Yaro and Rosenberry remain full of potential, in need of progress

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Since the Georgetown standouts were picked 2nd and 3rd in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, there has been a guarded, anxiously hopeful expectation that Josh Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry would, at some point, form the right side of Philly’s defense for years to come.

Yaro’s injuries have slowed his development, and Rosenberry’s confidence crisis — embodied by a positional paralysis that was, frankly, stunning to see earlier this season — meant he took a step back in 2017.

But these players still have plenty of upside, even if neither has been able to put it all together since early last season.

Yaro and the limits of athleticism

Yaro’s main assets remain his athleticism and comfort on the ball. These are a solid foundation for a MLS centerback, but they can also become crutches. The big test for Yaro going forward will be his ability to read the game and put himself in positions where his speed is an asset and not a superpower deployed to save the day.

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Above, Yaro is slow to read that he needs to step high to snuff out this play, and Bedoya almost drifts over to help, which would leave his man open. But Yaro’s speed is such an equalizer that he’s on the ball before it can be turned upfield.

In this case, speed is extremely useful. But Yaro’s read must be quicker — or the center back must be more vocal — so Bedoya doesn’t try to do too much and end up lost in space. This is a case in which Yaro’s speed can allow him to delay his forward movement until the man on the ball commits to a pass. However, this is only a positive for the Union if the rest of the team understands that this is Yaro’s plan. To the extent that Bedoya believes his young defender is leaving the open runner, it creates havoc in midfield.

In other words, this type of play could be a preview of the skills that could make Yaro a unique contributor going forward or it could be foreshadowing Yaro’s reliance on his speed to make up for a slow read.

Fans will need to wait to see what Yaro becomes, but this is a clear reminder that the Union have a player with immense potential but a lot of learning still to do.

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In this clip, Jack Elliott steps into midfield to attack a pass, and the loose ball falls to an Atlanta player to womp over the top for the exceptionally zippy Josef Martinez to chase.

Once again, Yaro’s speed here is breathtaking: Most other center backs would be — ironically, given what happened later in the match — grabbing for Martinez’s jersey.

But if Yaro steps forward as Elliott attacks the ball, he puts Martinez offside. The Union’s back line has never shown the coordination to pull off this kind of offside trap, but it’s a necessary step forward in the future to prevent the constant retreat sprints the club asks of its midfield and wings in the current deep defending setup. Those sprints may or may not contribute to Philly’s inability to close out matches, but they unquestionably drain the energy reserves of a squad that already has difficulty staying focused.

Yaro’s ability to cover ground is impressive, but his decision-making remains an issue of huge concern. This is not to say that the center back cannot improve in this area: He’s young and he’s getting minutes, so the situation is ripe for the player to learn and grow from mistakes. But it’s not a given, and Philly’s coaching staff can answer questions about their ability to develop talent by showing that they can help Yaro’s speed of thought match his speed covering ground.

Yaro on the ball

For a player with such immense potential on the ball, Yaro also tends to go from calm to wild in record time when closed down.

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The big question here is whether Yaro can find a balance between patience and risk that allows players ahead of him to find space without exposing the ball to defenders.

He has the ability. Watch here as Yaro draws in defenders then finds a long line-breaking pass to Tranquillo Barnetta.

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Or, again, as he pulls defenders close then finds the space left behind by an aggressive defense.

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These are the moments that truly, speed aside, make Yaro a prospect worth developing.

Still, Yaro’s Union career has thus far been marked in nearly equal measure by these moments of class and moments of self-destruction. Breaking lines from the back is a wonderful answer to pressure, but three red cards in 19 starts is a worrying way to begin a career.

Rosenberry’s back

Keegan Rosenberry’s return to the lineup gives a chance to remind Union fans what the young defender can bring their side.

The answer? Well… exactly what was expected.

Rosenberry’s defensive reads remain an issue. He tends to let the movement of the other team guide his decision-making instead of leaning on the team’s system as a template. Unlike Yaro, though, Rosenberry does not have plasma jets in his heels that can propel him across time and space at unfathomable speeds.

