A View from Afar / Commentary

Ken Tribbett’s errors obscure larger facts in Union playoff loss

Photo: Daniel Studio

Ken Tribbett may have nightmares about Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco for years.

The best forward pairing in MLS — and maybe MLS history — hung five goals on the first-year MLS defender in the two games in which they paired against the Union.

If not for Giovinco and Altidore, most would probably think of Tribbett primarily for his success story in reaching MLS this year and becoming a regular starter for a playoff team. They would talk more about his aerial prowess, his dangerous attacking presence on set pieces, and his often solid defensive play throughout the year. Yes, they would recognize the bumps in the road that, like most first-year MLS players, the 24-year-old Tribbett experienced. But they would look at 2016 primarily as a solid first year in MLS that would likely be followed by improvement.

That conversation won’t be happening many places but here, unfortunately. Tribbett was repeatedly exposed by a pair of international caliber players — again. He wasn’t the first, and he won’t be the last, but it will severely damage his chances of winning a starting job next year.

To lose sight of the fact that Tribbett was solid much of the year and is at least MLS backup quality is short-sighted. He should have a place on next year’s Union roster.

But you also can’t deny that two avoidable Tribbett errors under pressure cost Philadelphia the margin of victory.

The collapse of the Union’s defense also revolves around Vincent Nogueira

Defense is a team effort, and the Union defense has been hurting ever since Vincent Nogueira left. The lack of a reliable, possession-oriented, and trusted fulcrum who could regularly provide a short outlet for the Union’s defenders repeatedly forced them to go long this year with passes. Further, it meant the Union were more often giving up possession rather than taking occasional and often necessary pauses on the ball that Nogueira tended to do in order to control the pace of a game. Instead of thinking about moving the game forward, too often they were thinking about backpedaling, which made a young back line only more jittery and added pressure to the mix..

This also had impacts farther up field. C.J. Sapong now had to focus more on collecting long balls out of the air, then holding possession long enough to find midfielders and finally heading off to find goal-scoring positions for himself. Add to that the fact that he’s the first level of defense, and with possession diminished without Nogueira, he was running around defensively that much more. We all know this situation hasn’t worked out well for him, as he went from near all-star level before Nogueira’s departure to goalless in the last two months.

Four months after Nogueira, we’re still talking about him, but that’s because you’re still seeing the aftereffects of the Union’s inability to replace someone who was clearly the team’s most valuable player. Doing that mid-season isn’t easy. The Union tried, but you can’t be surprised that they didn’t pull it off. Nogueira helped make ordinary players look good and good players look great. It was never all him, but that’s the nature of a team sport. Sometimes it all clicks, and then one piece goes away and it falls to pieces.

Toronto is a very good team

The Union may have lost to Toronto due to a pair of errors, but those errors were forced by pressure put on the Union’s back line by a very good team led by the best player in MLS history.

Toronto has more talent than any team in the league. They don’t merely have the best forward pairing. Their deep-lying playmaker is U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley, who is still in demand overseas, and they feature possibly the league’s best fullback pairing in Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow, one of the league’s better goalkeepers in Clint Irwin, enough quality central midfielders to fill two or three starting lineups, and one of the league’s most reliable center backs in Drew Moor.

Bottom line: They looked like the best team coming into the season, and if they can stay healthy through the playoffs, they’re still my pick to win the MLS Cup. They have tactical flexibility that few teams have, and the ability to switch to a 3-5-2 may challenge teams not used to playing against the formation. (Don’t underestimate how this affected the Toronto-Union match, by the way. It did.)

Finally, a farewell to arms

Conor Casey announced his retirement yesterday. Spare a moment of appreciation, because Casey was one of the more underappreciated players of his time. He scored 71 goals in 195 career MLS games after a five-year stint in Germany, led Colorado to an improbable 2010 MLS Cup, and upon joining the Union gave the team a jolt with some great stretches of play.

Casey came to the Union only after suffering a severe injury from which he probably never fully recovered, so Union fans only saw fleeting glimpses of Casey at his best. By then, Casey had slowed down significantly. But the big man’s pillow-soft touch on the ball remained, as did his ability to bury some absolutely amazing headers into the back of the net.

Here’s my appreciation of him last year, which remains one of my favorite pieces to have ever run on The Philly Soccer Page. (How often does sportswriting reference one of the greatest poems ever written?)

And here’s a look at how Casey improbably put the U.S. national team into the 2010 World Cup by scoring two goals and winning a foul that led to Landon Donovan’s game-winner against Honduras.


