Season Reviews

Season review: The defense

Photo: Daniel Gajdamowicz

If you were to ask the average fan what the most important part to a successful MLS team was, they might name one of a few offensive juggernauts such as Clint Dempsey, Robbie Keane, Lee Nguyen, Dom Dwyer, or Landon Donovan. To be fair, there is a lot of weight to this theory. What it doesn’t cover is that every one of these scorers had a defense behind them that ranked in the top half of MLS.

The phrase “Defense wins championships” is about as cliché as it gets, but this season, it proved to be true. Yes, the LA Galaxy possessed a talented offense, but they were also bolstered by a defense that allowed a league low 1.09 goals per game. To take it a bit further, 10 teams out of 19 make the playoffs. Those 10 playoff teams were also the top 10 teams in Goals Against Average. Furthermore, three of the top four teams in the Supporters Shield Race were the top three in the league defensively, the exception being Seattle, which had the second best offense in MLS and was ranked in the top half defensively.

The message is clear: to be successful in the MLS, you must have a good defense.

Defensive struggles under Hackworth

Throughout the 2014 season, the Philadelphia Union back line was thinned by injuries, fatigue, suspensions, and in some cases, a striker playing center back. With these factors, along with a midseason coaching change and addition of former All-Star Carlos Valdes, the Union used a shockingly high 18 different backline and goalkeeper combinations over the course of the season (compared with 7 in 2011, when the Union allowed 1.09 goals a game). This constant turmoil led to a Goals Against Average of 1.5 in all MLS competitions, good for 13th in the league.

Contrary to the 2013 season, the 2014 season started off with great promise. The Union were able to dump their bad contracts and free up cap space for the signing of Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira, and Chaco Maidana. They were even able to draft Andre Blake, arguably the most talented player in the draft who would help shore up what was then a weak point in the Union lineup.

To complement these signings, the Union got a former rookie of the year Austin Berry and a solid backup center half in Ethan White. Not only this, but Hackworth also promised an attractive possession based style of play as opposed to the bump, run, and cross style adopted in years past. Things were looking great for the 2014 Union.

Sadly, things didn’t turn out as planned.

In the 2014 season under Hackworth, the Union allowed 1.69 goals a game which would put the Union at 15th. While first half of the season started off with so much promise in the first two games, it will ultimately be remembered for a defense that was hemorrhaging goals from start to finish. Instead of playing beautiful tiki taka style soccer in which players moved fluidly with and without the ball, the Union were forced to cycle the ball along the half field line while their opponents conceded pressure and dropped back, and countered with ruthless efficiency upon gaining possession. This style of play combined with an inconsistent back line, helped lead to such poor defensive statistics.

A prime example of this inconsistency is Aaron Wheeler’s stint as a center back. I should preclude this next statistic by saying that Aaron Wheeler could make a solid center back one day. He is strong, agile, and above all, big, but he is slow and had serious trouble with his marking and discipline on the tackle. Most of his defensive weaknesses are correctible with practice, but the practice for such a role should have never occurred during an MLS season, especially with a certain Ethan White waiting on the bench.

With Aaron Wheeler in the lineup, the Union gave up 1.88 goals per game, which would be good for worst in the league by a fairly wide margin. The move looked good during the first New England game, where Wheeler helped in shutting out the Revolution after Austin Berry went down, but in the long run, the Wheeler experiment didn’t work. The Union GAA under Hackworth without Wheeler at center back, was 1.5 — still bad, but much better than 1.88.

One should also note that Hackworth was forced to play certain players and combinations because of injuries across the Union back line, such as Fabinho (who last I heard was getting launched into the sun), who played on the left for 11 of Hackworth’s 16 games as coach. Four of those games could have been avoided had he played Ethan White or Maurice Edu at center back, thus sending Williams out from center back position he was deputizing in.

And one cannot forget the 3-5 beat-down at the hands of New England at PPL in May. That game featured Williams at left back as opposed to his usual right side in order to spark the misfiring offense, an out of shape Austin Berry and out of depth Aaron Wheeler in the center, and Ray Gaddis on his preferred right side. The combination of poor play from the backline and defensive midfield led to the Union conceding a record high 5 goals, and sadly it was the most exciting game of the year up until that point.

Defense solidifies under Curtin

After Hackworth’s dismissal at midseason, Union fans were graced by the local hero who had come to save the season, Jim Curtin. With his introduction, Curtin made one thing abundantly clear: the Union defense would improve through the second half of the season, and it most certainly did.

