For Pete's Sake

Time for changes on defense

Photo: 215pix

Philadelphia Union lost their third straight league game Sunday, another defeat in a season that seems destined for an eighth-place finish in an eleven-team conference.

It’s been a tough stretch for the team, which has suffered some unfortunate injuries and ejections — but also looked bereft of ideas on offense and lacking in passion.

Through this stretch, manager Jim Curtin consistently selected the same four defenders — Oguchi Onyewu, Jack Elliott, Fabinho, and Ray Gaddis. The four are not who anyone, looking at the roster in preseason, would have expected to be starters as the calendar creeps ever closer to July. Meanwhile, young players Josh Yaro, Keegan Rosenberry, and Giliano Wijnaldum have found playing time hard to come by.

It’s time for that to change. The Union’s young defenders offer quality on the ball that the veterans simply don’t, and they represent the team’s future.

For both the short-term and the long-term, changes are necessary.

Failing to pass

Good offense comes from good defense, the adage goes. And it does so in two ways.

One comes when good defense offers opportunities to counterattack, when the opponent meets a brick wall of defenders in front of your goal. The other is when you use your defenders to possess the ball, move the ball from one side of the field to another, and add an extra layer of danger to your attacking passing game.

Especially when you have a goalkeeper whose only weakness is in distribution, it is imperative that you have defenders who can create good offense from good defense.

That is — to put it mildly — not the strength of the Fabinho-Elliott-Onyewu-Gaddis foursome.

Only Elliott has demonstrated vision and skill enough to regularly play the ball out of the back. The other three show poor touch, limited passing range, or a penchant for making infuriating turnovers at midfield that lead to red cards. (Hi, Fabi.)

Infusing Yaro into the backline in place of Onyewu would give the Union another long-range passing threat. Of all the Union’s centerbacks, Yaro is the best on the ball — and with development he may become one of the best in MLS. His burgeoning chemistry with Haris Medunjanin, as seen in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup match, tantalizes with the idea of a Union team that can create from the defense.

Rosenberry and Wijnaldum are both upgrades over the starters in this category, too. Last season, Rosenberry showed a real comfort taking the ball up the wing, combining with centerbacks and wingers to generate offense. In two starts this year, we’ve seen similar smoothness from the young Dutchman, who also seems less determined to gamble the ball away on every possession than the older Brazilian ahead of him.

Making these changes would add some danger and pep to a Union team that seems bereft of both. Though Jim Curtin said after Sunday’s game that he thinks that chance creation is not the a problem, it’s tough to look at this squad — scorers of one goal in the last three league games — and conclude that opponents feel regularly threatened.

Adding passing skill, creativity, and ball control to the backline enables the Union to generate less predictable, more dangerous attacks – the kind that causes defensive confusion and leads to better scoring opportunities for service-starved attackers.

The future is now

The other problem with the current backline is a big-picture problem.

The Union’s stated goal is to develop young, homegrown, cost-controlled players.

Yet the average age of the current starters is 29 years old. Take out the rookie Elliott and it’s a sprightly 31.3.

Onyewu and Fabinho are near the end of their careers, and Gaddis is at or past his peak. We know exactly what we’re getting from them — and we know they’re not going to contribute to an MLS Cup run.

If the Union are going to develop their young players, that means giving them real playing time. That means more than giving them regular playing time in Bethlehem, or granting them only irregular spot starts with the senior team, or yanking them for one or two poor starts.

Yaro (age 22), Elliott (21), Rosenberry (23), and Wijnaldum (24) are part of this team’s future. They’re at the age where they should be playing regularly — making mistakes, learning, developing, and hopefully becoming players who can form the core of a championship team.

That may mean that, in the short term, the Union are a little bit more unstable defensively. That’s an acceptable price to pay. Growing young players means that sometimes you need to play rawer players over aging veterans, even if the older players will give you better results in the short term.

The young backline will make mistakes.

So be it. It’s the only way they’ll get better.

