Both is not an option: Curtin, Yaro, and Tribbett

Photo: Daniel Studio

So here Philadelphia Union are: Closing in on the end of August with no clear idea what their backline will look like for the playoff push. Joshua Yaro will almost certainly start on Wednesday, but only because Jim Curtin has tended to go with, not the hot hand, but the less-icy hand.

When will this rotation policy stop? Does it need to stop?

Curtin told Kevin Kinkead this week, “I’m a guy who likes a consistent back four. You try and find that during the year. I think you still learn little things in each game that they play together.”

This is not a unique view. More than any position save goalie, managers are reluctant to change a central defensive pairing. The logic usually breaks down like this: Defense is about coordinated movements such as stepping up to force an offside call or sliding across as a unit to keep static, narrow gaps between players. Organization allows big (lovable) lugs like Bobbys Boswell and Burling to survive in a league where so many teams utilize speed-oriented attackers. It also means Marvell Wynne’s pure speed isn’t as big of a value as it might seem at first glance because speed means little without positioning and coordination.

A “first choice pairing” will usually win out even if a third player is generally considered to have more raw talent. Thus, Peter Vermes can sit Matt Besler behind Ike Opara and Lawrence Olum, and Curtin can strongly justify continuing with Tribbett over Yaro.

Yet, Tribbett’s latest faceplant has led commentators to ask whether the value of a consistent partnership is truly greater than the value of matching size-on-size or speed-on-speed.  

Playing out the rotation scenario

In a best case scenario, center back rotation works out like this: Tribbett steps up against teams that play aerially into the box, while Yaro is called on against the trickier, speedier ground attacks. Come playoff time, Philly can match Tribbett to Montreal’s Didier Drogba and roll out Yaro against Giovinco (but wait, how do we decide who faces Bradley Wright-Phillips?).

This idea tends to fall apart when it runs into how Jim Curtin, and almost every coach on the planet right now, normally thinks about center back pairings. Curtin’s logic for sticking with Tribbett against Toronto — because Tribbett played well the game before — is not unsound. If a specific duo is playing well in central defense, that’s a very solid foundation to build on. Robert Huth and Wes Morgan at Leicester City are only the most recent example of how two central defenders can combine in a multiplicative manner. If Ken Tribbett helps shut down Didier Drogba over 180 minutes in the opening round of playoffs, is Jim Curtin going to turn around and say, “Great work, Ken. But I’m going to go with Josh next round.”

That would be an incredibly difficult and questionable thing to do (especially if Toronto, who could very easily post Jozy Altidore on Yaro, is the next opponent).

If, instead, the Union must make a choice and stick with it, then they have just under two months for either Yaro or Tribbett and Richie Marquez to begin building a partnership.

Why start now?

Soccer is as rife with gut decisions as a gastroenterologist’s office, so it would be easy to believe that the idea of “building a partnership” is merely folk wisdom. In the same way that managers are reluctant to rotate goalies, perhaps keeping a center back pairing together is simply an untested tradition.

Perhaps. But defense in soccer is a game built on reactions and communication. And there is plenty of scientific research to suggest that experience working with a teammate plays a big role in how well you both perform and adapt to novel tasks. Anecdotally, the “building a relationship” model is not exclusive to soccer defenders: Hockey coaches also seek to develop defensive partnerships.

In short, this seems to be an area where tradition and cognitive science agree: There is both immediate and long-term value to developing a central defensive partnership. From this point of view, Tribbett’s bad performance is less about something you can solve with a Yaro — like speed — and more about understanding how to react (Step up? Step back?) when the opposition recovers the ball in midfield after a long clearance. It’s about repetition and innovative practice drills. It’s about coaching, development, and time.

And here’s where things get a bit sticky, because one can argue that Philadelphia Union, as a club, have never really developed a defensive player. They got part of a great year out of Amobi Okugo. They promoted Sheanon Williams and then watched him plateau and fall off. Ray Gaddis, similarly, has been haunted by chronic positional issues and still relies on his athleticism far more than he should.

Let’s be clear: Developing a defender in MLS is hard. But it’s also worth it.

Sometimes a defensive pairing immediately clicks and there is no question about keeping them together. That has not been the case with Richie Marquez and either Yaro or Tribbett. Circumstances like Yaro’s injury and Tribbett’s periodic cliff dives have allowed Curtin to kick the can down the line over and over. But that simply isn’t feasible going forward.

Soccer is a team game, and thinking that you have enough control over what happens to match a single player up against a single player on another team is self-deception. Even assuming that you can play matchups with your players against the opposing team’s system is dangerous, as Rafa Benitez found out when he sacrificed shape and structure to attack AC Milan in the 2005 Champion’s League final, and as Pep Guardiola found out when he (his words) “f**ked up” with a 4-2-4 against Real Madrid in 2014.

Time is ticking

No, it’s time to make a decision. It’s time to develop a partnership that can last through multiple playoff opponents.

All season, Jim Curtin and Earnie Stewart have insisted they will play the same way no matter who lines up against them. That thesis is fundamentally undermined by adjusting your defensive personnel based on who you expect to play. Furthermore, it can potentially undermine the confidence of the players you rotate. At what point does Ken Tribbett start to believe that, unlike plenty of moderately athletic MLS center backs, he alone can’t handle speed? At what point does Joshua Yaro lose confidence in his ability to hang with bigger strikers?

