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PSP talks to Keegan Rosenberry

Photo: Earl Gardner

If he stays healthy, Philadelphia Union right back Keegan Rosenberry is set to make his 12th start of the season on May 26 against New York Red Bulls. Rosenberry wears 12 on his jersey, but it’s also an important number for him this season because the third year man made only 11 starts in 2017 after a soaring rookie campaign saw him play every regular season minute for the Union. Getting his name in the lineup for the 12th time will be something of a symbolic step past a difficult sophomore campaign and — hopefully — back onto the path that led Rosenberry into the USMNT’s Gold Cup squad.

A big worry for a defender like Rosenberry, who converted to the back line after spending a significant portion of his developmental years in midfield, is that once teams expose his defensive weaknesses, his attacking prowess won’t be enough to justify his place in the team. Additionally, Rosenberry spent the offseason fighting for a starting role in one of the youngest backlines ever assembled in MLS. Showing weakness in the back could shake the inexperienced defense’s confidence and lead to the kind of sludgy start that had the Union playing catch-up throughout 2017. Overall, then, there is a lot of pressure that Rosenberry could be feeling. But his performances so far point to a player that, instead of dwelling on that pressure, is simply focusing on playing good soccer.

“Last year, it was a bit of a confidence thing,” Rosenberry told PSP Thursday. The former third overall MLS SuperDraft pick has been surprisingly open about his confidence fading in 2017 as a string of rough personal performances coincided with the team’s early season winless streak. “At times last year, I was getting caught in defensive positions and getting punished. So I had to just reset and focus on the position as a defensive position first. Being a central midfielder meant I’ve always been comfortable on the ball. So I had to look at my 1v1 defending, positional defending, and get back to that being the main focus.”

The Union were also tweaking their lineups as they sought a way out of an extended rut at the start of last year. Rosenberry played with a rotating cast in front of and beside him to start the season, and he acknowledges now that it can be difficult to develop the intuitive relationships players need when so much change is occurring. “It’s obviously difficult building relationships with players around me. Being in and out of the team, with the midfield pairing or defensive pairing changing. That’s difficult, especially for me. The winger pairing is also important. Knowing where they’re going to be, how they like to move.”

This notion that developing an understanding with teammates over multiple games informs how Rosenberry views questions about the current Union back four’s inexperience. “The most important thing for us is experience playing together, not experience as age so much,” he says. “We’ve put two shutouts together. We defended well as a team, starting with C.J. [Sapong] up front.”

It is immediately noticeable that, as his third professional season ramps up, Rosenberry has become quite comfortable talking about the difficulties he has had on the pitch. He does not retreat into the safety of soundbites, and he can take questions about his successes (seven interceptions to lead all players against Columbus Crew last weekend) and answer them in terms of his broader need to improve positionally. When asked about the team’s improved possession numbers this season, he acknowledged that it can be easier to play when you have the ball but turned the focus to how playing with a good defensive shape (“…playing in that block of eight, cutting out passing lanes…”) is the basis for attacking success, and it is something “I need to continue to work on.”

Pushed on whether improvements in his defensive awareness were behind the six second half interceptions he accumulated against the Crew, Rosenberry put it down to the team’s aggressive defensive strategy (which all but requires confident defenders to execute successfully, it should be noted). But, tellingly, he also said he may have been intuitively responding to how Columbus attacked.

“There wasn’t necessarily one thing I noticed,” Rosenberry said. “It was just a mentality, and being aggressive and stepping to the winger or outside back. Communicating with Fabian and the team.”

“Although now I’m remembering that they didn’t play in behind that much. Their wingers like to check into those pockets and let their outside backs do the wide running.”

Still, Rosenberry indicated the Union want to take even more control of future matches at Talen Energy Stadium. “At home, we want to be on the front foot a bit more, take the game to them a bit more. Columbus will be one of the better teams in the east, and that result could look better down the line. But one of our focuses this year is how we play on the road as well as at home. In the league as a whole, we’ve struggled with that. It affects most teams.”

Firing fullbacks up the wings like pinballs has been a hallmark of Gregg Berhalter’s Columbus Crew teams, but, as Jim Curtin noted in his post-match press conference, the visitors’ wide defenders were surprisingly restrained in their forward movements last weekend. I asked Rosenberry if it felt good to have an opposing team known for sticking to their system make a major adjustment when coming into Talen Energy Stadium.

“That shows that they value what you can do and what your team offers,” he said. “It’s also easy after one or two good results to think, when things are going well, ‘we have an identity now.’ And it looks great on paper, and it can be almost tangible when you’re in the game.”

That sentiment, with only slight tweaking, could describe Rosenberry’s first season in MLS. Things went well, and he developed an identity as a right back with a unique passing range and great crossing ability. And, indeed, he even made it look quite easy at times. But if the Union are going to be a club that builds from youth, they will need players like Rosenberry to enjoy the good runs and then fight through the inevitable setbacks young players experience. Rosenberry, along with fellow third year man Fabian Herbers, need to show that when they fall, they don’t only get back up but learn to view their struggles as opportunities for growth: Their mindsets can set the tone for the future Earnie Stewart wants to build.

“For me,” Rosenberry says now, two games into a key season in his development, “it’s important not to think too much about last season.

“Each week is a blank slate.”

2 Comments

  1. John Harris says:

    Some people let Curtin slide saying last year was on Rosenberry. I think, though, even if KR was at fault then some fault also lies with the manager. It happens in other industries that a manager is held responsible for underachieving subordinates. Anyway, glad he appears to be back.

  2. The big difference between this year and last is that the center backs are fast enough to play an aggressive high restraining line. Rosenberry thrived in a high press. Not so much in last season’s bunker and counter.
    .
    Yaro’s shoulder meant Guch, and Guch’s recovery speed meant a bunker.

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