PSP talks to Philadelphia Union defender Ken Tribbett

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Ken Tribbett came to Philadelphia to play soccer at Drexel University. After his college career was over, he took a long and winding road back to Philly, where he has solidified a spot in the Union’s first eleven. PSP talked to Tribbett about how he ended up with the Union, his transition from midfield to defense, and how he and the team bounced back after a difficult season opening loss in Dallas. 

Give me a brief bio to start this off. You graduated from Drexel University, you went to some tryouts but didn’t get any offers, so you went to live at home… and now you’re here. 

So I graduated from Drexel in 2013. Then I was really given no good looks anywhere. I was told by Real Salt Lake and Chivas that there was a possibility of drafting me, but that fell through. So then I went to the USL combine that year and nothing really came of that as well. So I ended up going to Michigan and playing with the Bucks that year. We won a national championship.

And then after that I went to Harrisburg last year. The OC Nor’easters guys kind of got me a trial at Harrisburg for preseason. And I did well, signed a contract, and played USL last year. Got traded to the Steel this past winter. Then here now. So it’s been a long and windy road, but it all ended up here at MLS.

You were a midfielder in college. At what point along your trip to MLS did you make the transition to defense?

Last year at Harrisburg was the first year I went back to center back. Midfield all through college, all through PDL. And last year, in order to earn a roster spot, I had to play defense. So I did.

Was it the sort of thing where they said, ‘We see you as a defender. Show us you can do that’? Or did they say, ‘We need defenders.’ And you said, ‘I can do that.’

Harrisburg was in need of defenders, and I was kind of desperate to get on a roster. So I said I could play defense, and it’s worked out very well so far.

What kind of midfielder were you? 

I was a holding mid. I’ve always been more defensive.

What was your strong suit? Were you spreading the ball around or more of a destroyer in there?

A little of both, to be honest. Probably more just getting on the ball and playing passes. I never really sprayed it, just playing simple passes, winning balls in the air, and organizing the guys around me.

When you’re going through those years from 2013 until now, what things got you down and what kept you going?

It was very discouraging at times, going two years without making a pro team. I went to Harrisburg once, they said, ‘No, thank you.’ I was able to go back and, eventually, they signed me.

I went to Arizona twice, Saint Louis twice. All those teams said no. It was very discouraging, but the thing that kept me going was just my belief in myself. Because I knew I was good enough to play in USL and even in MLS. So I just kept believing that my chance would come. And once it came, I was ready to take it.

What was it like going back to a tryout with the same clubs a second time? From the outside, that sounds like it could feel embarrassing. Did you just have a sense that they couldn’t look at you twice and say no?

More of the latter. The longer that coaches see me play, the better a chance I have. A lot of those initial trials were only a couple of days long. So as they see me longer and longer, I felt like I had a better chance. I just wanted to go back and show them what I’ve got.

What parts of the transition to defense have been most difficult?

It’s a pretty natural transition for me, to be honest. Playing the defensive midfielder role, I’m essentially doing the same thing now at center back. I’m just deeper on the field and have more defensive responsibilities. I really thought the transition wasn’t too bad.

Just a couple nuances here and there that you have to pick up on. The coaching staff here, and in Harrisburg, has helped me out in that regard.

When I played, I was a defensive midfielder. And my favorite part about it was that I usually had someone behind me to clean up my messes. As a central defender now, do you ever look back and go, ‘Aw crap, there is nobody to bail me out.’ Or is it OK because you have Andre back there?

It’s not too bad. I have Andre behind me. He’s a good safety blanket I can always turn to.

There’s a bit more pressure. If you make a mistake, you look like a fool. So you have to be sharp in all your decisions and all your passes.

One of the things that’s always fascinated me about central defenders is that there are times when you have plenty of time on the ball but you still want to play very quickly. How are you making that decision to slow the ball down and look upfield or move it quickly across to Richie or Keegan? What variables are in play?

The coaching staff trusts Richie and myself enough on the ball. They trust that we can keep it. So if I can go forward, obviously that’s the first thing we want to do. We want to split lines. If we can knock out three or four of their attacking players with one ball, that’s what we want to do. But if that’s not on, next is just keep it. Go back to ‘Dre, or over to Richie.

Since you’ve become a defender, is there anybody in MLS or abroad that you watch now not because you necessarily like them, but because you’re impressed by how they play? You learn things every time you watch them?