With Curtin at the helm, the Union gave up an average of 1.33 goals per game, good for eighth in the league. Curtin achieved this great improvement — all while also improving the offense, mind you — by changing two things: personnel and tactics.

First, he brought in a style which the Union kept a strong and compact defensive shape, and counterattacked quickly upon a change in possession. Second, he did something that Hackworth had never thought to do: played Maurice Edu and Ethan White as his primary center backs with Okugo as his No. 6. Over the course of eight MLS games, this trio of players yielded just a goal a game, a tremendous improvement from the first half of the season.

Under Curtin, the Union featured five different center back combinations, two of which involved Sheanon Williams due to various injuries and suspensions. The three primary pairings were a combination of Valdes, Edu, and White. Due to a small sample size, and playing with different outside backs, it’s tough to determine which combination was most successful. That being said, most observers would generally say that there were two ideal personnel combinations, where Curtin was forced to choose between Ethan White Amobi Okugo.

Unfortunately, each combination was only featured twice. The first gave up a goal against both Sporting K.C. and D.C. United.


 The other was featured in the Open Cup final in which the Union played one of their best games in regulation against Seattle, allowing a goal and nearly stealing a match winner in stoppage time. Unfortunately, fatigue and poor depth took effect in extra time as the Union allowed two more goals.


This defensive lineup was also in play against Houston, earning Rais Mbolhi his first competitive shutout without allowing a single shot on target.

Again, due to small sample size it’s fairly inconclusive. But under Curtin, the Goals Against Averages look very similar regardless of who is playing center back, with the exception of Williams, who was playing out of his natural position. That’s not to say that the Union’s top three center backs are identical, as each brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the table.

The center backs

Of the three center backs, Edu is the most athletic and composed on the ball. He moves around the field so fluidly and seems to make plays effortlessly. That being said, his marking can be suspect and he is known to occasionally take plays off.

At his peak, Valdes is far and away the most talented of the three. He has everything you could want in a center back, great strength, solid but disciplined tackler, excellent ball skills, and superior defensive awareness. There’s a reason he was a key part of the best Union defense ever in 2011. Unfortunately, Valdes was not at his best last season. It seemed that he never quite got his fitness to where it had been in earlier seasons. It’s also been speculated that he was carrying a hamstring injury through the season. I’d look for him to reemerge in a big way if he is brought back next year.

Ethan White is far and away the grittiest and strongest of the three. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and makes his physical presence felt every game a la Danny Califf. When you think Ethan White, you think fundamentally sound and you think solid. Unfortunately, you also think of his poor distribution. He turned in the lowest passing percentage of the three backs last season. Fortunately, he is young and reportedly has a good work ethic, so there’s no reason he can’t improve his distribution and defensive awareness by next year.

The outside backs

The Union had a much larger sample size available for their outside backs, mainly because they only used two combinations (three if you count the 5-3 New England loss, with Williams on the left and Gaddis on the right). It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist (pun intended) to guess which of the two combinations was worse.

With Gaddis at right back and Fabinho at left back, the Union gave up 1.63 goals a game across 19 games, which is 15th in the league. This statistic speaks more towards Fabinho as a left back than Gaddis on the right.

When on the right side, Ray Gaddis was able to utilize his stronger right foot, and while his crossing isn’t necessarily on the level of Sheanon Williams, he was able to play in a number of good crosses on overlaps that you rarely see from him on the left. Regardless of what side he’s on, Gaddis is one of the best one-on-one defenders in MLS. His speed and quickness are assets that few players in MLS outside of a recently departed DeAndre Yedlin possess. While Gaddis is an excellent one-on-one defender, he still struggles with how he reads the game, particularly in the air. He also struggles to defend set pieces because of his small stature and below-average marking. However, he is a tireless worker, and will continue to improve his game on both sides of the ball, regardless of where he’s deployed.

In 2014, Fabinho continued to disappoint the Union with his play. He is an all or nothing defender that typically finds himself stealing the ball away spectacularly, or getting left behind in the dust. Unfortunately, it’s usually the latter. He is included in the 18 of every match (and somehow protected in the expansion draft) solely because he is a left-footed left back, a rarity in Philadelphia (The Jordan Harvey trade was in my opinion the worst move Nowak ever made.) He also shows flashes of brilliance on the attacking side, recording two assists on an ungodly amount of crosses last season.

