A View from Afar / Union

The left back of the future — and the present

Photo: Paul Rudderow

The heir to the great (or at least pretty good) Jordan Harvey has finally arrived.

Matt Real has stamped his name as Left Back of the Future for Philadelphia Union. For better or worse, he’s also the left back of the present.

We saw both on Saturday in the Union’s 3-0 loss to Colorado, when Real made his first career MLS appearance starting in place of the injured Fabinho.

For better, we saw a technically proficient, natural left back: Solid with the ball at his feet, tidy with his passes, the highlight a blocked shot along the goal line to stop a first half goal by Colorado.

And yes, he’s just 18 years old.

No, he didn’t offer a ton going forward, but with his first MLS appearance coming on the road and the speedy and dangerous Marlon Hairston coming down his flank for Colorado, that’s not unreasonable to expect. Maybe he was a little nervy; maybe it was part of the game plan.

For worse, we saw a potentially minor mental error that proved big enough to turn the game, and maybe a second error that sealed it.

  • No. 1: Fullbacks man the posts on corner kicks for a reason, but there was Real, caught ball-watching and drifting off the back right post on the free kick that led to Colorado’s first goal. When Tommy Smith’s flicked-on header found Dominque Badji coming down the back side, Badji’s one-touch blast tucked just inside the post, right where Real should have been.

  • No. 2: Keep watching that video above to see the second error, which came on the attack down Real’s flank that led to the second goal. Don’t blame him for being outnumbered on the wing. You can, however, note that Real was slow to step up after the cross came in from his flank, which made him the only thing keeping Dominque Badji onside when he buried the second goal.

Were those tired legs in a first MLS start? Probably in part. Colorado’s high altitude is notoriously difficult for visiting players. 

Were there other factors that contributed to those goals? Absolutely. The first goal wasn’t his mark, for example. Both goals were team goals on both sides of the ball. 

That said, this is life with young defenders. Mistakes happen, and they can turn games. Real may have made only two notable errors all night. The Rapids just happened to punish the Union on both. That’s what happens at this level of play. 

On the whole, Real’s outing was a promising one, and Union fans should be optimistic about his future. He looked like he belonged on the field Saturday — and like he belongs on the field the next weeks, at least until Fabinho’s return from injury. 

The Union haven’t featured a true, top line left back since Jordan Harvey was traded to Vancouver in 2011. Since then, the Union have started:

  • Gabriel Farfan, a converted center/right midfielder;
  • Porfirio Lopez, he of the wondrous afro and center back attack instincts;
  • Fabinho, a converted left winger probably most natural as a left wingback in a 3-5-2;
  • Ray Gaddis, a very right-footed, defense-first right back;
  • and Giliano Wijnaldum, who looked a better fit as a left center back in a three-man back line.

Seriously, it’s been seven years since the Union started a guy at left back who looked like a true left back. Think about it: Seven years.

Some, including me, thought the Union should have acquired a veteran upgrade to start at left back this off-season, but at least now we’re seeing a youth product get a chance to sink or swim. Sure, Real made at least one key mistake and probably two, but he looks like quality. If he learns from his mistakes — and judging by his track record with Bethlehem Steel last year, he will — the Union may have found themselves a real gamer at left back.

The future can be now if Real shows it can be. He has the next six weeks to prove he’s up to the task.

Other Union notes

Dockal off the pace: The Czech international is still playing his way into shape, so evaluate him with that understanding in mind. Tranquillo Barnetta took a while to find his footing too. But so far, not too good for the big signing. Dockal hasn’t really brought anything positive to the table yet. Let’s see what he does once he’s fully match fit and meshing with his teammates.

Auston Trusty in attack: Trusty has an interesting tendency to push fairly high up field from his center back position. His dangerously wicked cross late in the match, after he took the left spot in a three-man back line, showed there are parts of his game we’re still discovering.

Simpson missing: If Jay Simpson can’t get into a game — or even into the 18 — to make a difference when the Union finally deploy two strikers, then you have to wonder what he’s still doing on the roster. The third Colorado goal came after the Union shifted to a 3-5-2 with two target forwards. That’s a formation made for Simpson. At this point, it looks like it’s time to write him off.

Not the beard! Pretty epic beard there on Enzo Martinez. Makes you just want to return him to his kin back at the Lonely Mountain, doesn’t it?

Not the fans! Saturday’s match had an announced attendance of 10,790, and that looks like a generous figure, as is often the case in MLS. It was a cold, windy night to be sure, but wow, those were some empty stands.


  1. Simpson stinks. It was Earnie’s first “big” signing and major flop. Hopefully he has learned from that about what this team/league needs. At this point though Simpson needs to be off the roster asap.

    • I’m pretty sure everyone on PSP scouted him when was announced as being a wrong fit. Then he played and it was apparent that he was a wrong fit. Then we had an off-season and he wasn’t sold/dropped. Now he doesn’t even make the 18 because he is a wrong fit. Don’t know why we still have this guy.

  2. el Pachyderm says:

    the higher up the field the inside CB’s get the better….that is a clear indicator a team aims to maintain possession and trusts its ability to do so.
    can’t tell how many times I’ve watched suicidally high back lines in other cultures, central defenders almost half way into the offensive half of the field creating numerical advantage and suffocating the life out of the other team.
    ….gotta own the ball and believe it possible. Watching this team for years play with a retaining wall 30 yards behind the play has been MADDENING… it stretches the field way to far and causes every other player to run run run run run.
    so this is a good indicator… IMO.
    as far as the attendance numbers versus reality. It is so concerning and a totally logical outcome —- for so many reasons.
    —meanwhile a Mexican Liga MX ‘friendly’ gets 40,000 people on a ‘Wednesday’ in a city a few days before mustered 5,000k with an announced attendance of lmaybe 14,000.

  3. Buccistick says:

    Dan, thanks for highlighting the ball-watching, post-drifting spell that overcame Real on the first goal. Given all the (understandable) anticipation around his debut start, it surprised me that that our PSPeeps did not jump all over that defensive fundamental. When I finally caught up to the full match, and watched Elliott’s reaction to conceding the goal, I immediately empathized with him. The replays may not completely vindicate him, but the first goal would not have happened if his left back had simply stuck to his assignment for the duration of the sequence.
    Now, if Real’s father is reading this … parabens, Pablo! Quando descobri que Matt era seu crio, sorri feito um louco. Eh aquele menininho quem corria nas laterais dos jogos nossos no Rocket?! Kikikiki!

    • Well, the thing was that he wasn’t that far off the post. Under most circumstances, he gets away with that. Just so happened that he didn’t this time.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    I would add that Real got all of 20 appearances in USL, 19 of them starts. Trusty got 44.

  5. Tim Jones says:

    I would add that Real got all of 20 appearances in USL, 19 of them starts. Trusty got 44.

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