I wouldn’t say there’s just one player in particular. I’ve been watching a lot more. I mean, I’ve obviously been watching soccer my whole life. But now I see myself studying a bit more. Watching how center backs turn their body. When they drop, when they step. Just taking that into account instead of just watching the game.

Who was your soccer idol growing up? 

Arsenal has been my team, so quite a few players from back in the day. All those French players.

Tell me a bit about the Dallas game. When did you find out you would be starting against Dallas. 

That’s a good question… we didn’t find out officially until the day before. So found out, was ready to play, get on the field. Not the result we wanted, but nice to get a debut.

I was at that game, and the strange thing was that it seemed like all of the things that you guys had talked about in preseason and that looked improved during preseason… just went out the window. And then you had a week to go, ‘Well that was a nightmare, we have to fix it.’ And you did it, you went out and beat Columbus. So can you talk me through that week. 

All preseason we played very well. We were able to keep possession and not allow many goals. We get to Dallas, and we came out a little shy and timid. We were a shell of ourselves. I’m not sure what… just the day… we weren’t ourselves.

So we just knew the next week we had to have confidence to play our game. That was the biggest talking point that week. We’re a good team, let’s go out and prove it. Don’t be scared, just go out and play.

So there wasn’t any, ‘Maybe the haters are right.’ Because there are plenty of people who wouldn’t have been surprised to see you guys go 0-3 or be lucky to get a point. The rebound was just so quick and so complete. You seemed like you were playing the way you wanted to play in Columbus right out of the gate. 

We’re a confident group. We know we’re good. And now we’ve had a couple of results to prove it. But at the same time, it’s still early in the year. We’ve got to keep working and keep grinding. Keep the results coming.

At this point, after three games, how comfortable are you with the speed of the MLS game?

After three games, I’m definitely more confident. But at the same time, MLS is a whole other game. From where I’ve been to where I am now… you have to always stay sharp.

If you fall asleep for one minute, you have guys like Kamara that’ll slip off your shoulder and score a goal. You’ve got to be constantly awake and talking and communicating. Making sure nothing bad happens.

On the communication front, it seems like you and Richie have it down so far. Is there anything unique about your partnership? Have there been aspects of your game you’ve adjusted to fit his game? And the same for him?

Every center back pairing is different. Richie and I have a good bond right now with communicating and covering. It’s not really that we change our games to each other, it’s pretty much that our games natural coincide, so it works out well.

From the outside, it looks like having you there has given him license to be more aggressive and chase strikers into midfield. Is that something you guys are aware of, that he can chase and you cover?

That’s just naturally what he does! He’s athletic and strong, so he’s able to step in and win a bunch of those balls. And if I see him stepping, I’m going to cover. Naturally. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And vice versa. If I step to a ball, Richie’s going to cover me as well.

And it’s been pretty natural? As a Liverpool fan, I’ve seen plenty of bad center back pairings that don’t look very natural. 

We’re friends both on and off the field. We have a good locker room. Not just Richie but the whole group. We’re all together.

Is that something that, in your experience, comes from the coach on down? Is it mostly about the players?

I think the coach has a lot to do with it. But the biggest part is the players. Guys that want to be there, that want to have fun and play. If you have a bunch of guys that are having fun and doing what they love, you’re going to have a good locker room.

Let me ask about Keegan on the other side of you. He’s brought a different dimension to the team. He can do a lot on the ball, obviously, but you guys seem to have developed a good relationship together as well. And you’ve both rebounded strongly from that Dallas game. Is there anything you guys have worked on based on that game? How has your on-field relationship evolved?

Really, to be honest, we don’t actually speak about it. It’s more just, I don’t want to keep saying natural, but we’re both good soccer players and Dallas was both of our first MLS games. So we were able to look back and learn quickly from Dallas to Columbus and now New England. The more we keep playing together, the stronger the bond will become.

In preseason, the things Jim talked about were keeping a tighter defensive shape, keeping a high line. When you’re on the field, what does that mean for you? What are you looking for to signal when you’re going to step up and close the gap with BC and Warren? 

There’s a bunch of different cues on the field that’ll tell you when to step. So if they play a negative pass, that’s a cue to step. When the ball’s bouncing, usually a cue to step. If you see the guy put his head down like he’s going to play a long ball, then you drop.