  1. Growing Pains ! I feel for Mr. Tribbett. I believe he should be given the opportunity to learn from this experience and allow him the chance to continue to grow with this club.

    • True, he is a rookie, and I have been critical of him through the year. I think that he will grow into the game, and wish him the best. I don’t think that the last change on Wednesday should have been for Rosenberry, however; I think that Tribbett was too shaken and should have gone. I look to see how the winter works for him, and would not see him cut.

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        thought hard about that move after it was made.
        1. You leave Rosen Berry to have to win aerial balls when Toronto was bunkering a little and might be doing a lot of long clearing.

        2. You leave Rosenberry to face Altidore’s physicality. Rosenberry lacks TRibbett’s leverage against the NFL linebacker.
        3. one of your chances to score to equalize is on a set piece, where Rosenberry is no threat to score because he is the deep safety and Tribbett is one of your better offensive headers.
        Giovinco and Altidore together are greater than the sum of the parts, the waterbug and the linebacker.

      • I agree that Altidore is a load to fight off, and wish that that load was ours. It is funny, I have never been all that impressed with him in the international game, but boy he kicks some Union butt. I like Rosenberry’s first touch much more than Tribbett’s and do think that Tribbett was very down on himself after the second of those goals; I saw the camera on him at one point and he looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights. I think that the confidence level was where I thought that he might even have lost the benefit of his height. Interesting issue on that change.

  2. Congratulations to Mr. Casey on a successful MLS Career.

    • I agree completely, and thank him for his time here. I always enjoyed seeing him banging around in the box. Good luck in retirement, and thanks for the memories.

    • Agreed! A real pleasure having him on the team and also a pleasure on the one occasion that we met. Great guy and wish him the best.

  3. Dan, I’ll see your Thomas and raise you Browning:

    The Union season was the success that we predicted at the beginning of the year, with a playoff appearance that we all would have been overjoyed to see before the first game was played. After their hot start, and I include myself in this, we lost sight of the fact that injury and reality dropped the team into the range where they likely belonged. Next year is different, however:

    Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp
    or what’s a heaven for?

    Thanks for the exciting year, boys, and next year the grasp will include more success than this year.

  4. Phil in Wilmington says:

    How do you solve a problem like Nogueira?

    I wonder if it would be possible for the Union to make a move for Darlington Nagbe, or find a player with his skill set? Someone who simply doesn’t lose possession with the ball at his feet and makes (and completes) the simple pass. I think He and Bedoya and Herbers would make a potent connection. That still leaves the need for a striker and a defensive mid, as I think the academy options are still a few years away from being ready to start.

    I know that there are a LOT of questions about the future of Maurice Edu, but I think his future is elsewhere. Now that he has had another major injury there’s no recouping value on him, but getting him off the books will give the ES some spending options. It’s sad, but it’s a business.

    I’d also be surprised to see Alberg and Ilshino back. Thoughts?

    As for the back line: I hope Yaro will come back the same player. I hope Tribbet will grow. Marquez is adequate. Fabinho and Roseberry had career seasons–it will be interesting to see if they can replicate that form.

    Lastly, I’m all for supporting the growth of American managers, but I think it’s time to move on from Jim Curtain. He’s growing, but I don’t think his ceiling merits more time at the helm. I’m not saying we need a Sigi Schmidt here, but personally, I want more than “well… we’ll work hard during the week and we’ll see.”

    • John P O'Donnell says:

      So start all over again? I understand how it worked for NYCFC when they changed managers but that isn’t the norm in MLS. The pigeons are a team led by older European DP’s. Expecting that here isn’t quite realistic. After flushing the emotions of disgust down the drain and looking at it for what it truly was, it’s hard to believe the Union were going any further than they achieved. The team had a first year starter in goal, three rookies that got significant playing time & a DP who never made it onto the field. It’s two best players saw one leave the team and the other battling a chronic knee problem all year.

      On the plus side, Brian Carroll & Fabinho gave more than anybody on this board thought possible to start the year. They signed a DP midseason for more money than we thought possible, yet he also took an injury and seemed ineffective as he tried to play through it.

      To close out the season in such a disappointing way it’s easy to blame Curtin. If they replace him, you’re certainly starting all over again. I believe he’s still the youngest manager in the league and for now he’s the most qualified to run the team if the philosophy of building with youth from the academy is the goal. If this team was close to winning the Cup and it was veterans underperforming, I could understand making the change. So for me it’s, “in Ernie we trust” still, and he appears to still have faith in Curtin.