Here’s the optimistic part: when deployed together, Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis are very, very good.

Dissenters will say that Williams had a poor year and that Gaddis is overrated. Williams certainly wasn’t himself in the early season and Gaddis has a few flaws in his game, but the pairing’s effectiveness still lies in the following statistic: With Sheanon Williams at right back and Ray Gaddis at left back, the Union gave up 1.00 goals a game last season. Better yet, they gave up only .92 a game under Jim Curtin. Both statistics are good for first in MLS last season.

That all occurred in a year filled with constant turmoil across the backline, an out of form and out of shape Sheanon Williams in the early season, and different goalkeeper and defensive midfield combinations.

Obviously, it’s frustrating to not have a decent natural left back on the roster. We all hear the constant murmurs that Williams should be traded for a decent left back because of Gaddis’s recent contract extension, and it’s frustrating to see Gaddis struggle with overlaps on the attacking side. But the pairing of Williams and Gaddis is still one of the best that MLS has to offer.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Curtin is able to do with the Union defense after a full offseason under his belt, and I would love to see a starting four of Williams, Valdes, Edu/White, and Gaddis over the course of a full season.

2014 MLS Goals Against Average
Team *- team made playoffs GAA Rank
Philadelphia- Sheanon Williams (RB) Ray Gaddis (LB) 1.00 1
LA Galaxy* 1.09 1
DC United* 1.09 2
Real Salt Lake* 1.15 3
Vancouver* 1.18 4
Sporting KC* 1.21 5
Columbus* 1.24 6
FC Dallas* 1.32 7
Philadelphia-Jim Curtin     1.33 8
New England* 1.35 8
Seattle* 1.47 9
New York* 1.47 10
San Jose 1.47 11
Chicago 1.47 12
Philadelphia       1.5 13
Portland 1.53 14
Toronto 1.59 15
Philadelphia-Gaddis (RB) Fabinho (LB)   1.63 16
Philadelphia-John Hackworth     1.69 16
Houston 1.71 16
Montreal 1.71 17
Chivas USA 1.79 18
Colorado 1.82 19
Philadelphia-Aaron Wheeler (CB)   1.88 20


  1. Davis,

    Excellent analysis. I’d be down for Williams/Valdes/Edu/Gaddis, with White starting and/or subbing in several games. I also wholeheartedly agree with you that the Jordan Harvey trade might have been the most head scratching move that Nowak made, and there are plenty of candidates.

  2. The Black Hand says:

    If Edu plays CB, we have no one to play at the #6.

    • I’m assuming that the Union will fill the hole left by Okugo’s departure. Admittedly, that’s a big assumption, considering that the Union signed Edu as a defensive midfielder. I think he’s a very good center back, though, and underwhelmed as a defensive midfielder. Way too many errant passes.

      2015 is a blank slate. Let’s give it another shot. I’ll sign on for the 2nd edition of Edu as a CDM and Berry as a talented CB who ran into some bad luck last season. It’s Festivus, after all….I’m in a forgiving mood. Feats of strength!

  3. Davis Russell says:

    As the roster stands, I’d say that our best back four would be Gaddis, Valdes, White/Berry, and Williams with Edu as the 6. Berry had a tough year with injuries and fitness and deserves at least a spot start here and there. The roster isn’t even close to finalized and it’s tough to picture another few months without the addition of a defensive midfielder, which could send Edu back down to CB.

  4. Great article. I like that you pointed out the good and the ugly. Obviously the Union doesn’t have the money to look for a whole new back line. Which in my opinion wouldn’t hurt. Look, defense is probably the most complicated position. To be a great defender you need to be stellar with marking, distribution, ball control, in the air, strength when holding the ball and calmness when pressured and timing. Not a single defender that has started or played last season contains all of these attributes. That is troubling to me because we have done nothing to find defenders that possess these qualities and it doesn’t look like that is a priority any time soon. To be fair, other positions are in dyer need. I just worry and question on how, and if Curtin will work to fix these individual problems and if he will confront them to each individual. I think if Curtin dismissed this then I’m afraid we will see more of the same from last season. Fingers crossed!

  5. They’ll be solid in the back with Gaddis, Edu, Valdes, and Williams. Lock that in, get a starting caliber CDM, a high end striker, and a couple more attackers, and we’re set.

  6. That New England game was so bad. I remember sitting there watching and thinking to myself, “my Word we can even string together 3 passes.” far and away the worse this team ever looked or was made to look IMO.

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