SuperDraft preview: A look at left backs

Photo: Michelle Bishop/

On Monday, Jim Curtin said Philadelphia Union would consider moving up in the MLS SuperDraft for two players. Although Curtin did not name the players he has his eye on, there just happen to be two ready-to-contribute/high-upside left backs projected to go early in this year’s draft.

Even though the Union protected their backup left back from the expansion draft, the coach and front office has not been shy about their interest in acquiring a left-footed player to make Fabinho even more expendable push Ray Gaddis.

So let’s take a closer look at Andy Thoma and Otis Earle, the two big names at LB in the 2015 SuperDraft.

Otis Earle

That last name looks familiar, right? UC-Riverside left back Otis Earle is the son of NBC Sports studio analyst Robbie Earle. But fear not, the younger Earle has his green card and will not take up an international slot in MLS.

Earle is the same kind of upper echelon athlete as Ray Gaddis, but he prefers to use his quickness in the opponents’ half. At Riverside, he was a standout player on a middling team; Earle was third on the team in goals with two and second in assists with four. He was a dynamic outlet on a squad that desperately needed it.

Although he has only been playing in the back since he joined the Highlanders, Earle is further along in his development than last year’s left back project Robbie Derschang. In part, Earle can thank Riverside for his growth as a defender. Derschang converted to the back at Akron, a powerhouse that can dominate matches to the point of making defensive positioning a formality. UC-Riverside is no Akron. Earle is far from the finished product, but he understands the necessity of reading the game before bombing up the flank. Additionally, he will fit well into the Union’s system that keeps wingers (especially Andrew Wenger on the left) high up the pitch.

In addition to his raw athleticism, Earle also offers much-needed size to an undersized Union back line. At 6’1” and 170lbs, Earle can mark big strikers on defensive set pieces and get into the box for Philly’s dead balls. This is more important than it may appear at first glance. Remember that with Amobi Okugo traded and Pedro Ribeiro deemed less important than Fabinho, the Union have very little size. If Mo Edu is in the back, Philly could conceivably send any of Vincent Nogueira, Cristian Maidana, Brian Carroll, Michael Lahoud, and Fred into the box. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves feel pretty safe defending corners against that group.

Perhaps most importantly, Earle is a converted left back, past tense. Unlike Ray Gaddis, who converted because of need, Robbie Derschang, who converted late in his college career for minutes, and Fabinho, who is sure to convert into a defender any day now, Earle is a Real Left Back who has been playing the position for years now and favors his left foot.

If he hits his ceiling, Earle is a new Chris Tierney. If he struggles to defend, he can still platoon with Gaddis and let the Union offload Fabinho to one of his many, many suitors.

Andy Thoma

Unlike Earle, who could be available at picks 11-20, Andy Thoma is going top ten. There are simply too many teams that need to upgrade at the left back position, and the SuperDraft rarely produces any with Thoma’s pedigree. In fact, DC United’s Taylor Kemp may be the only player SuperDrafted to play left back that has actually played the position with any success in MLS since the Union joined MLS. Chris Korb and Ray Gaddis have done the job, but both had to convert from the right back position.

All this is to say: Andy Thoma is a deservedly hot commodity. It’s not just that he’s an absolute speed demon (high school track champ), and it’s not just that he has a tenacity rare in modern attacking fullbacks, it’s that Thoma has a full set of skills and puts them on display consistently. Plenty of upside, yes, but the most remarkable thing about Thoma is how complete he already is as a fullback.

Notably, Thoma does not rely on his speed as a crutch. Well, not as often as he could, at least. Playing in a strong Pac-12 conference against very good UCLA, Cal, Stanford and Oregon State teams, Thoma was a second team all-conference pick.

Second team? Keep in mind: Only two defenders were selected to the first team and two to the second team. So Thoma was essentially named one of the top four defenders in the Pac-12.

But there are flaws in his game. For a player capable of getting upfield to create overloads, Thoma is less comfortable than Earle with the ball at his feet in the final third. He is a mediocre crosser and unlikely to take people on with the sort of directness typical of a modern attacking fullback.

