For Pete's Sake

Five camp battles to watch for the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow 

As preseason enters its second, much warmer phase in Clearwater, it’s time to focus away from transfers and towards the Philadelphia Union roster.

With the 2018 club’s first scrimmage taking place later this week — a game that will be by far the most important event on the Philadelphia sports calendar for the weekend — it’s worth thinking about who we’ll see in the starting XI when the season kicks off.

For Jim Curtin, practice is where you earn your spot in the games, so these next few weeks are a crucial opportunity for players up and down the roster to stake their claim for the upcoming campaign.

To set the scene, here are five position battles to watch over the next month or so.

Center back

Contenders: Jack Elliott, Josh Yaro, Richie Marquez, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie

The Union are relying on a stable of young legs to solidify the center of their defense this season, and it’s quite a free-for-all. The most likely starter is Jack Elliott, coming out of nowhere last season with a shocking rookie campaign that showed off passing range from the defense, good positional awareness, and a knack for being 6-foot-6. If Elliott avoids the curse of second-year Union players and continues his form into 2018, he’ll start.

Who will end up alongside him? The most obvious contenders are Richie Marquez — the old man of this group at age 25 — and Josh Yaro. Both suffered through down campaigns last season, struggling with injury and form, seeming to lose the trust of the coaching staff. Yaro has the most upside and offers outstanding pace and vision. But Marquez is about as solid as MLS veterans come, and Yaro displayed a knack for fatal errors last season. The dark horse is Auston Trusty, the Homegrown player who excelled with the U.S. U-20s last season and might be due for his first crack at MLS action.

Right back

Contenders: Keegan Rosenberry, Ray Gaddis

After an All-Star campaign in 2016 earned Keegan Rosenberry his first MLS call-up, few expected the Pennsylvania native to lose his spot in his sophomore season. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. Rosenberry’s poor form at the start of the season cost him his job, as Curtin called on the veteran presence of Ray Gaddis to provide defensive stability. Rosenberry stayed out of the lineup for months, even as Gaddis’s limitations were exposed, and the season ended on a sour note when Curtin suspended Rosenberry for an ill-advised tweet before the penultimate match of the season.

Where do things stand this year? Rosenberry offers more in attack and is a more than capable defender, so the club will be hoping he can seize his position ahead of Gaddis. If he can’t, one wonders whether this once-promising relationship will be headed for a swift divorce.

First wing off the bench

Contenders: Marcus Epps, Fabian Herbers, Ilsinho, Eric Ayuk

Curtin’s go-to substitution is bringing a winger off the bench, and with David Accam and Fafa Picault penciled in to the starting lineup that leaves four contenders to fill the super-sub role. Strangely, all four have filled that role at times in their Union career.

Marcus Epps probably has the inside track, as he exceeded expectations last season — while failing to convince many observers that he has starter-level talent. It’s the role Fabian Herbers had in 2016, when he looked potent off the bench. Curtin raved in the 2017 preseason about his improvement, but injuries cut his campaign short and the Creighton product has a lot to prove this year. Ilsinho spent most of 2017 out of position at the No. 10; while he may do so again, one wonders whether his change-of-pace trickery would be better as a late-game sub. The ultimate wild card is Eric Ayuk, who filled this role in 2015 before a year out of the side and a year-long loan to Sweden. Ayuk is somehow still only 20 years old, and his pace would make him a like-for-like replacement for either Accam or Picault.

Reserve striker

Contenders: Jay Simpson, Cory Burke

With C.J. Sapong set to play the overwhelming majority of the minutes at striker — and Curtin averse to rotating the position — the backup might only play a role late in games or in case of an injury. Still, it’s an interesting showdown.

Count me in the group that thinks Jay Simpson was more unlucky than anything last year. Saddled with a big contract and high expectations, Simpson suffered an injury while scoring his first goal of the season, lost his spot to Sapong, and couldn’t find the game in the 5-10 minute cameos that Curtin doled out to him. That being said, Simpson is old and overpaid, and it’s possible that the team is simply ready to move on.

