Fabian Herbers, who joined the rest of the offense in putting in a lackluster shift on Saturday.

On the left, meanwhile, Fabinho and Ray Gaddis have both been soccer players. And that’s about all they need to be.

Schedule struggles

Combined with strong defensive work from the rest of the squad, the young back line is yet to concede so far.

That’s necessary, because the offense hasn’t really clicked yet. The Union are yet to score a goal at even strength. Three reasons jump out as to why.

This schedule is, to use an extremely technical term, stupid. The Union begin an eight-month schedule with two of the first five weeks off. Though rescheduling matches for the CONCACAF Champions League — the cause of a planned March 10 visit to Seattle being rescheduled — is a noble goal, the dates of those matches are known far enough in advance that MLS’s schedule wizards should be able to balance every team’s schedule.

The bye week situation is surely playing some havoc on the Union’s ability to create offense. The late signing of Borek Dockal can’t be helping, either. The Czech playmaker will be relied upon to create the bulk of the team’s scoring chances, connecting speedster David Accam to bruising C.J. Sapong to fluid Haris Medunjanin. On Saturday, though, it looked like he’d never played a professional game with any of them.

The third obstacle to offensive potency is the eve-of-the-season suspension of Fafa Picault. The speedster was supposed to complement Accam on his opposite wing, but a three-game suspension has Picault sitting for the entire month of March. Curtin wasn’t happy last week about the gap between incident and suspension, and the weak performance of Fabian Herbers through two games shows that he may have been unprepared to start the season.

While Curtin waits for his offense to find the right alchemy, though, he can take comfort in the strong performance of his defense.

If you don’t concede any goals, after all, you’ll never lose.

11 Comments

  1. Trusty the Process!

  2. The point about Herbers being not ready to start is inexcusable to me. By that I mean Curtin’s reaction to Fafa’s suspension in starting an unfit/unready Herbers. Corey Burke seems more than ready to me. He’s more than surpassed Herbers’ known abilities. Just another example of Curtin’s inflexibility and naivete.

    • Why wasn’t Herbers ready to start? He had a pretty decent first game so I had no problem having him out there to start this one. Obviously he didn’t have a good game this time and now you have to give Burke the next start I think.

  3. Part of the concern for me coming into the season was not just the youth on the backline, but that the Bedoya-Medunjanin pairing in front of them would not provide good protection.
    .
    But to their credit, they deserve some props as well for the back-to-back shutouts.

  4. Buccistick says:

    Since this article “on defense” gives props to our young CBs for their passing — and rightly so: Blake has improved his distribution, too. Not only has he yet to boot one out of bounds, SuperBlake has given us moments like Saturday’s 17th minute, when he very calmly used his dominant foot to control Trusty’s awkward nick backwards and — under pressure — perfectly weighted a ball into space right back to him using his non-dominant foot.
    *
    This becomes most apparent on goal kicks. When Blake of 2018 kicks for distance, he collapses his upper body much less, providing better accuracy.
    *
    Last line of defense = First line of offense. We’ve improved in that department, too.

    • That little moment from the weekend jumped out to me, too. He’s never done that before, it was magic.

      • Buccistick says:

        At least as important as all that technique (and ganas): that little moment shows how much Blake and Trusty already understand one another — and how much that understanding revolves around positioning and possession.
        *
        It ain’t adding up to Barcelona any time soon (much less FCB over 90+ minutes, every match, season after season), but it does portend a step up — over the Blake of years past, over Marquez, etc.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      as a detractor and arguer for this enormous area of needed improvement from the goalkeeper, and having not watched the game this week, I am hopeful and buoyed by this comment.

      • Vagabond Ben says:

        My wife is hopeful, too. She’s tired of me saying “don’t kick it long” through gritted teeth every time Blake gets the ball.

  5. This article feels premature by about a month. Let’s see how impregnable they are in May on the road to TFC and ATL. If so, feel free to Trusty the Process all day.
    .
    2 games into the Yaro era everyone was raving about him. Richie Marquez was a revelation.
    .
    I’m willing to wait how they do on the road against formidable oppo.

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