Analysis

The Union’s back line defines the team’s ceiling

Photo: Rob Simmons

Marco Fabián has largely answered the questions asked in this space at the end of the Gold Cup break: He scored a brace and nabbed an assist during the weekend’s demolition of DC United—a win so definitive it sent Wayne Rooney scuttling back to England. Fabián scored an excellent goal off a beautifully executed set piece during the swampy victory over Chicago at Talen. Fabián, if he can stay healthy, seems to be the player the Union need him to be as they hope to finish at the top of the East with ten games left in the regular season.

However, the Union also demonstrated during Fabián’s time out injured that they can win without him. The midfield depth of the squad is admirable, and it’s notable that two of its key pieces, Brendan Aaronson and Anthony Fontana, are academy products who have both managed to score goals for the first team before their nineteenth birthdays. Jamiro Monteiro’s recent injury only further underscores the Union’s depth in midfield: Monteiro is a consistent goalscorer who also leads the team in tackles, yet the team has found ways to win without a player who has proven, more so than Fabián in many ways, to be the key off-season signing by Ernst Tanner.

The player the Union can’t seem to live without, however, is left back Kai Wagner. Wagner is frequently cited as the best left back in the league, and he is second only to Monteiro in both assists for the year and tackles. The last two games played without Wagner were four-goal losses to demonstrably weaker teams in Montreal and RSL. But these losses point not simply to Wagner’s contributions on the field but to a structural issue in the Union’s depth chart: Unlike in the midfield, a missing Wagner means a back line scramble with multiple iterations attempted over the season, all of which have proven insufficient.

Against RSL, veteran left back Fabinho started and had a generally poor showing on the night. At Montreal, Academy product Matt Real started and demonstrated that this promising member of the US U20 squad is not yet ready for the weight of a first-team start. An early-season attempt at starting Mbaizo and switching Gaddis to the right side ended in a slightly better result, a draw at Vancouver.

Given the demonstrable need the Union have in the depth chart at the two wingback positions, it’s somewhat baffling that no attempt was made to rectify this issue during the summer transfer window. Andrew Wooten might be a promising signing, but the Union already have perhaps too many strikers competing for the two forward slots of the 4-4-2 diamond.

A completely-healthy Union is a playoff team that can earn a first round bye and possibly make a run at MLS Cup—though the possibility of beating LAFC seems distant. However, as the summer transfer window closes, fans should be lighting candles for Wagner’s health and for the ever-mercurial MLS Disciplinary Committee’s mercy should he earn any red cards.

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