Cory Burke is, after all, no slouch — the tall Jamaican international notched nine goals for Bethlehem last season to earn his promotion. Burke might be better suited to the brief, late-game appearances that this reserve role tends to call for.

No. 10

Contenders: Ilsinho, Haris Medunjanin/Alejandro Bedoya, Adam Najem, Anthony Fontana

The topic of who should fill the black hole at the No. 10 has been exhaustively debated, and other writers are exploring it in more detail on this site. Bereft of good options on the roster, as currently constructed the Union have three clear choices.

One would be to return Ilsinho to the center of the park, where he flashed occasional moments of brilliance but lacks the true skillset of a quality No. 10.

Another would be to avoid the conundrum entirely by flipping the triangle, moving Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya further up the pitch while allowing a destroyer like Derrick Jones to slot in behind.

And the third is to go with youth, trusting that either Adam Najem or precocious teen Anthony Fontana could give you enough to keep the offense flowing.

There’s no obvious good answer on the roster right now.

35 Comments

  1. Your article simply points out that leaving the roster as-is would be entirely unacceptable. There is no one who remotely qualifies as a starting #10 on this club, and we shouldn’t be going into camp, much less the first match of the season, like this.

    Meanwhile, the hole at backup striker is almost as deep. I am willing to give Jay Simpson a chance to see what he can do, but we still need another option — strikers get tired and get injured, after all — and there is no excuse not to have one.

    I would be more willing to let the talented young kids man the back line and grow, especially with Andre behind them, if the holes up front were filled.

    • Did you miss the part where we have 2 backup strikers? Why are people having such a hard time understanding this? A FOURTH, yes, FOURTH striker, will not be coming. It’s not happening. Get over it.

      • Yeah, the 10 spot is the only hole on the roster and it is HUGE. Nothing else matters until they fix that.

      • You’re correct, but it doesn’t mean that’s how it should be. Ultimately it won’t matter because, barring injury, CJ plays almost every minute of every game.

      • It’s ridiculous, and insufficient to keep up with the growing talent of the league.

        And an injury to Sapong is simply a matter of time. The man cannot take being beaten up like that for 95 minutes a game 34 games per season. It’s a small miracle he didn’t break last season.

      • Scottso, there’s ONE position to be filled and you want THREE backups? Talk about wasted money. Now if you want to say the Union have badly filled those two backup positions, I will absolutely agree with you. Not so much in Burke, because I believe in giving the young guys a chance and he should get rewarded for his efforts at BSFC. But Simpson was/is still a bad move by Stewart. And I will totally agree that Curtin will run C.J. and whoever else he fancies this year, into the ground before the season is half over. Just don’t ask me for agreement with wanting the Union to waste more money. I can’t agree to that.

      • Why can’t we use the money to sign a player who ISN’T a backup. Someone who’s a starter at the other positions, or at worst is fighting for the spot. Honestly, outside of Sapong, Bedoya, Medunjanin, Accam and Blake, is anyone seriously just guaranteed a spot based on merit?

      • G.O. I’m all for a starting LB or a legitimate starting CB (if they get rid of the surplus at that position and already have a #10). At this point, the ONE thing I’m hopeful on is that Stewart finally understands the league, as in you spend up top (striker/#10/wingers) and fill in with mid level to bottom tier guys on back. MLS proven, wining formula all right there. What I don’t want to see is another “starter” at d-mid, or goalie, or any other position already held by a competent player.

      • I think that what scottso meant was that strikers #2 and #3 simply are not reasonable backups to Sapong. Simpson, like Alberg, would probably thrive in a 2 striker set, but the union don’t play that (except for occasionally the last 5 min of a game).
        I haven’t watched BSFC, so I don’t know if Burke is a beast, but that is what you need in the U’s formation. Even if he is, that is a lot to put on a rookie.
        Therefore, you have no reasonable backups to play for large chunks of time, so Sapong will get too much of it.
        #10 is the priority, but I agree that the U should have a better #9 backup. Shouldn’t be that hard to find…then Simpson should be waived.

