Analysis / Union

Another year, and more back line drama

Photo: Earl Gardner

For many teams, the defensive back line tends to be the place of least upheaval and drama. Not so with the Philadelphia Union, which has seen the back four (and occasionally 5 under Peter Nowak) have some of the stranger twists within the team. Starting with the mystifying trade of the team’s only left back Jordan Harvey, through various iterations of benchings, trades, and conversions…you name it, it’s pretty much happened.

And just when you thought the trades of the 2014 offseason had settled things, the craziness is back.

It’s understandable to be frustrated when an incoming player like midfielder Cristian Maidana struggles to adapt to the rigors of MLS. It’s another to see a proven MLS quantity like Austin Berry not making the grade, and it leaves you wondering where the disconnect actually is.

Strange moves…again?

As soon as a lineup came out with Aaron Wheeler starting at center back and a fit Berry on the bench, my thought was, “Why is this happening on this team? Again?!?”

Nothing against Wheeler, a guy who has done admirably in the position he finds himself. Undoubtedly he is busting his hump, doing everything possible to learn a critical position in any XI. But his conversion appeared to be more about depth last season, when John Hackworth needed to rest his starters against Premier League side Stoke City. Most supporters would be happy to rely on Wheeler in a pinch based on his early play this year.

But last week Hackworth declared in his midweek press conference, “I think Aaron right now is still the first choice.”

Starting Wheeler ahead of a well-respected MLS center back like Berry is, aside from the case of injury, a head-scratcher. The fact Berry had a poor match against Real Salt Lake — one of the top teams in MLS right now — is inconsequential. Berry was in only his third game paired up with Amobi Okugo, and there is going to be a time of adjustment for any player.

For instance, in this week’s KYW Philly Soccer Show, Seattle Sounders Manager Sigi Schmid describes his support for Chad Marshall and Djimi Traore, even through some rough moments. Of course, it helps that the Sounders are scoring at an amazing clip. Still, there is still a grace period that has been extended to a respected veteran that the issues will, with time, be ironed out.

Players should be allowed to have a poor match, especially returning from injury. And that includes Austin Berry.

And what’s up with Ribeiro?

Remember that fellow who bounded through the New York Red Bulls in a preseason friendly, doing his best impression of the Incredible Hulk, shrugging off the opposition like a freak of nature? The excitement that Pedro Ribeiro brought to a rather stale exhibition season was refreshing.

We’ve spent weeks here detailing the woes in the final third, the apparent lack of anyone who “tries stuff,” who brings a different set of attributes in the final third. And while it was a singular run, Ribeiro seems to be a guy who could cause opposing teams a tactical concern in the final 20 minutes of a match.

But he’s in Harrisburg. Playing center back.

It’s unclear if Harrisburg head coach Bill Becher is employing Ribeiro in the back line in a pinch to cover for the injured Coady Andrews, or if he’s been asked to do with Ribeiro what’s been done with Wheeler. [Editor’s note: A Philadelphia Union spokesperson confirmed to PSP after this post was published that Ribeiro has been playing at center back in Harrisburg because he “is covering for an injury…They’re not trying to make him a CB. Unfortunate situation but he’s good enough to play there, so he does.”]

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guy like Ribeiro who could come in and completely change the game? Perhaps that one run against Red Bull was an anomaly, something he doesn’t bring to every match. On a team with 1 win and that has struggled to break down opponent’s bunkering tactics, why not give it a shot? ?

What’s wrong with conventional?

There are a wealth of center backs in this league and abroad. There were some available at the SuperDraft. The team even picked up three of them in Berry, White, and Marquez (on loan at Harrisburg). There are some questions that seem begging to be answered:

  • Why does the “project” become converting players from other parts of the field into defenders?
  • If a team is willing to make Aaron Wheeler an “on-the-job project” pairing with Okugo, then why wouldn’t Ethan White be an excellent “on-the-job project” paired with a top defender like Berry?
  • Leading to that ever-present elephant in the room, “Why can’t Amobi Okugo start in central midfield?”

When you’re winning, every tactical experiment becomes brilliant. When you’re losing, it infuriates those who follow your team. And this team is too good to be floundering. It may be time to simplify and stop trying to jam square pegs into round holes.


  1. Wow, thanks bro.

    Thanks for reminding me in perfect terms why I feel so depressed about this team!

  2. J.O.H.N. H.A.C.K.W.O.R.T.H.

  3. Exactly why I’m boycotting until Crapworth is fired

  4. John O'Donnell says:

    The thing is that Marquez showed enough promise that he’s starting in Harrisburg, yet you try to change the position of a first round pick. Didn’t he show enough promise at his natural position? I thought affiliation with Harrisburg was to develop players for the future, not teach them new positions. When you keep a late draft pick you look smart if works out. But changing another first round into a defender, well I don’t think they understand what the advantage of having Harrisburg is.

  5. Absolutely frustrating to watch this organization try to put a tarp over the window instead of just buying a new window. Please stop with this whole lets play players out of their natural position where they have excelled so well that they are currently playing at the professional level because they played so well at their natural position. These experiments are growing tiresome and are not working out that well, despite Okugo.

    • Nah. They put a painting over the window and tape it on, and tell you it is a new tarp. And that they might bring in one or two windows in the future, when they are done making payments on the old tarps that got moldy with “unexpected precipitation related damage”.