So there are a bunch of different cues that you read during the game. But in soccer, you have to make a bunch of decisions very quickly. So over the course of 90 minutes, there are going to be times when you just have to communicate with your teammates and make sure everyone’s on the same page.

When you dropped back into central defense, is there even more emphasis on you to be a constant communicator?

I think so. As a center back, I can see the entire field. As a defensive mid, or any midfielder, there’s guys that are running off their back, left shoulder or right shoulder. So I have to make sure I’m placing them in the right positions to make my job easier. Because if I don’t say anything and then they can play a ball through midfield, I have to work a lot harder than if I just opened my mouth and told someone to take two steps left. That’s a lot easier than chasing Kei Kamara 30 yards.

So it’s important not just because it helps generally, but because it saves you the run, too. One of the things the Union struggled with last year was set pieces. It hasn’t been an issue this year, and Andre’s looked great controlling his box. For you as a defender on set pieces, what are you thinking and trying to do right before the ball comes in? 

First and foremost, I want to win the ball. That’s my first goal. If I can win the ball, then we’re out. Clearance. Perfect.

But if it’s not coming to me, or in my general area, I have to put a body on my man. We man-mark, so if my man gets loose, that’s not good for me. So one: win the ball. Two: Make sure I have a body on my man.

And offensively, is it the same thing? One of my few lasting memories of Andy Carroll is seeing him holding Martin Skrtel’s hips, pretending to be invisible before corners. 

I don’t want to give anything away. I’m just trying to break free of my defender and if the ball comes into my area, get a head on it. I make my run, wherever I’m supposed to go. And if the ball is in my area: Attack it. And if I score… that’s awesome. But if it’s not in my area, I keep my run going because maybe the ball bounces and I score. So everyone has to make their run to make the play work.

You’ve spent a good amount your life in and around Philly. What’s your go-to food? Cheesesteaks? Something else you go after?

To be honest, I don’t really have anything. I like to cook.

What’s your signature dish? 

Chicken parm. I make a pretty good one.

What about goal celebrations? Everything I’ve read about you says you score with your head, you score everywhere you go. Do you have celebrations ready for Philly?

Not really. I’m very spontaneous after I score. Whatever I feel in the moment, that’s what’s going to happen. Last year in Harrisburg, I did a baseball celebration. And that was probably my best one.

The home run swing?

Yeah, that one was fun.

So final question: Tell me what it’s been like to meet Union fans so far. I started by asking you about your journey here, and now you’re on a MLS team which means you have these ‘Meet The Team’ events, and you see kids who honestly see pro athletes almost like comic book heroes. What do you think when you’re at events like that, and what do you think afterwards, thinking back on meeting kids who can hardly believe they’re meeting you? Does it sink in?

Yeah, it absolutely sinks in! It’s a great feeling. I remember when I was 5, 6 years old, going to MLS games, wanting to play at this level. I remember waiting to get signatures. I was idolizing these guys because it was where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do when I grew up. Fortunately, I was able to do that.

And now, it’s not lost on me. I know there are kids 5, 6 years old that look up to us. So I’m happy to take the time to meet fans, talk to them, sign autographs, take pictures. We’re really there for the fans because they’re awesome. These Philly fans are very supportive of us, and I feel like they will support us a lot this upcoming season.

Have you been recognized on the street yet? 

Not yet, no.

It’s coming, it’s coming. Thanks for taking the time to talk. Good luck this season. 


  1. Great interview Adam!
    I have to say, after hearing a bunch of interviews with a lot of the new faces on the team – Rosenberry, Yaro, Alberg, etc. – I can see what Earine was talking about when he said they really want to get to know and understand the player. Every new player I have seen interviewed so far this year seems so intelligent and thoughtful with their responses.

  2. i sat behind 3(!) rows of Tribbett supporters (mostly Drexel folk) at the opener. they were encouraging and mocking (kick out of bounds) throughout the match.
    must’ve been fun for him to have that support.

  3. *********DREXEL********

  4. Great interview, Adam, thx!

  5. Even though I had heard Tribbett’s name when he was at Drexel as being a good local player, I had no idea he spent his whole college career there as a midfielder. I made a comment in preseason that he sometimes just took off dribbling upfield, now I know where that urge probably comes from. If he does it again I’ll feel better knowing that’s a former MF-er doing it and not a clunky CB- haha. Good work Adam.

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