      • I’d rather start all over again now, than in a year. The roster, once again (and probably while Ernie is here), will have a bunch of turnover. I’d rather have a new manager at the helm for that.
        I know Curtain is no tactician. I know Curtain can’t teach his back line to hold straight. I know Curtain does not make half-time changes (virtually none at all). His substitutions are late or not forth-coming at all. He runs his players into the ground. He is inflexible.
        If I subtract all that from what I want in a manager, all I’m really left with is a guy who is good with his players. Maybe good with young players. Which I find debatable cause all he really does is just throw them out there. KT didn’t improve. Marquez didn’t really improve from what I saw. Rosenberry was good, hit a wall and basically crawled to the end from being over-played.
        So what does Curtain really bring that makes him so valuable?

      • PhilinWilmington says:


      • John P O'Donnell says:

        So basically four coaches in eight years. That is what I think the problem is. Curtin looks like a good coach when he has the right personal and not so much when he doesn’t. I think a back line that is three rookies, one second year player and one old pro is playing just about as expected. Maybe you’re right but I’ll be surprised if he is gone.

      • Curtain is supposed to be a defensive minded coach. His words. He played CB for how many years in this league? So why can’t he get his back line to hold together? This has/had been a problem since the middle of the season. How does a defensive minded coach not fix this? Whatever excuse you might come up with is not good enough. It’s just not. Tie strings to each man in a line so they can feel the tug as one of them gets out of line. DO SOMETHING. Not 15 games+ of the same shit. Thomas Tuchel was having trouble with his CB’s holding on to the other team during set pieces. So he gave them tennis balls to hold during practice so they couldn’t do it. So they learned not too. He thought out of the box. Is Curtain Thomas Tuchel? No, he sure isn’t. But he could have tried something. He’s getting paid to try something. I’m sorry, but this little peeve of mine, alone, should be enough to get him fired.
        As to your point that you’d be surprised if Curtain got fired, I wouldn’t be surprised, but I’m also not expecting him too be. I think he will be here next season.

      • You have a GK who, while athletic and possessing incredible instincts, was in his 1st full year as a starter in professional soccer. He’s playing with a undrafted FA rookie CB, a 2nd year CB from a small D3 school, an outside back who has zero interest in playing D, and another rookie at outside back. The 2 best players on the team (both of whom led the team at CB and CDM or CM last year) played almost no games. What would you like the coach to do? Throw a uniform on himself? Get a GK with experience? If the GK is not up to snuff re: communication and command of his box (evident because of the back line’s performance and Blake’s youth), there’s nothing you can do, especially with such a young back line. It was a growing pains year. And don’t forget, Tribett wasn’t even supposed to play. Yaro (another rookie) was hurt too.
        “DO SOMETHING”. Good plan.

      • Do nothing is an even better plan then? Hey if the Union want to pay me to sit on my ass and watch a defense fall apart, I’ll take the money. But FYI I’m not the coach. I’m not paid to have the answers. So since you seem to have answers VDS, please explain to me How it’s Blake’s fault that Marquez drops deep and keeps people on-sides and how the coach gets absolved from this. And I’m not talking in the box, I’m talking 30 yards up field and Marquez only has to keep track of 3 players and still can’t hold a line.
        As for what I would like the coach to do…Rest players. Hows that for starters? Make all three subs before the 89th minute. Sit a fucking striker that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn! How about teach the back line to hold straight. Can I get him to do that at least? Maybe? Is that possible, or is the backline a bunch of toddlers that don’t understand instruction? Instruction that they should have had their ENTIRE careers.
        Maybe I ask too much. Oh dear.

      • round and round the mulberry bush we have gone All4U….. and here we are alas— in total agreement.
        Yeah for us.

      • In fairness, to myself, I never said Curtain was good or bad. I just hadn’t seen enough to make that decision. I think now I have. I still don’t think he’s really good, or really bad. He’s average.

      • Worked for RBNY too

      • John P O'Donnell says:

        Red Bull made the playoffs the year before. I wouldn’t say it worked for them. They also were not a young team.

  5. Tribbet was responsible for many more than 5 goals vs TFC

    I count at least 5 other games including DC where he was on the hook for 2. (NYCFC, Fire, RBNY, DC, RSL). He was subbed for 2x at half time because he was so poor. I am not sure if I ever saw a rating above a 5 all year. and Many 3 or below.

    He is not athletic enough or skilled enough for this league.

  6. Tribbett actually played quite well in the first half of the season. He was even aping Yaro’s ability to distribute a little bit. In the second half he came to earth with a crash. But I agree with you that he is certainly a backup caliber MLS player at least.