  2. If Jay Simpson is old does that make CJ Sapong old too?

  3. Being called up to the national team camp last year was the worst thing to happen to Rosenberry. I fully expect him to be much improved this year with an entire preseason with his team.

    • Rosenberry having to be physically tied to Gooch at the beginning of the season didn’t help either.

      • Curtin did not set up Rosenberry for success last year. Between his movement and positioning I think he was caught between what Curtin was telling him and the reality of what was actually happening in the field.
        .
        He suffered w/o any protection from either Gooch or Harris.
        .
        I truly hope Curtin can get his tactics right to start the season (instead of taking 6mos like last year) so that we can get Keegan back out there doing what he does best. I’m fine w/Gaddis but Keegan>Ray.

      • Keegan did great with Josh next to him. I hope that is how they start this season.

  4. el Pachyderm says:

    Let me tell you about Right Back.
    .
    Go into Keegan’s hotel room and look in his closet and see if his clubs are in there and i’ll tell you who the right back starting the first game of season is.
    .
    He’s soft and unfocused. He’s a first in first out kinda player.
    .
    We will see whether he’s actually prepared to take his profession seriously, or just pose for photos with the BlueSteel look.
    .
    You all scoffed at me when I called him out, rightly for the tweeting, but its a tell, just like picking your nose, or checking Instagram may be a tell in Texas Hold ‘Em.
    .

    • I don’t care if he is a FIFI type of player, and if Ray is a FILO type of player.

      Gaddis is a net negative, a MLS 1.0 player. Keegan can at least complete a goddamn forward pass.

      We aren’t good enough to worry about if our players are posting on instagram too much.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        You do realize, the instagram tweeting is both literal and figuarative yes?
        .
        And I agree, we need Keegan’s best game…. not the one that actually plays minimal to no defense on a pretty regular basis and is directly responsible for goals against…. lots of them.
        .
        Trouble is…. maybe he’s unfocused.
        .
        Maybe the benching was meant to send a message, that just wasn’t received the way the coach needed it to be…..maybe, just maybe —the player became resentful… and mentally was unable to do what was needed to earn his coaches trust back… and instead- spent his time… unengaged…. you know, like, Tweeting about Jordan Spieth winning a tournament not more than 1 hour after his team lost a game….
        .
        …or sending out a Tweet 25 minutes before a game asking ‘you and me’ to fill in the caption—– which was a clearly petulant-entitled-little-thing to do…
        .
        Read the clues and really think on it a bit.
        .
        or like the rest… just blame the coach.

      • John P. O'Donnell Jr says:

        More than anything, I believe Keegan got a smack down from the coach, let’s see if he can get back up with some determination to prove him wrong. I agree with eL.P. he’s soft and he’s playing for a coach who had less talent than him who also played in MLS and is trying to give him a lesson in grit.

    • Here’s the thing — that description of Rosenberry does not remotely match what I heard from people around the team and the Georgetown program in 2016. Uniformly, people called Rosenberry a great leader, someone who puts in the work, someone who knows how to be a professional the right way.
      .
      Does that mean his judgment in 2017 was perfect? Of course not. But I really dispute the notion that Rosenberry is “soft and unfocused” — especially when you consider that almost every young player on the Union regressed last season. Are they all soft too?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Tell you what Peter. Let’s have some fun with this.
        .
        Let us agree?
        .
        If Keegan Rosenberry is the starter in the first game of season, and barring injury remains the de facto first choice player for greater than 3/4 of season, I’ll stipulate.
        .
        Just like if Keegan Rosenberry is not the starter in first game, shows poorly and/or finds himself benched for any length of time greater than say +/- 12 games, ‘you’ will not make excuses about his CB partner, and thusly, stipulate.
        .
        In my opinion and we all have them…. the burden of proof is on the player.
        .
        There is a reason he did not play last year and the idea, his attitude (as in how he handled the first real adversity he has ever faced) and work ethic (collegiate mentality maybe instead of professional) may not have had a significant part in the reason……. is silliness.
        .
        or, let’s blame the coach……… for it all, and just move on.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      In reference to the Union’s right back, … .
      .
      I strongly recommend learning Cameroon’s version of French.