This is not damning, though. Or at least it doesn’t have to be. A fullback like Rosenberry is hardly a luxury in the modern game; his ability to provide width up the pitch and pick out dangerous longer passes will become even more important as wingbacks become more common in the next few years. And the big test for him was never going to be whether he could fit into a professional attack, but whether he could play within himself defensively enough to provide a net positive when on the pitch.

Last season: Yeah.

Early 2017: …

But the truth is that right now the Union need Rosenberry to step up. Ray Gaddis is imperfect, but he provides strong defensive support to Yaro and/or Jack Elliott. However, Gaddis’ limitations on the ball are exacerbated by Philly’s lack of central support to the wings.

Rosenberry can help.

Though plays like this one

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stand out in memory, Rosenberry spent a good portion of last season successfully completing risky passes through the middle. And he had to, because the Union were not providing less risky options.

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Above, you can see Rosenberry at it on Saturday. Being able to play balls like that one allows the Union to get out of trouble even though they do not support the wings well, and it makes Rosenberry a crucial asset to develop going forward.

Additionally, the fullback can time his attacking runs far better than Gaddis. Against LA last season, Rosenberry’s quick-thinking outside run draws a defender and opens space for Barnetta in the channel. The key going forward is to help the fullback identify when it is safe to make these runs without slowing down his decision-making process to the point where the run arrives too late.

But to feel safe putting Rosenberry on the pitch, Philly needs to see improvements in areas like the one below.

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Here, the fullback has support from Bedoya, yet he still respects the inside player on Atlanta. If he has already assessed the situation, Rosenberry would understand that with the ball carrier facing away from goal and Bedoya in support, he has an opportunity to play tight to his man and potentially force a turnover. Instead, he arrives late and has to scramble to force Atlanta deep. Even so, playing the ball backwards is a win for the visitors considering that a good read could have meant a turnover near the halfway line.

Looking back to light the way forward

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Above, you can see Rosenberry and Yaro paired together against San Jose in early 2016. Rosenberry gets caught between two options and Yaro offers no guidance or support. This leads to Rosenberry moving right while Yaro is slow to step to the ball receiver, despite the fact that the original pass comes from a player facing away from goal, so Yaro should feel safe to step up.

Both defenders have suffered setbacks since this moment, but at some point in 2018 the Union need to be able to put these players in situations like the one above and have them make good reads quickly and efficiently. Otherwise their prodigious attacking skills will all be in service of making up for defensive errors.

The major benefit of employing a defensive strategy more complex than full-field man-to-man marking is that it should provide mental shortcuts that grow out into physical shortcuts. In other words, you don’t have to chase guys all over the pitch if, instead, you know what cues to read in order to anticipate the movements of your teammates and your opponents.

Philadelphia Union are often forced to rely on physical effort to make up for slow defensive reads, and this is most apparent in how their young players behave on the pitch. But these young players are not dumb; in fact, they are likely swinging between overthinking each moment and getting locked in on the ball.

Right now, Yaro and Rosenberry are not ready to anchor a MLS back line. But they could be. And whether they develop — and how quickly the club believes they can develop — will be a huge part of deciding how Philly allocates resources in what has now become an almost unimaginably important offseason transfer window for Philadelphia Union. 


  1. Unfortunately this squad has never utilized those “mental shortcuts” with any sort of consistency. Brian Carroll comes to mind as an individual who wore the blue & gold and understood he couldn’t physically compete but he knew his mental game would help his team. Right now on the field you see a product that mentally falls short and physically gives out. It’s simply crushing.
    edit: Good piece, Adam, thanks for this positive outlook. Unfortunately I think Yaro’s size and injury history will hold him back forever.

  2. Ruth WININGER says:

    What do you think of Herbers future with the union once he has recovered?