    I’ve said before, and I will say again, that this team reverted to its mean, playing above their level early on and below it late. And while we need a striker, an equally acute need is a veteran CB to stabilize and lead the backline.

  7. OneManWolfpack says:

    I liken Tribbett to a backup QB: If you have to use him for too many games, he eventually cracks. Tribbett is a nice, young player, but he should be the 3rd CB on the team next year. Yaro and Marquez are your starters, unless you add a guy you think is better than either of them.
    It might be kind of sad to say, but I am excited for this offseason. ES has some money to spend and some clear needs for this team. It’s the first time in a while, we aren’t saying “we need upgrades everywhere”.
    Maybe my soccer mind is not as refined as some others, but I just don’t see how Noguiera was the be all end all for this team, and once he left, it was all down hill. To me, this is where Curtin and the staff should have been able to stabilize the team… or figure out what to do. And the fact that they didn’t / couldn’t, speaks volumes.

    • Regarding your last point, Nogueira’s was a skill set – checking to the ball, retaining possession, great range of passing to switch play or begin attacks – that no one else on the roster could recreate. The only player that comes close to achieving it is Edu.

      This type of player is also indispensable to playing the style which mgmt professed as their philosophy which would guide the club from first team to the academy, that being the 4231, counter press, possession driven style.

      Essentially, the team was constructed to play some kind of 433 variant but had only one credible #8. Then they had zero. It may be a credit to mgmt for persisting with the philosophical rigidity they had imposed, as a show of good faith to supporters buying into the long term project ES is embarking on. However, I might argue that the available personnel were even more ill-suited to playing a two man midfield than they were a three man midfield.

      • Fantastic reasoning, IMO.
        Very interesting to me the number of posters who say, “yeah, losing Noguiera was tough but that’s not it alone…”
        when in fact the team played terrible nearly every time he was injured and have played terrible since he departed the USA… evidenced based practice…empirical observations- IMO this is undebatable.
        sometimes quite simply…one player IS the difference.

  8. tribbett simply cannot play at this level.

  9. With all due, I’ve watched Tribbett closely all year because I really did want him to succeed in this league, and my ultimate conclusion is that he is a serviceable 3rd CB but definitely not more than that and I don’t think it’s merely an experience issue. For me, his biggest problem is inconsistency to extremes in that when he’s good, he’s very good. But when he’s bad is disastrous and often leads to goals against or near goals against. Forwards can get away with that kind of inconsistency because they only need a few moments of brilliance but CBs need to be close to perfect the whole game or their mistakes will be punished by good teams. Tribbett currently is not a starting caliber CB and unless he shows moderate improvement that I don’t see happening, he’ll never be more than a 3rd CB to me.

  10. I really resent the scapegoating of a rookie cb for all our woes. The loss of Nogs is undeniably the biggest factor in our downturn. Well, that and Curtin’s insistence on starting Herbers over ilsinho, who is clearly much more able to retain possession and create, in order to relieve pressure on our defense.

    Did anyone else notice a marked decrease in Marquez’ game this year? His talent is being wasted without a veteran cb alongside him. Why didn’t Anderson play at all?

    I’m not a fan of either Tribett or Yaro starting with Richie. Yaro, to me, is just too small to be a true cb. But let Yaro and Tribett play in Bethlehem.

    I don’t think we need another midfielder, despite the loss of Nogs and now Barnetta. I think we need a veteran cb and a better striker. Start ilsinho regularly and play Alberg more often. I’m talking 60th minute every game.

    And send Edu away.

  11. MikeRSoccer says:

    I agree that Tribbett is an adequate MLS backup center back. However, Tribbett is 24, Marquez is 24, Yaro is 22(?), and Trusty is 18. Personally, I think the Union should look at trading Tribbett, if he is not taken in the Expansion Draft. The team needs a veteran CB to help the youngsters. Tribbett is just surplus to requirements in my opinion. If it is a backup center back who is making boneheaded mistakes as part of a growth process, I want it to be Trusty – not Tribbett. Trusty has a much higher ceiling, and I think Tribbet being on the roster only slows the development of Trusty.

  12. This comment thread might be dead, but did anyone see Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren recreate Tribbet’s bad clearance, which also pulled Keeper Loris Karius off his line to concede a soft header by Crystal Palace (on Saturday) to conclude what appeared to be a complete remake of that first Toronto goal against the Union? It was some serious deja vu.

    • It was similar……..but to compare Tribbett and Lovren in any capacity is laughable……..

      • It was, though, pretty much the same move…. Not saying Tribett can start for the Reds, just found the coincidence amusing.

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