Season Reviews

Season review: The Union’s youth at center back

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This post is part of PSP’s 2018 Season Review series, in which PSP breaks down the season that was and look at the off-season ahead. To read the full series, click here.

Union center back Auston Trusty hung his head, hands on his knees when the final whistle of the season sounded. He had scored an own goal in their match against New York City FC, contributing to the Union’s 3-1 defeat, dropping the Union to sixth place. Despite playing every minute for his club, helping the Union to their third playoff appearance and Open Cup Final at just 20 years of age, Trusty likely knew they could have done better. He could have done better.

After the Union’s playoff defeat to New York City FC just four days later, fellow young center back Mark McKenzie said in his final press scrum of the season, “Ultimately, I’m only 19, and I have a lot to improve on. That shows in these last couple games.”

Much has been made of the Union’s center backs this season, and rightfully so. On a Union squad that is aging at an alarming number of positions, the three starters at center back were usually the youngest players on the pitch or close to it. In a league where solid center backs are key, head coach and former center back Jim Curtin’s decision to play his kids at the position made headlines and made a difference – often, but not always, for the better. Moreover, the Union seem to be developing this type of young defensive talent at a consistent rate.

A pattern is developing in the halls at YSC Academy and on the pitch in Chester, and it may very well mean a lot for the Union. First, take a look back at the Union center backs’ performances. Then, we might understand what that means for the Union going forward.

Jack Elliott

At the ripe age of 23, Jack Elliott is the Union’s veteran at center back. The fourth round draft pick shocked fans and analysts alike two seasons ago after earning the starting role at center back through some standout play alongside U.S.M.N.T. vet Oguchi Onyewu.

Elliott made no less an impact this season. The right center back position seemed to trade back and forth between Elliott and McKenzie all season long. One would get injured, the other would take his place and play well enough to keep the spot, until he sustained an injury himself. Last year’s play secured Elliott the role to start the 2018 season, and after sitting out from injury, Elliott played solid once more to earn his spot back for a period.

The 6-foot-5 Londoner’s height is obviously an asset at the position, but it’s his ability to play out of the back that makes him stand out. With the athletic and lengthy Auston Trusty next to him, Elliott was able to comfortably use his passing and control to move the ball forward or laterally to start the Union’s attack off right – not something many MLS center backs can say.

Auston Trusty

A lot of hype has surrounded Trusty for some time. After signing with the team in 2016, Trusty saw the pitch primarily with Bethlehem Steel and with U.S.Y.N.T. teams (even scoring in the U20 World Cup), until 2018. Then only 19 years old, Trusty got the start of the 2018 season and never left the pitch. He was the only player on the Union to play every single minute.

That feat is not unwarranted either. Trusty has a natural feel for the game, the athleticism to keep up with any player in the game, and a left foot to boot. His gifts are evident, and they’ve earned him praise across the board.

That isn’t to say he was perfect. The 20-year-old from Media, PA failed to successfully mark the top strikers in the league several times, costing the Union significant points. Fans will also remember both of Trusty’s own goals in two of the Union’s biggest matches – once in the U.S. Open Cup Final loss and once in the Union’s Decision Day loss to NYCFC. Moments like those don’t define Trusty’s year, but they aren’t discounted either.

Auston Trusty has the physical gifts to play in most leagues in the world. He has already started to develop the leadership to captain this squad. If Jim Curtin can refine all of those traits into a tactical center back who can break presses and push the ball up the field, then the Union have something really special.

Mark McKenzie

To start the season, all eyes were on Auston Trusty, but Mark McKenzie emerged as perhaps the best prospect the Union have thus far put on the pitch. As mentioned earlier, his sheet will look patchy. The 19 year old Bear, DE native replaced the injured Jack Elliott for a spell, only to suffer an injury himself. When Elliott was forced to the bench again, however, McKenzie took the starting spot and held on.

McKenzie has all of the characteristics you want in a center back and then some. He has the athleticism to cover the best of the best attacks and the brains to put himself in the right positions. McKenzie can keep the ball at his feet to break an oncoming press or make the right pass to do the same. Best of all, he has the vision to know which of those to choose. In the press-heavy world of transitional soccer that has become so prevalent, that is absolutely key.

As McKenzie himself expressed, he still has a great deal to improve on, but that will all come with experience. For now, he’s on the track to becoming a top center back in MLS.

Benjamin Ofeimu

This name won’t be as familiar to a lot of Union fans, but those who follow Bethlehem Steel should know Benjamin Ofeimu. The youngest center back in this article at just age 18, Ofeimu hasn’t yet signed with Philadelphia Union. In fact, Ofeimu hasn’t yet signed with Steel.

Ofeimu has been playing with the Steel this past season on an amateur contract out of YSC Academy – an institution Ofeimu still attends. Still, Ofeimu played in 12 matches for the Steel, starting in nine. At 6-foot-3, Ofeimu has the size, skill, and potential to be a force in MLS. Think all of the three previous backs combined.