Luckily, this is not what the Union under Jim Curtin seek in a left back. Andrew Wenger likes to stay high and break into space up the wing, often making the run that an overlapping fullback would otherwise embark on. The Union need a left fullback who can sprint in to offer support and learn to read and react to Philly’s mobile midfield. Both Nogueira and Maidana spend copious amounts of time near the touchlines. While this can create overloads and mismatches, it also means that the space a fullback expects to be free is often occupied. Thoma is far enough along in his development that he should be able to conform to the Union midfield’s predilection for leaving the middle of the field and offer a short pressure-relieving outlet when the defense collapses on Nogueira and Maidana.

Finally, Thoma’s speed means the Union will still have cover when Carlos Valdes goes walkabout. And Valdes, well, he likes to wander. For all his physical tools and brilliant recovery angles, Valdes has to use those angles more often than he should. Ray Gaddis’ speed was a welcome safety net with Valdes got caught upfield last season. Thoma offers the same safety net.

Both Earle and Thoma would be welcome additions to a Union back line that has forced Ray Gaddis to play on his weak foot for nearly two seasons. And even someone that finds Fabinho’s aggression exciting (and it really can be), should be able to admit that the Brazilian should only be a number one left back in MLS if Porfirio Lopez is the other option.

However, the Union are currently in no position to acquire Earle or Thoma. To do so would mean executing a trade (likely with either Kansas City or Toronto, who own a combined seven of the first twelve picks in the draft. So the bigger question at this point is not: Earle or Thoma? It is: What price do you pay for the right to ask: Earle or Thoma?


  1. OneManWolfpack says:

    For the record I like the Sapong trade… but man would a pick in the top 10 come in handy. Always seems like we are a step behind… And yes, I’m just whining a bit…

    • The Black Hand says:

      I don’t think that we would find a player of Sapong’s quality in the top 10 Superdraft picks. It would be too much of a crap-shoot. In my opinion, the Sapong move was a strong one. He is a good player, with pace.
      The Union’s hesitance to go after positions of need…well, that’s another discussion.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Is Fred still in the picture? I had thought him gone. Other than that, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs it is. Perhaps we should ask the SOBs to break into choruses of “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go!” Before every home offensive corner! Love it!

    • I enjoyed the Fred era, but really do hope this is the year where Pfeffer can take over the Fred role and spell Maidana every once in a while. Of course, I really wish Pedro was here to do the same, but trying to move on from that one…

      • philly loves a winner says:

        Pfeffer needs to be in the picture this year.

      • Everyone always forgets Leo Fernandes.
        He played very well to open up the season then cooled off and was not seen again for the rest of the year. At only 22 he could be expected to be inconsistent but he did show flashes of being able to make the final killer pass and to chip in with a few goals. He is a little further along development wise then Pfeffer and I would love to see him get another chance spelling Maidana from time to time. Plus, we are lacking some depth on the wing so I could see Pfeffer getting more time there.

      • agreed. Leo was sacked a bit early. same as Pfeffer. Really rather interesting to me that neither of them got a damn minute on the field when they both had spots of looking comfortable in live play.
        its as if the coaches were expecting to see Antoine Greizmann or Paul Pogba out there.

  3. Stay in our natural spots and grab LB Jordan Murrell out of Syracuse. Kid’s a stud and a bit under the radar as he wasn’t invited to the combine. I’ve seen plenty of video on this kid, he could contribute this season. Provides very good service down the left flank.

    • John O'Donnell says:

      If I was at the race track I would pick him on this one thing alone; he went to high school at Unionville. Hmm, how about that?

      Looks like Altidore might go to TFC but they might need to dump Gilberto as they still want to sign Sebastian Giovinco. He makes 1.2 million and I wonder if the Union would go that high? I think he got better towards the end of the season but he’s a little bit of a hot head. TFC needs a CB and we have that “asset” Berry just sitting there. Maybe somehow grab one of their 1st round picks for allocation or something. The Union might be able to take advantage as they need the DP slot and he might fit nicely up top at the high end of DP money for the Union.

      • This is good thinking sir.
        Nice how Altidore’s asking price could be $5 million. At that price I don’t want him cause there is NO WAY he’s a $5 million dollar player.
        Show me you are going to score 21 goals then we will talk. Enjoy it up there in Canada. I blame Canada.

    • I would like Murrell too but Ives is reporting that he is in Europe looking at options there. If we drafted him, he might not even come to MLS. However, it might be worth taking a shot with the lower second round pick that we got from the Rapids.

  4. kingkowboys says:

    Welp, they are off the board!

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