Commentary / Philadelphia Union II / Union

What’s with the sophomore slump?

Photo: Earl Gardner

I was sitting up in the press box a couple weeks ago, watching Bethlehem Steel F.C. take on New York Red Bulls II. It was a slow-moving match between two very familiar clubs and not much is going on. At one point in the middle of the first half, with the score tied 0-0, I glanced up from my computer and saw Philadelphia Union center back Jack Elliott alone near his own box. He gathered the ball as a NYRBII forward was pressing hard. I almost turned away because I expected a long clearance and a pause in play.

The next thing I knew, the NYRBII forward dribbled right by Elliott toward goal.

I couldn’t believe it. A simple pass and plenty of options turned into a horrendous giveaway and a one-on-one chance. Sure, Elliott tracked back and recovered with a last-second tackle from behind, but he’s not making that play if he’s any shorter than 6-foot-5. Why was he even in that position? An MLS defender doesn’t make a mistake like that.

Maybe, at least right now, he isn’t one.

Elliott, who was born in London and attended West Virginia University, was an unexpected standout for the Union in 2017. He started in 29 of 30 matches and even notched his first career MLS goal. One assist, just four yellow cards, and a lot of people thinking he’s the center back of the future. He started alongside Auston Trusty for the first handful of matches this season, but has seemingly taken a major step back. He logged three yellows in just nine matches and now, 19-year-old Mark McKenzie has taken the starting job.

What’s going on with Elliott? When I saw he was starting for Bethlehem, I was instantly intrigued. It was his first appearance there in 2018, and I expected him to control the backline. I expected him to play like he did last season. Now, that error didn’t cost the Steel the match or anything, but still, he doesn’t look the same. His clumsy mistakes are more frequent, and he doesn’t appear nearly as commanding. Clearly the Union don’t think so either, or he wouldn’t be playing in the United Soccer League. So I started to wonder about his ultimate potential and what his future holds at age 22.

Then it hit me: It’s his second year. The sophomore slump. We’ve seen this before. Union supporters, specifically, have seen this before.

Two years ago, Fabian Herbers was poised to be a star out of Germany. He was selected sixth overall in the MLS SuperDraft and ended making 32 caps for the Union during the 2016 campaign. In almost 1300 minutes played, he fired over 30 shots, dished seven assists, and scored three times. It was the perfect mix of starting and coming off the bench for a young player, and he was bound to take the next step in 2017. He didn’t, though. He scored just once in 12 appearances and spent some time in Bethlehem. Now, that’s where he’s getting most of minutes and he’s played just three times for the Union this season. If Herbers was never good enough for MLS, why did he do so well in year one and fall off in year two?

In that same 2016 season, another future star in Keegan Rosenberry emerged. The rookie started in all 34 matches, scored twice, and was eventually named to the MLS All-Star team. He caught just about everyone by surprise. So, naturally, next season expectations were high. He fell off the map, maybe even more so than Herbers. Rosenberry started just 11 times last season and inexplicably lost his job. Why? It’s even more puzzling because this season, he seems to be back to peak form. He’s started in every match and already notched a goal and a dime. What happened in year two?

The sophomore slump is a phenomenon used throughout all sports and, frankly, it makes a lot more sense elsewhere. You hear it in the National Football League all the time. Rookie wide receivers break out or a rookie running back makes the Pro Bowl and people start saying he wont do it again next year. Teams have an entire season of tape and they’ll defend them better. I buy that. You can change coverages or spy players or adapt in certain ways and better defend certain players. It could apply to basketball as well.

With soccer, though, it doesn’t really work that way — especially for defenders. A sizable drop-off in performance doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Confidence, or a lack there of, might be the first question to pose, but in all three cases, Herbers, Rosenberry, and Elliott had tremendous rookie seasons — you’d think confidence would have been sky high heading into sophomore year. If they somehow lost it in training, or if it was one play that sent them spiraling down, we may never know. Coaches typically do more talking on the subject than players do.

But as quickly as a player can lose it, he can also gain it back. Elliott and Rosenberry both had a string of matches to build it back up, and both were ultimately replaced. It usually takes more than a couple mistakes to lose your job.