Jim Curtin has a long history of supporting the guys he thinks are really buying in and giving their all to the system. His support of CJ Sapong has never wavered even as the striker has struggled for goals. Sapong still battles in midfield without ever pulling away and looking for a ball over the top, yet Curtin sticks with him, supremely and sincerely confident that Sapong is always about to turn the corner. Curtin stood by Andrew Wenger as the former number one pick spun his wheels in the same rut so long he probably still owes property taxes on it. But now Curtin has two central defenders who buy in hard, and who are willing to work, grow, and learn. So the decision isn’t made easier by the usual “who works his butt off more” heuristic.

Now the coach has to step forward, look carefully at what each guy brings to the table now and going forward, and make a decision: Who is the best player to install — right now — as the starter going forward? Who is the best partner to grow an understanding with Richie Marquez before the playoffs hit and only reps and coordination keep adrenaline from grabbing the mental steering wheel?

Curtin has done this before. He did it last year when he announced Ray Gaddis as the starter at right back. That wasn’t an easy call to make, but the Union coach made it and stuck with it to the point of trading Sheanon Williams (and watching helplessly when Gaddis’ form fell off a cliff).

Under Earnie Stewart, Philadelphia Union have been vocal in declaring that they are a club that will do things their own way, and find non-monetary advantages that other teams miss. The team’s shape and tactics — consistent and repeatable, if somewhat inflexible — are supposed to be two of those advantages. To play with a high pressure system, you need a consistent back four that believes they can counterpunch against speed, power, size, and anything else because they have organization and coordination. Playing matchups doesn’t just undermine the confidence of individual players, it undermines the entire system the Union want the players — at the pro and academy levels — and fans to believe in. And it undermines a coach who has bought into and genuinely believes in the idea of organization overcoming pure, expensive talent.

Jim Curtin can make big decisions. He’s done it in the past.

He needs to step up and do it again if Philadelphia Union are going to be a playoff team.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Good read.
    The root of my thesis has been if you have two different starting CB partnerships you don’t have one.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    In response to Toronto posting Altidore on Yaro, early in the second hal last Saturday, they did. You will respond that the urgency was gone, and it was. But, … While I have reviewed no tape and you have extensively, may Iencourage you to review the physics of the leverage that Altidore used successfully on both Tibbett and Marquez and his failure to do so on Yaro. He did try early on in half two. I was worried about it and was looking for it.
    My clear impression live is that Altidore crouches as he approaches a defender’s chest, and applies upward thrust as he makes physical contact, that is to say he attacks with lift. He is a strong man and can apply a lot of force. He knocked Marquez off balance once, almost toppled him. About Tribbett there is little need to comment further.
    But he failed with at tactic against Yaro because of two things. Yaro uses the same technique instinctively as a shorter player, and, Altidore’s usual crouch was too high to get leverage on the shorter man.
    Please review your tapes if you have time, and I will of course defer to your judgment. But what I describe is what I think I saw.
    Yaro is vulnerable in the air. But he is less vulnerable to power on the ground than you might think because he has the leverage advantage tha Altidore had been using.
    Altidore got underneath the “pads” – my apologies El P and many others – of the taller men and stood them up. With Yaro it was neutral, not advantage Altidore.

  3. Lucky Striker says:

    The problem with both players is that neither is a finished product. Edu returning solves the problem, but in the absence of that, they have no choice but match up if they hope to win.

    Just my own thought.

  4. Old Soccer Coach says:

    I agree with the bardic thesis. I suspect he leans towards Tribbett. My own instinct is that Joshua Yaro has a higher upside.

  5. Guys do you think Curtin favors Tribbet because he sees (in Ken) a player with a frame and skill set similar to his own?

    • el Pachyderm says:


    • Yes, for those reasons and for the fact that both played college ball locally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Curtin sees a bit of his former self in Tribbett.

    • I don’t know, either memories here are very short, or I’m just delusional, but didn’t YARO have some pretty bad looking games before he got hurt? (I gotta go back and look at the game ratings here)
      I agreee he has the upside by a mile, and I also agree I want to see him play as much as possible, but I think folks needs to re-check the track record and re-calibrate the near term expectations for Yaro. We may still be in for some more forehead slapping from that position.
      I don’t think JC was totally unjustified in giving Tribbett every opportunity to do something back there. I don’t think it’s as superficial as Tribbett plays because JC sees himself out there.
      That having been said, Yaro looked pretty good out there tonight. Happy to see it.

  6. Given the players’ respective pre-MLS pedigrees and performance to date, does anybody doubt that Yaro has greater upside?? I mean, it’s called “potential” because it doesn’t necessarily become actual; but still, the potential is with Yaro. So, if the Union really do need to pick, I’m not sure why this is even a question.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      Yaro is such a clean distributor of the ball for a team looking to increase its sophistication through possession that his learning curve and positional foul ups are totally worth it.

    • Agreed. As long as he’s healthy enough to play, I’d rather see Yaro get the bulk of playing time, starting tonight.

  7. Tribbetts mistakes are skill driven. Yaro’s have been experience. I re-watched the Chicago game from June and he simply cannot play at this level. Accam was at him all game (first half). He is THE target of opposition’s game plan and you can count upwards to 5-6 goals he has been directly or indirectly responsible for since then because of lack of skill with the ball, lack of speed or last week being outmuscled twice.

    Yaro is the first pick of the draft and he sits. Not good management.

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