And the Union might even look like a more cohesive team in the process.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Bulls eye.
    Although I think KR is a complete liability defensively… I’d take Gaddis over him…
    One more thing that scares me about the coach is he doesn’t yet know who his best XI is especially in defense…. which is head scratching- cause there is ZERO chance Fabinho is better than GW.
    The only real youth movement in Philly will be the 6ers.

    • complete liability is complete hyberbole. KR shut down some great wingers last year.

      Players are allowed to have a bad run of form and deserve the chance to work through it. Sadly our coach sucks and doesn’t realize that.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Fair argument… he is not a very good defender though.
        At best average.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        The differentiator for me is how good he is 1 v 1 versus how good he is at making his center back and keeper better. The former is clearly a strength, but the latter is what’s keeping him off the field.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      For a team that preaches youth, “finding that diamond in the rough”, not spending big money, development, etc… the backline has to be KR-Yaro-Elliott-GW from here on out. What on Earth, would we have to lose? It’s a complete contradiction of what they say they are trying to do, to continue to start Fabi, Gooch, Ray, etc.
      Also, Curtin is starting to go back to the “blind loyalty” crap. Try some different lineups Jim… you lost 3 straight – all of which were winnable games

  2. This is on the coach. People have been screaming for change. I hate to say it, but that win streak was horrible in that regard. It gave him something to cling to with the current lineup. Your one point may have been the most cutting. There looks like there is no passion from the team. Give the other guys a shot. There will be mistakes but there may also be moments of great play. As it stands now, we are going nowhere.

  3. Agree. Time to play the kids. Sell off the overpriced overseas signings — Simpson, Alberg, Ilsinho and let the kids learn from Bedoya and Medunjanin. My gameday XI is Blake – Rosenberry, Elliot, Yaro, Wijnaldum – Bedoya, Medunajanin, Najem – Picault, Sappong, Epps/Herbers. I’d be more interested in a long-term project if I get to see the kids try than the same-old same-old vets failing week in and week out.

  4. we’re at the point where the playoffs aren’t going to happen (again). i’ll accept to keep jim, if he plays the kids. this team is devoid of creativity with his preferred gameday XI.

  5. This article leaves out 2 important pieces. Richie Marquez should be back on the pitch in his usual spot soon, shouldn’t he? When that happens I hope Elliott stays on the pitch and Gooch takes a seat.

    And will we ever see Mo Edu in a Union uniform again? I haven’t heard anything about his status in awhile. Whatever his failings, Mo can play the ball forward.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      yaro and elliot are the best combination. IMO Richie Marquez is a bench player.

      • Tim Jones says:

        Now think a minute, you are the opposing coach. How do you attack Elliott and Yaro?
        My answer is power. Jody Altidore. Kei kamara. Will Bruin.
        Yaro faces leverage issues.
        Elliott needs strength.

      • Mr. Jones and me are in agreement on this. While Yaro and Elliot may be our CB combo with the best ball skills, we will get eaten alive without one of Gooch or Marquez in the lineup by teams with big physical strikers that are the norm in this league. Both will be easily pushed off the ball, Elliot looks like twig out there, and Yaro is too short to win balls in the air.

    • Marquez plateaued hard. I want to see Elliot – Yaro now.

    • The Chief says:

      I think it should be Marquez and Yaro. Quite frankly I blame Elliot for both of those goals we gave up to NY. Plus, he just doesn’t have the body yet he’s much too thin. I like his passing, but Marquez gives up the steadier defensive prescence, athleticism, and offensive heading (despite Elliot’s height).

      • Lets stop pretending that our D was anything but bad when Marquez was in there. We have constantly blamed his partners for these issues but have looked better whenever he’s not out there. The only time he’s really looked good back there was when he had the Edu security blanket.

  6. I think Marquez would have had the grit to intercept at least one of the crosses that BWP scored on in the NYRB game. No, he’s not a great passer, but he’s our toughest and most staunch defender. He loses his man on set pieces sometimes, but JEEZ, can’t Curtin teach him how to handle those? Curtin is the coach, right? Right?