  5. Does anyone here really see Curtin making changes to the lineup? Elliot will start. If we don’t sign a #10, Ilsinho will start. Marquez will start. If Rosenberry doesn’t show up pouting, he will start.
    .
    Oh, and the first sub to the wing will be CJ Sapong when he’s moved wide.

  6. el Pachyderm says:

    Something to ponder. Something I’ve already determined but others haven’t, it seems.
    .
    Keegan Rosenberry was called up and a potential ROY because of his ability to get forward.
    .
    Keegan isn’t a very good defender….at all.
    .
    One could argue, Jim has asked him to improve and its not crossing over.
    .
    As evidenced by the player looking lost against Harrisburg last year… of all teams.
    .
    I’m not here to beat up on Keegan.
    .
    I’m here to implore the player to raise his game. Chances are, the coach is asking the same of him.
    .
    This one does not lay at Jim Curtin’s feet in my opinion… and many would be wise to stop trying to do it.

    • Pardon me, el P, but I saw Keegan absolutely TAKE IT to some of the best offensive players in the league, including Gio Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, and Nacho Piatti during his rookie year.

      Now, did he ALWAYS play like that? No, especially last year. But saying “he isn’t a very good defender” is a premature judgment, to say the least. He is obviously talented, and it remains to be seen how much he makes of his talent.

      And saying that the blame does not lay at Curtin’s feat is also premature. Curtin did lots of things wrong last season with regard to personnel management. So it’s not as though he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I am not saying that it is definitely Curtin’s fault, but I think absolving him is likewise difficult to defend. (Pun intended).

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Go back to his first season. I bet if you watch every game, by around the midway point of the season you will honestly say, despite some momentary prowess, ‘…my man is a turnstile, gets caught way up field over and over, turns his back on attackers at the worst moment imaginable and was directly responsible for more than 15 goals for anyone of those reasons by seasons end.
        .
        In other words his +/- rating was terrible if you are so inclined.
        .
        Watch a Youtube game against City Islanders if it exists…. a painter, a baker and candlestick maker made him look lost on the field. I felt uncomfortable for the player to be honest.

      • el P – Which City Islanders game? USOC on June 14th (admittedly, I missed that one, so I have no comment on his play), or Bethlehem on June 20th? I thought he was solid for Bethlehem, gave the ball away cheaply a couple times moving forward, but defended well.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Open Cup game. 14th sounds right.

  7. santo bevacqua says:

    too much time spent on Keegan, if he finds his form play him. But the problem remains a good no 10,,,,,if Curtin rotates that position we will have the same result, not withstandng Accam for Pontius……Stewart must be hampered by money to secure an optimum tem…..its a shame because fans will not tolerate another dismal season.

  8. If they don’t sign a #10 then they HAVE to change the formation. The coach needs to work with the ability players he has primarily and some slavish attachment to a franchise formation secondarily. I know that they preach same system though all levels, but for 1.5 years they haven’t had the personnel to play it.
    If Keegan’s defense is suspect, then let him play wingback in a 3-5-2. The LB rookie or the sunrocket can play the other wingback. Marquez and Yaro can play on either side of Elliot and help cover for his lack of speed while he picks out great passes forward. Fafa’s speed can compliment Sapong’s hold up play.
    If they trot Illson out into the #10 of the same darn formation it will tell you all you need to know about the coach and the ownership.

    • Is that legal? Can a coach change a formation? Pretty sure the coach has to select a single formation forever then insert the plays into said formation. I think it’s a FIFA rule.

  9. Why is Fafa automatically getting the starting nod at RM? Sure let’s play another guy out of position, worked out well for Pontius last year. Let’s have our speed guys gassed at 65 mins, sub in our slow bench and make it easier for defences. Accam & Herbers should start( but it should really be Bedoya so D.Jones starts). Oh, Herbers is the 4TH striker too.

    #1 battle of preseason… Curtain vs. himself.

  10. If these don’t get sorted soon, I’m not optimistic about our only shot at silverware in the Suncoast Invitational.

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