Union must be smart, not reactive, in addressing the defense

Photo: Earl Gardner

The gritty defensive displays that turned MLS Cup into a long slog to penalties have focused attention on Philadelphia Union’s options in back. After entering the season’s June break with a one game-one goal against target firmly in sight, the Union’s defense cracked, crumbled, and bumbled its way toward the bottom of the league. Even with the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year in net, the defense was powerless to stop powerhouse offenses like…Chicago Fire.

When evaluating Philadelphia’s defensive issues, the simplest approach is to look at individual mistakes. This is the tactic that led many, myself included, to assume the Union would leave Fabinho unprotected in the previous expansion draft. Instead, Philly opted to protect their left back and dangle Pedro Ribeiro, who was promptly snatched up by Orlando and is now without a contract. Fabinho, meanwhile, still makes mistakes. But a serviceable outside back is a valuable commodity in MLS, and the Union were right to protect their asset.

Individual mistakes can lead to financial mistakes

Individual mistakes rightly draw the eye, but they should not necessarily draw the checkbook. As Jurgen Klopp recently argued when defending a mistake his goalie made, “I found eight players who could have defended the goal before Loris [Karius] was involved.” The Union played with young, inexperienced center backs because they planned to play with young, inexperienced center backs. As a club that seemed a year or more away from competing for a cup, Philly felt the freedom to rotate two rookies and a developing third round draft pick (who wasn’t even the first center back Philly selected that year). Playing with youth means allowing for a greater volume of errors, both positional and on the ball. Joshua Yaro, Ken Tribbett, and Richie Marquez certainly collected their fare share of lowlights in 2016, but again: That was, or should have been, part of the plan.

Zooming in on central defense as a position of high need this offseason would be like lifting weights for a year with the goal of picking up something heavy (Peter Nowak’s ego, for example) then hiring someone to pick it up for you. The overarching goal when playing developing players is, and should always be, development. That was the implicit commitment Union brass made at the start of the past season, and it must remain in place, despite salient in-game mistakes. In 2017, the Union defense will be one year older and, if the coaching staff does their job, one year better. Adding a veteran piece to replace departing hanger-on Anderson is a smart move, but it need not be the focus of the 2017 offseason, nor even a major storyline.

The situation is more important than the personnel

To improve the defense, the Union need to improve the midfield. As impressive as the defenses were in MLS Cup, the bigger takeaway is that the match featured two of the absolute best shielding midfielders in the league. Michael Bradley’s evolution into a smart, disciplined midfield anchor allowed Toronto tactical flexibility to get the most out of their roster. And Ozzie Alonso, coming off injuries that made Seattle wonder if he was worth keeping around, used Jedi mind tricks to get away with five fouls in less than 70 minutes without picking up a caution. Both players were instrumental in allowing their defenses to handle the speed and power of the opposition attack, yet when a defense struggles attention turns immediately to the back four, and not the players in front of it. (And the defensive midfield position pales in importance to the bigger tactical issues Philly encountered as the team tired and floundered even after adding the talented Alejandro Bedoya to the roster.)

Heading into 2017, the Union have a long list of names on the depth chart at defensive midfield. Unfortunately, not one name is associated with a player who can perform the duties Philly needs from the position. Maurice Edu has the physical tools, but his physical toolbox has been and remains broken. Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle both proved to be human coin tosses that could elevate their games at times but failed to provide consistent solutions in 2016. Derrick Jones is gifted but raw, and that’s not a combo the Union lack in the back half of their team right now.

To compete going forward, Philly needs to apply resources to the area of the pitch that is easiest to overlook: Midfield. The dream Nogueira-Barnetta-Edu group will never play together. Scope the current roster and pick an ideal trio to start next season. Bedoya (if he even belongs in midfield)… and…

Many of the individual errors Philly defenders made last year come down to being put in bad situations. As the season wore on, opposing teams found it easier and easier to transition at speed through the center of the pitch, and once a defense is backpedaling they are at a disadvantage. The Union can hope to replace Tranquillo Barnetta with Roland Alberg, or perhaps with Bedoya, but they cannot spend another season treading water and hoping Mo Edu’s body comes good. But they also cannot scrap their defensive project simply because a group of young players didn’t perform like vets. Remember: That was, or should have been, the expectation. Instead, Philly needs to find real talent at defensive center mid, either by shopping in-league (e.g., Dallas’ Victor Ulloa) or abroad. A strong holding midfielder has a better chance of addressing the team’s deeper strategic and shape-based issues, while even the strongest central defender will struggle without adequate protection (think of a good quarterback with a porous offensive line).