  6. Wheeler has plenty of potential as a CB and he’s a beast in the air, but do we need see that evolution unfold live during what once looked like a really promising season? Given the current roster, I don’t see how Okugo/Berry isn’t a given week in and week out. The back 4 should pretty much be set it and forget it for this team.

  7. Players are allowed to have a poor match, some more than one, consecutively. For all the hump-busting he does, Wheeler’s not all that great at the CB position.
    It’s easy to forget Wheeler’s Cantona-Fu when the PK isn’t converted. Coming off an injury or not, Berry’s foul seems to be exploded out of proportion because of not only happened so early in the match, but that RSL converted the subsequent PK.

  8. Sometimes the smartest person in the room is not the one trying to outsmart everyone. When it comes to Wheeler it seems the manager is trying to outsmart everyone. If I were a central defender in Harrisburg right now I’d be pretty pissed that a striker is being converted to defend on a team that can’t score goals.
    The whole point of affiliates is to fill gaps when needed. Call players up to audition. Help out in a jam when injuries occur. It is just plain stupid that Wheeler is getting OJT in defense when we haven’t scored a goal since……………………………………
    Regarding the ‘conversion’ of Ribiero to CB- if that is what is actually happening, the guy played CB before. He knows the position. He is also 6’4” +200lb. If he turns out to anchor the Union defense for 12 years as we make runs to glory, all will be forgotten that he also displayed a level of ‘brilliance’ in the midfield.
    We don’t need another midfielder right now. We have plenty of playmakers that just need to start making plays. The finishing part, that is another question altogether.

  9. It’s amazing that in 5 years we have continuous dysfunction. I’ve been going crazy but I think I just want to sit back and watch this train wreck.

  10. It’s great to see the Union clarify why Pedro is playing CB. And if that’s the case, wouldn’t it make more sense to send Wheeler down to Harrisburg and bring up Pedro? Wheeler can learn on the job and fill a need for Harrisburg, and Pedro can be an interesting bench option for the Union, playing any of the five forward and non-Brian Carroll midfield positions.

  11. Wait didn’t I just read something on here celebrating the Union defense?
    Each week I hope we’ve come to the end of The Wheeler Experiment. Each week I am disappointed.

    • Here’s what I find weird about The Wheeler Experiment. Invested Union fans seem to see it as a disaster. But, what little I’ve seen on Wheeler from neutral fans sounds like he’s been awesome — I think he made’s team of the week a couple of times. Why the disconnect?

      • I think that disconnect exists with a lot of Union players. I’m also including the more “casual” Union fans in that neutral designation.

      • The Black Hand says:

        Allowing for mistakes, that any new CB could make, Wheeler has not been awful. He may be a little overly aggressive and could very easily be carrying 4 or 5 yellows, but he has shown well at times. The slide to deny Jack McInerney a break was nice to see. His vertical presence has been refreshing.
        I think the problem with Wheeler is: we have Berry and White. Both guys are actual CB’s.

      • old soccer coach says:

        Ethan White had the entire preseason to win a job. He failed to do so, sufficiently clearly that they bought surplus Austin Berry from Chicago. Berry, in turn, was not starting for Chicago, for reasons I know nothing about save that a new coach brought in new older center backs. Finally, two weeks ago Hack worth said in so many words that they may have brought Berry back from injury a little too early. His original injury was a hamstring. If he redid it against RSL as the Hackworth comment suggests, they have to leave him alone for quite some time as reinjured hamstrings take a long time to heal fully. Clearly John Hackworth thinks Wheeler is better than White. I have been trying to follow Ribeiro via you tube. He went off injured in the 68th minute against Sacramento, Saturday, and given the inexperience of the announcers I do not credit their guesses as to the nature of the injury. I did not see the injury occur myself. Ribeiro’s not an option right now, an unsettling thought if Edu makes the National Team for the world cup. That camp starts in about three weeks.

      • I got a kick out of the Sacramento announcers. I think he was a hockey announcer as he kept talking about “tripping penalties”, and “the neutral zone”. But between the hockey terminology, football lines on the field, and a soccer game I was happy- all 3 sports I enjoy.

        Also thanks to PSP for getting an answer on Ribiero. Even though, like others, I don’t agree with it, I just wanted to hear that they still view him as an attacking player. Sounds that way.

      • I was at the Harrisburg-Charleston match on Friday evening….if you were at the game and had any question as to why Ethan White is not playing for the Union, your question is now answered. He was at fault on 2 of the goals and got red-carded for shoving a player in retaliation.

      • the reason it bothers me is that he is getting games over berry. maybe it is because they want to give berry more time off of his feet because of his hamstring but i have been under the impression that he is healthy

    • It’s great to have a variety of opinions on an online publication like this one.

  12. Nova 66-64 says:

    All this mess is at the feet of the Front Office.

    Hackworth is a problem but the people who run the franchise are just as responsible for this “Groundhog Day” disaster.

  13. Southside Johnny says:

    I’m pretty sure if this organization were given the Spanish national team roster to play with in the MLS, they would figure out how lose and screw up most of the players in one season.

  14. Hackworth would send Iniesta down to HCI to train as a defender.

    Blake, the best player in the draft, for whom we traded up, hasn’t played a soccer game in months. Hackworth is incompetent. Fire him.

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