Editor’s note: Since this article was written it has been announced that Ofeimu will be attending Penn State in the fall.

Was it the right call?

The debate that started at the beginning of the season continues today. Did Jim Curtin make the right call in playing such young players at such crucial positions usually reserved for veterans?

At times, the Union suffered from their lack of experience. There’s no question. Just look at their last three matches. Perhaps a veteran like Onyewu would have made more heads-up plays when called upon. Perhaps a more experienced back anchoring the line would have made his partner all the better beside him. Play two rookies – Trusty and McKenzie – in the center, and you’re bound to get rookie mistakes. Given the Union’s fall at the end of the season, it’s tough to argue for sacrificing goals all in the name of “development.”

Worth it moving forward

Still, Curtin made the right call. Plenty of people have justly criticized Jim Curtin for plenty of shortfalls, but the former center back undeniably has a knack for developing young center backs. A look at the four youngsters discussed above makes that abundantly clear. A deeper look into what that means makes that incredibly exciting.

First and most apparent, good center backs are a must-have to win in this league and in most leagues around the world. To develop them in-house means that a club will never find itself in dire need of an imperative position. Imagine if the frantic search for a no. 10 that seems to occur (not always successfully) every offseason also had to take place for a center back. The Union’s center backs contribute on the pitch, and that’s the first and most important thing you can ask of them.

Second and perhaps more intriguing is how the club can use this development to improve. Right now, the Union have four young, capable center backs. Most teams in MLS cannot say the same. Most teams across the globe cannot say the same. If new Union sporting director Ernst Tanner can play the transfer market right, as he’s done in the past, then up to two or three of those backs can be transferred at a high fee, which can be used to acquire, say, a DP-level striker. On top of that, the Union have proven that they can sustainably develop center backs, so there should be little concern of replacing those backs that they transfer.

Philadelphia Union suffered at times from playing their kids at center back this season. The fans knew it, the coaches knew it, and the backs knew it.

Still, their season was among the most exciting parts of this squad, and their careers may define how the Union grow.

 

8 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    I don’t know, I take Elliot over McKenzie.
    .
    Besides defending which both are pretty strong at, prototype Center Backing in today’s game is about technical skill and passing…and attacking space -more and more.
    .
    In my opinion, Jack Elliot is much more refined than Mark (course he is 3 years older)…. I do not recall seeing McKenzie play a single brazen ball once this year where I thought, now that was insight.
    .
    Jack Elliot makes 1-3 key line breaking passes a game. To be fair, none of them have the passing acumen of Josh Yaro either though.

    • In re Elliott.
      .
      Once in Bethlehem, early in 2017 against FC Cincinnati, Jack Elliott played #6. He also played it in a scrimmage between Bethlehem and the Union that was moved to Talen from Goodman because of late snowfall upstate.
      .
      I would love to see the club consider Elliott as a #6.
      .
      He played it in college. And he played it well in the two examples cited both of which I saw in person as PSP’s Bethlehem beat writer.
      .
      Imagine a central defensive triangle of McKenzie, Trusty AND Elliott.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      I recall one or two verticals on the ground that bypassed the midfield defense to feet.
      .
      No two-line breakers onto which a winger could run into space behind the defense. Absolutely right that Elliott sees and delivers those. Trusty may see them but does not deliver them precisely enough.
      .
      Me, I’ll take speed in my back line and play the slower player in front of it. I want my best Eleven soccer players on the pitch.

    • Thank you for saying this.

      I think Mark McKenzie is a very fine young player and I am much looking forward to seeing him develop further. But I was kind of annoyed when Elliot lost his starting job. Of course he made some mistakes, but who doesn’t? I didn’t think it was enough to bench him. His deep passing ability is potentially elite at the position. And the Union will especially need that if they move on from Haris Medunjanin (which I really hope they do).

  2. In re: Ben Ofeimu committing to Penn State for the fall, please note.
    .
    Auston Trusty was committed to UNC-Chapel Hill we he signed with the Union.
    .
    Mark McKenzie matriculated at Wake Forest for summer school and a fall semester on the Demon Deacons’ bench before he signed.
    .
    Brenden Aaronson was already committed to a college for certain, Indiana by my faulty memory but double check that.
    .
    Matt Real was known to have committed to Wake Forest prior to signing with the Steel that the press box laughed repeatedly at the TV commentators who continued to say he was headed to Wake even though he had surrendered his amateur status.
    .
    Anthony Fontana’s collegiate backup plans I do not remember, if he had them.
    .
    Nor do I remember if Derrick Jones had any.
    .
    Selmir Miscic signed too young to have had any college plans, even in this age of being college committed before starting your senior year in High School.

  3. I really enjoyed the youth at the back. Yes there were mistakes. But that’s part of the growing process! I really thought there would be some rotation of the 3 to keep them fresh but alas, not to be! Really enjoyed watching them. Also, would love to see Tim’s idea come to fruition!!

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