Season Previews / Union

Is the Union’s back line as young as we think?

Photo credit: Paul Rudderow

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our week-long series previewing the 2019 Philadelphia Union season. For the full series, click here.

The Union’s defense is young, that’s not news. Of course there’s guys like Aurélien Collin (32) and Fabinho (33), and for lack of anyone else to talk about let’s put Ray Gaddis (29) in the “old guy” category. But take them out of the calculation and the average age for defenders on the roster is under 21. And for that reason every season preview you’ve read up to this point has probably talked about how the big question for the Union is how the young back line will fare against grown-up MLS attacks.

And there’s precedent for that. Unlike attacking players, who are often valued for their speed and athleticism, defensive players need to be smart more than they need to be fast. Reading the other team, trying to determine where the play is going to go next, are more or less a defender’s whole job. Their ability to do that is the foundation that all of their other skills, including their physical ones, are built on. Common wisdom is that mental skill only comes from experience, and until someone proves otherwise that’s what we’re going to continue believing.

So when viewed through that lens, a Union back line that’s still too young to rent a car looks like something to be worried about. It’s not that we believe Auston Trusty or Mark McKenzie can’t contribute at the MLS level; we’re just not sure if they’re able to do so consistently yet. After all, they are so young, how much experience could they possibly have?

However, that thought process only makes sense in an American context. With our major sports being dominated by the NCAA, 21 winds up being the start of a professional career for all manner of professional athletes. We’re used to seeing promising young college players disappear into the minor leagues for a few years after graduation, and still take a while to come up to speed once they make it to the big league.

But on the world market soccer works a little differently. Jack Elliott was scouted by West Virginia University after playing years of youth soccer in London. Olivier Mbaizo started his professional career in 2016 in his native Cameroon. Kai Wagner made his first professional appearance for SSV Ulm 1864 in 2015. Even on the domestic front Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and Matt Real all started for Bethlehem Steel FC in 2016. They’re young in age but these are not tender young players that need to be sheltered from the world. They’ve played before, against competition at least as professional as they are, and every single one of them has come away from such encounters stronger and smarter than they were before. All together they average two-and-two-thirds years professional experience. So while they’re clearly not seasoned veterans, they’re not green rookies either.

If we look at the big picture, this could be the beginning of a new reality for the Union. From very early on, the investment in YSC Academy shows the Union have chosen a path of youth development. A fully developed school like that allows players as young as 13 the opportunity to start integrating into the environment of professional athletics. That means players are going to be coming through the Union system with more experience at a younger age, and adapting to the professional environment quicker than previously anticipated. We’ve already seen the beginning of this with Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty.

Of course none of this means these young players will not mistakes. They will. Every player, any age or position, is going to make mistakes. Probably a lot of them. But it may mean that we can judge the performance of this back line not by how they perform for their age, but simply whether or not they are up to the standard needed in competitive MLS play.


  1. For their age/experience, they are going great and will mostly grow into very good players. With that said, let’s not pretend the Union defense is anything but a big question mark this year. The CBs did well, but you only need to look at the final 2 games at NYCFC to see they still have a ways to go. And the fullbacks…Real, Mbazio, and Wagner have what, 5? 6?, combined MLS starts? Look, play them. They’ll get better and we’ll have a really good defense at some point. I would caution that we keep our expectations in check though, because it is unlikely to be this year, I suspect.

  2. For me, the young defense was the least of this team’s problems last year. Scoring, for one, especially to start the season, was the bigger problem. I’m not worried by the defense at all. I’m more worried by the speed at which the whole team will adapt to the new system and whether or not Curtin will actually rotate players and adjust his tactics to the team of the week.

  3. The mistakes our kids make would look a LOT more forgivable if this team would just SCORE constistently.
    I think with CJ finally out of the mix altogether the occasional bobbles in the back won’t seem as glaring because there will be 12-17 more goals to play with this year.
    56 points, +12-17 goals. Book it.
    (Er…barring any major injuries of course 😉 )

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