Even though the Union scored a lot of goals last year, there is still a clear, undeniable need at striker. In other words, sometimes the most obvious indicator of where resources should go is not also the most reliable indicator.

Though some commentators will look at MLS Cup and at the Union’s central defense and imagine that a simple equation emerges, this is not the case. Philadelphia Union have a long-term plan in back, and they can buttress that plan with smart, affordable, depth signings.

The Union do not, at least not based on the roster as it stands, currently have a long-term plan in midfield. This is where resources should go if the club views their defensive struggles from a broad, holistic perspective.

Will they?  


  1. Good read and a pretty sound argument.
    There’s no question the Union midfield is an issue…two of the teams best players left and the DP has missed an entire season and who knows where Bedoya should play.
    ~~ that said,
    I’d rather have the stud CB for the next 6-8 years to pair with Yaro, putting Marquez to the bench as a very serviceable 3rd defender and give DJones valuable minutes as much as possible assuming he is MLS ready. Otherwise…I’m afraid to really buy in to this notion of Academy to First Team leap. For me to believe- I need to see the commitment to a 19 or 20 year old playing… it happens all over the world- do it. He’s either good enough or not… I’ll live with the errors.
    Truthfully the most troubling part of this for me—- is the entire team is an issue… save one or two positions. We’ve been at this for quite awhile, and are rebuilding a life after a near fatal car wreck thanks to the previous regime… and I understand that and I understand the team is only 6 years old- but come on. The end of the season was a really sour smelling sulphur– that the holy robot of MLS Playoffs did nothing for my olfactory senses. There was no accommodation to the stinky smell and lingering WTF sense I have waiting around to see what happens….Play well… Find your core…
    Not looking for this team to make the jump anywhere next season except to figure out WHO this team is and WHO the core of the team is…and to play well… The whole playoffs arguments mean nothing when we’re standing here in December with a bag of nuts a few hex bolts and no idea what our team is.
    Dear Sporting Director I trust you but….. the clock is ticking — 18 months was the number and you are now entering month 11.
    I don’t know maybe I’m impatient…I want the 6 week window in May when this team displayed a sense of the Beautiful Game before Copa ruined it all… every week. I want to be able to breath.
    Good luck Gentlemen.
    Vision. Philosophy. Plan.

  2. It shouldn’t be a secret that our defenders shortcomings were greatly magnified once Nogs wasn’t around to bail them out of tight situations.

    • pretty much…everything changed- including the ability to play through the lines.
      makes me wonder if even more patience is necessary in light- I guess, of the front office expecting Noguiera to be here, hoping Edu got healthy and maybe having Barnetta stick around. Literally have to start over… so maybe I should walk my timeline back a bit. IDK.

      • It’s going to be a tall task this winter. We need to sign a starting caliber striker and at least one change changing midfielder.
        Luckily we have about a million dollars in open salary (with Barnetta, Anderson, and Nogs coming off the books) and I think 800k in TAM available?

      • Old Soccer Coach says:

        Kevin, Barnetta doesn’t count t full salary under the salary, only that portion of his salary that was not bought down with either TAM or GAM.
        You have to correct about Anderson because his salary was the lower threshold of TAM eligibility, if and only if memory serves.
        Nogueira I can only speculate. He number would have been eligible for TAM but there’s no way I can figure to guess with any intelligence.

  3. Part of the problem I had with the CBs was the pairing of Marquez and Tribbett in that there style of play did not complement each other. Yaro complemented Richie much better but unfortunately kept getting injuries. Hopefully Yaro stays healthy and can become the player everyone thought he would be.

    Fabinho should be nearing his end of days for the Union. Main reason is his best quality is not best suited for the Union, and that is him sending balls into the box. When we had Casey and his ability to get a head on the ball it was a dangerous play. Now CJ and company do not threaten the box in the same way and play better with the ball on the ground then in the air.

    Keegan just needs to continue to grow. I think he was overused last year as he seemed to hit a wall and slid down a bit at the end.

