What happened to the Union’s centerback advantage?

Photo Rob Simmons

At the end of 2018, both the Philadelphia Union and Bethlehem Steel FC seemed well positioned for centerbacks. Auston Trusty, Jack Elliott and Mark McKenzie had all played well in their opportunities for the first team. Ben Ofeimu earned starting status for Bethlehem as a graduated academy senior, putting a more experienced player on the bench.

As the current season reaches sight of its finish line, that strength seems shakier.

Trusty has lost his starting role, sometimes making the game day 18 and sometimes not dressing at all. McKenzie only recently earned his first starts of the season, after having to recover from an emergency appendectomy and regain fitness and form. And Ofeimu has committed costly mistake after costly mistake for Bethlehem, causing his coach to move away from his preseason optimism.

Only Jack Elliott has stayed in form and improved.

A two-year-old’s second-favorite three-letter word after “Mom” is “why?”

Trusty, McKenzie and Ofeimu are products of the Union’s academy, and the academy follows the principle that all teams at all levels play the same shape and scheme as the first team. That means the three center backs all played in a 4-2-3-1 possession-oriented style. When each advanced a level, pace, athleticism, and speed of recognition all increased, but the nuances of actual play did not. Angles, spacings, and cues all remained the same.

The Ernst effect

Last November Ernst Tanner publicly changed that. Internal ground work had begun several weeks before.

At first the mantra was “greater tactical flexibility.” By February it had become a “4-4-2 diamond,” and with it a different set of principles, angles, spacing and cues for the back four. Retraining was fully underway in late January as the teams assembled under the bubble at Penn. Leaving two players in the highest of the defensive lines means that the next two have only four each, rather than five backed by four as in Earnie Stewart’s 4-2-3-1.

Tanner’s solution is greater aggressiveness from the remaining eight, a principle he confirmed directly at a recent Town Hall when explaining the frequency of injuries suffered by Bethlehem’s players this season in practice. (He is confident adjustments will solve Bethlehem’s injury wave as they did earlier in his experience at Salzburg.)

The organization centerback who has adapted most successfully is the oldest of the four, from the country where football is as much part of society’s basic fabric as baseball was in the 1940s in the United States.

The other three have had more trouble adapting, although Mark McKenzie has just assembled two consecutive datums that may turn into a positive trend. A wide variety of explanations may exist. Only team insiders know, and the knowledge should stay within the boundaries of the team as it can be personal.

But one publicly obvious explanation is that Trusty, Ofeimu, and McKenzie are having to retool their instinctive reactions and reads. The character previously demonstrated by all three young men suggests that sooner or later they will assimilate a more demanding, more complex, more dangerous, more flexible system.


  1. I think Trusty was probably somewhat worn out from overuse last season and is suffering from the same kind of issues that Rosenberry saw in his second year.
    McKenzie is more injury related and the good news is that the biggest issue he had, the appendectomy, will not resurface.

    • Agree that the “sophomore slump” is a potential cause. Often young athletes are fearless in their rookie seasons and thrive on bravery and athleticism. As their tactical understanding elevates to a higher level, they hit a roadblock of over-analyzing as coaching expects more from them. We obviously have no idea if this is the real cause, but I would guess it could be part of the equation.

  2. Or perhaps, Trusty has always been an overrated product of the Union hype machine…

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      Good question. Given it thought. Similar hype machines exist for every youth development academy.
      National youth development team coaches have to filter out all the hype as they choose whom to invite to camps. They evaluate tape for themselves and then scout live. Those judgments would seem to have weight.
      Tab Ramos has thought some, not all, were worth inviting to camp. So did Brad Friedel with Freese, and while his head coaching resume is blotted his goalkeeping one is not. Jason Kreis apparently agrees.
      Would point out that players’ stock rises and falls in these processes, making them seem more legitimate. For example, Matt Real in the last 15 months has been surpassed, would seem now to be more of a bench player for his age cohort than a consistent starter.
      But there is no question that PR departments are in the sales business. For example, they should award the Heisamn Trophy in college football to the UNiversity’s Sports Information Director, not the player.

  3. PhilinWilmington says:

    It’s an interesting point, the notion that an integrated approach to a default system (be it Stewart’s 4-2-3-1 or Tab Ramos’ 4-3-3 for the US Men’s u- sides) while good from a pipeline development perspective, might actually handcuff a player in the long run by making them a 1 trick pony…

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