  7. Andy Muenz says:

    I can understand Gooch playing last Sunday given that Yaro had played 90 on Wednesday which was his first start of the season. That being said, I’d like to see Yaro play on Saturday. My only worry, though is that he and Elliott both seem more comfortable on the right. As I mentioned in one of my responses yesterday, it may make sense to hold off on playing both together until after the upcoming break so they can put some extra focus on that during practice. I also think it would be good for Yaro’s development to get a couple of games next to Gooch.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Remember, Onyewu shut out BWP in the win over Red Bull’s. That would weigh in the decision-making scales.

  8. They’ll give up 3+ goals a game with that backline. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying this. It may be time for Wijnaldum to get a look, and I’d go Yaro over Elliott. But no Gooch or Gaddis in the back is a recipe for disaster. And that will lead to guys like Haris and Bedoya asking for a trade real quick.

    Again, it’s panic on the PSP site. Review the last 2 losses. On the road vs NYCFC where they were missing Bedoya and Jones. And in the course of the game, Gooch, Ilsihno, and Creavalle were injured. Eliott had to play the 6 and Yaro who hadn’t played 1 minute since February had to come in next to Richie who hadn’t played in 6 weeks. And in the 78th minute, we were still WINNING 1-0…on the road.
    On Saturday? Union controlled the 1st half and had better chances, even without Bedoya available. And then, a red card ejection that wasn’t warranted (player made contact with the ball before Felipe was even there and then barely grazed Felipe who once again duped a ref), led to the dam breaking in the final 5 minutes after holding down the fort for 35 minutes a man down in 90+ degree weather. So now we’re going to tank the season?

    How about everyone take a deep breathe, let the DC and New England games at home play out, and then we’ll see where we’re at.

    • I can’t speak for everyone, but my call to “play the kids” isn’t induced by panic. Panic would mean I’m afraid of losing something. That’s not the case for me. I think most of us can agree this team’s ceiling is a .500. Whether it gets to the playoffs will be more a reflection of how many tams manage to be worse than that mark than any sort of accomplishment by this squad. I hate typing those things, because I still like the team, the coach and the players. I just don’t think the combo works, or that it’s capable of winning more games than it loses. I can’t at all get excited about fighting for a 6th place playoff birth.

      No, it’s not panic. It’s clarity.

  9. Zizouisgod says:

    “Philadelphia Union lost their third straight league game Sunday, another defeat in a season that seems destined for an eighth-place finish in an eleven-team conference.”

    Woah, that’s an optimistic outlook for the Union right now.

  10. Agreed about yaro/Elliot both preferring the right side. Get Marquez back in at LCB with yaro at RCB and kegan at RB.

    Work towards the future pairing of Wijaldum, Elliot, Marquez, roseburry.

    P.s. sorry for spelling

  11. Also, with our current players I’d like to see an experimental lineup (one implimented after proper coaching/practice)….


    I think that the formation fits our players that we currently have much better than what we have been playing. Get two strikers on the pitch to work off each other and let a midfield of Harris, bedoya, Jones control the center of the park and counter with speed.

    This formation would allow us to control the middle of the field and progress the ball forward with triangle passing/movement. We would conceed space on the wings but with Marquez in the middle of a back three we would be good with clearing crosses out

  12. Andy Muenz says:

    Dumb question, but does anyone know the status of Wijnaldum’s health after he left the game early on Wednesday? That could be a reason he didn’t play on Sunday (in addition to the fact that he had played about 80 minutes Wednesday).

  13. scottymac says:

    “in a season that seems destined for an eighth-place finish in an eleven-team conference.”
    I’m excited to hear who we pass!
    Also, arguing Marquez v Yaro v Elliott is akin to which deck chair on the Titanic will get you the best view. These things sort themselves. ICE will deport Elliott in a raid or Yaro will get an ice cream headache with concussion symptoms from a Rita’s raid. Doesn’t matter.

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