    Figuring out the midfield, though, is the biggest area of need. If we would have had the midfield we expected (Nogs, Barnetta and Edu) we could have put Bedoya on the wing which I think is his best position. Now we maybe/possibly have Edu sometime next season. Is Bedoya a CAM? Not sure because he had an awful first touch last year (which is less obvious on the wing).

    • He played CAM in France. I think in a defense first, high press system I think he could pull it off, IF we can get a lot more offense out of the forward position.

  4. So I can’t disagree with the assessment that we need a number 6 I have agreed with it for awhile as Carrol began to get older. They never brought the right person in to take his place and had many opportunities. Hence why the team can not play without Carrol on the field, but to say we don’t really need any CB help and we shouldn’t spend there I think is a missed opportunity. If Edu refuses to play CB we most definitely need a veteran presence and there are options out there out of contract. This is the time to grab someone on the cheap to pair in the back and give them time to gel. I do not and will not trust Yaro in the back till the kid gets some confidence and I think he should do the in USL. Regardless of what people thought of Tribbet shortcomings he clearly has a short term memory and will go up against anyone anytime he should be your bench player. With Marquez and a veteran starting.

  5. I haven’t read anyone arguing CB is job 1. It is however, necessary to sign a veteran (not old but experienced) CB. Marquez is ok, Tribbett is an adventure and Yaro is another concussion from being Twellman (he’s also frankly too short and should be a CDM but whatever). So…there’s risk.
    There are a lot of holes in this team.

    • @scottymac – I linked to an article arguing that CB is priority #1, and one arguing that signing a good veteran CB should be a priority. As I wrote, I think adding a veteran CB is a smart move, I just don’t think it’s the move you need to prioritize if you want to really address the team’s defensive issues.

      • My bad – I can’t discern the black/blue on this laptop as well. Yeah, JTs article is one man’s view. He was also shocked the U didn’t protect McCarthy, so do that as you will.
        So we’re in violent agreement, it’s important, but maybe not job 1. Honestly though, people seem to assume this team goes upward just because. We made the playoffs on GD and were just a point in front of 8th. ATL’s ambition is a shot across the bow and this team needs to respond.

      • @scotty – Haha! I’ll definitely take “violent agreement.” And I agree with you further: Many other teams are better set up for a likely step forward next season. Orlando, Atlanta, NYC, Columbus. That’s why I thought it was interesting to see the focus on CB when a step back reveals so many other issues that, in my view, may be more difficult to solve and should take priority.

  6. Old Soccer Coach says:

    From comments made by Brendan Burke to Dan Walsh at the general period of end of September, Burke does not see Derrick Jones as a #6. He sees him as an #8.
    Unless you want Bedoya to continue at #8 and find a #10 instead. Jones is THE ONLY #8 on the first team roster.
    Jim Curtin said in so many words at the YSC open house that he expected Jones and Trusty to compete for minutes with the first team next season. But Jones was learning #8 last season I believe I know from the comments to Walsh referenced earlier. He has yet to debut in MLS.
    The top priority is a starting #8. Do your due diligence. Draw up an actual depth chart. If I’m wrong, correct me.

    Think about why they protected Warren Creavalle.

  7. Lucky Striker says:

    Are they ready to at least win more games than they lose? Time for e-Stew to “start there”….

    Adam’s overall commentary is more than fair, but if the commentariat is beginning to cast votes for most important festering wound to heal, let me argue for Caddy CAM as job 1. What we know about Rigid Jim above all speculation is that he plays who he knows and loves above all else. It occurring to me that Ale stands to miss a great deal of time due to cards, injury & call-ups……if your answer in the breach is going to be Alberg-please feel free to stab yourself in the eye with a tuning fork.

    I’ve seen the Union with bad defense and a rivet-pivot. Sucked, but mildly entertaining in a car crash kind of way. Watching them attempt to operate their 4-2-3-1 without a playmaker is worse than waterboarding. Landing a legit LCB to partner Marquez and allowing Yaro to be forced forward into the pivot before he’s turned into a permananent waterhead is next. A placeholder #8 that allows Bedrock to ease into the triad is wise. Afterall…..Broken Mo will be back….someday…..

    After that, try to find Sap some minute-eating help that’s cheaper and better single-high than Davies, and finish with some wing-speed off the bench better than Ayuk and Herbers if you are serious about competing. I’ll live with Alves/Gaddis and the rest for another year until you feel better about dumping the contracts. Finally; LeToux? Just say no.

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