Next is pressure: What kind of pressure are these guys under? For an attacker like Herbers, it’s easier to quantify — tally goals and assist goals. It’s a simple science, but we see forwards (*cough* David Accam *cough*) get into slumps all the time. When they don’t produce, their job may be in question and they may be under pressure to keep it. Was Rosenberry under too much pressure after such a stellar season? Maybe expectations were too high for him. Maybe Elliott saw a guy like McKenzie waiting in the wings and felt the pressure to perform and out-play him in training. Pressure can be a powerful thing.

Or maybe, to put it quite simply, soccer is just difficult. Professional soccer is incredibly competitive. There are a lot of players that can perform well for a season, but to come back and do it consistently is a different story. Maybe that’s part of what separates promising young talent from MLS stars. You have to be able to do it day in and day out, and Elliott wasn’t doing it this season.

Singularly, playing for the Steel isn’t a bad thing. Especially from a confidence standpoint, it’s better to be playing than not playing. There’s every chance that Elliott could turn it around like Rosenberry, and maybe he’ll find his way back into the Union’s starting 11. But with McKenzie and Auston Trusty building a partnership and playing well, the window may be closing. He could also be on Herbers’ path.

He might not get past the sophomore slump.


  1. Overall I agree there is a trend but there are still nuances and different circumstances.

    Herbers: IMO he came back down to Earth. His game is limited and our play style quickly by passed him.

    Elliot: He is on the bench due to being outplayed at this point. And now he is rusty. Not a big deal.

    Rosenberry: This one I still maintain is like 70% on Curtin. Yes Rosenberry was rough to start his second year, but instead of riding him out and letting him grow and learn (like apparently he is riding out Sapong…) Curtin banished Rosenberry to the dog house all year.

    Which was crazy to me … because that ensured it turned Rosenberry”s second year from a slow start into a lost year. Terrible managing, imo.

    • To be fair Rosenberry had a pretty bad end to his rookie year but he was still getting tons of praise heaped on him. He was really bad his second year but I agree she should have been worked in more. That said I think he’s back better than ever now and it just seems like a young player growing pains.

  2. This is great, and so puzzling to me. I don’t follow enough soccer beyond the Union to know if this is a thing around MLS or in other soccer leagues around the world, but the fact that it keeps happening in Chester is frustrating, to say the least.

  3. ┳┻|
    ┳┻| _
    ┻┳| •.•) It’s the coach

  4. Andy Muenz says:

    How about adding Marquez to the list?

  5. Definitely. And the coach.

  6. The Truth says:

    How ’bout that USMNT call-up slump too?

  7. The answer of Herbers‘ second year is clear. He‘s got an injury in his last MLS game in May 2017 and as a consequence a surgery in July. He‘s on a good way and will come back.

  8. Alice the Eagle says:

    Elliott has not had a sophomore slump. Stuart wanted the USMNT job and had to show that his academy system had worked. They even stated about 6 weeks ago, the Union would be a team where young American players will get a chance to play. He got lucky for the first few games from Mackenzie, Trusty as the opposition was poor but they create nothing offensively and are defensively naive as against LAFC. They have great pace but Mackenzie when beaten watches the opponent go towards goal and does not ever bother to react(unlike Elliott). Curtin has publicly slated them on several occasions but will still play them as it’s politics. From you’re script it would appear you have not watched training recently, or you would see what is really going on. It’s laughable that Curtin can pretend there is competition for places when Elliott is outplaying the homegrowns at every turn. As for Fontana versus Najem. Don’t get me started.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Changed defensive system, in a nutshell.
      High line of confrontation 2018.
      Much deeper line of confrontation in 2017.

    • Two starts, two goals from Fontana, one in league, one cup, this without consistently playing. More interesting is Real, who made a mistake or two and got banished to Steel, apparently not everyone has the same length on their leash.

  9. The good thing now is they actually send Herbers/Elliot to go get regular minutes with Steel. Last season, they just sentenced Keegan to the bench and got no minutes or development in that time. Steel is the place to do that, and it’s good to see it being leveraged that way.

  10. Another great article – very perceptive and enjoyable to read

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