    • @Ruth – I think his ceiling is a winger that gets 7-8 goals and a handful of assists a season unless his touch improves to the point that he can operate in tighter, central spaces. It’s not that easy to find real offensive production in the draft, but Herbers did it last year. If he builds on that, he should return to a first-guy-off-the-bench role with spot starts. His movement and intelligence are very good considering his lack of experience, but I think it’s hard to envision him as a regular starter for a contender. But a key supporting piece? Yeah, for sure.

      I’m also very open to being disputed on this!

  3. With Rosenberry, we’ve seen the potential upside to know that he is unquestionably worth developing. This is also clearly true with Jack Elliott. It is probably true for Giliano Wijnaldum, if only because left back is such a weak position in MLS that you kinda have to grade on a curve. Heck, I’d even say that it’s true of Richie Marquez, who was really quite good for about a year and a half.

    But we have yet to ever see that level of performance from Yaro. Flashes of talent, in the form of individual great passes, recoveries, and occasional strong matches, are then overwhelmed by horrible mistakes (and injuries). It is just not clear to me that he is worth investing in, especially with Elliott and Marquez around.

    • agreed. i’ll give Yaro the remainder of the season and offseason to achieve consistent quality. understandably it’s been a rough year returning and i’m not ready to give up on him.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      I think we remember the Richie’s performances next to Mo at CB more than we do the ones where he was next to Ken Tribbett, and for obvious reasons. It’s unclear, though, that he’s significantly better than Yaro right now, but should clearly be one of the group of CBs the team keeps moving forward.

  4. Adam, how do I get you up to Lehigh — or to watch some tape — of Aaron Jones?
    Is he in the mix with Rosen berry at right back is the question we who are outside the organization need to attack, and I simply do not read the subtleties of defensive reads well enough to make the judgment.
    I doubt Yaro would learn the reads at the USL level because his athletic superpowers would allow him to succeed, certainly against the teams that are middle of the pack and lower.

  5. I should also mention Hugh Roberts at center back. He is an effective USL player.
    Since the organization has not shipped him out mid-season as they did his predecessor, I assume he is showing adequate development, but I doubt my ability to assess that directly as opposed to infer it from the actions of others better qualified.

  6. Zizouisgod says:

    “Right now, Yaro and Rosenberry are not ready to anchor a MLS back line.”

    The optimal question is do the Union have four defenders that you think can anchor a back line for the remainder of ’17 and into ’18?

    Also, this is sort of a related question to your post, Adam. An often overlooked role of a centerback is their ability to organize the back line as well as the defenders in front of them. Telling people when to step up, drop and track a runner. A vocal and experienced goalkeeper can also play this role, but most of the time, it’s a center back.

    Between Elliott, Marquez and Yaro, do you see any of them being able to be that type of defender? I excluded Trusty from this group because he hasn’t played much with the senior team as well as Tribbett because…well, it’s Tribbett.

    Thanks, Adam

    • @Zizou – This is incredibly hard for me to answer! I tend to think that, generally, if someone plays the role of backline leader/organizer, it tends to come out in interviews with those that play with them. For example, I think there’s been a lot more talk (though I haven’t saved the quotes, so… just memory here) about Blake growing into a more commanding presence on the pitch this season than in the past. And there was always talk of Marquez being a good vocal leader (though whether that means he’s actually advocating the right thing in any moment is less clear).

      But based on the ease with which Philly’s CBs break their line to chase deep, and the slow rotations to cover space when a fullback steps up, my guess would be that it’s something a guy like Elliot or Yaro will need to grow into.

      • Zizouisgod says:

        Thanks. It was a tough question, no doubt about it, especially since you don’t watch many Union games in person where it might be easier to pick this up.

      • @Zizou – yeah, that’s absolutely true. I’m very limited in what I’m able to look at, and you guys are all very nice to let me off the hook about that (thanks!).

        It’s a really interesting question to me though, because it seems like a difficult role to grow into on a young team, particularly one that is going through tough outcomes week after week.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        It’s always going to be tough for a rookie or a young guy to play that role, though. It requires a lot of respect from the group around him, and a ton of situational experience that will always be lacking for that demographic.

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