A View from Afar / Season Reviews / Union

Season review: Union center backs do the unexpected, for better or worse

Photo: Earl Gardner

This was not the season anyone predicted for Philadelphia Union’s center backs.

Entering the season, Mark McKenzie looked primed to make The Leap, coming off a great close to 2018 and set to captain the U-20s USMNT in the U-20 World Cup.

Auston Trusty looked like he was in the European shop window after a solid first MLS season and with all the perfect measurables a team might want in a left-sided center back.

Jack Elliott looked set to lose a starting spot to each of them.

None of that played out how it seemed it might.

Instead, McKenzie got hurt to start the year, missed his opportunity to shine in the U-20 World Cup after an appendicitis surgery, then played his way back into the lineup late in the year and showed he had, in the end, recovered. Once again, he looked like a player with an extraordinarily high ceiling, playing with effortless pace and on-the-ball ability that few center backs possess.

Trusty put in an uneven year and then got the Jim Curtin Second Year Defender Treatment, going to the bench in late July and never again seeing the field. By season’s end, he wasn’t even making the substitutes’ bench, as Curtin opted for Aurelien Colin, who is six years past his prime, remains a red card waiting to happen every time he plays, and, even on his best days for the Union, wasn’t as good as Trusty. You have to wonder whose corn flakes Trusty pissed in back in July. (It looks like Trusty knows, but isn’t saying.)

As for Elliott, he put in the best season of any Union player in 2019, playing at an all-star caliber level all season long as he started every game.

It was a strange way for things to play out.

And it portends for stranger things still to come.

Where things stand for each

McKenzie and Trusty remain in the shop window for European clubs, but the market value of each is at a low.

Trusty needs to rehab his image after his playing way so far out of his coach’s good graces that he wasn’t even making the substitutes’ bench by season’s end. One must wonder what happened, because while his on-field performance was uneven this season, it certainly did not by itself merit the sort of benching that he got.

On paper, Trusty is a dream center back: Tall, fast, aggressive, and left-footed. He’s good in the air and decent enough on the ball, with excellent recovery speed, flexibility to play a three-man back line, and ability to make a strong recovery tackle. His passing and comfort in possession remain a big question mark, along with his propensity for mistakes in big moments.

But that’s what you expect from a 21-year-old defender. Unfortunately, benching second-year starlet defenders is what you expect from Curtin when something goes awry, and it happened again with Trusty.

McKenzie must simply continue showing what he showed during his late season return. While he is short for a center back, he has every other tool you want at the position, the perfect ball-playing complement that many teams like next to an aerial monster like Trusty. Further, he showed he had no problem playing on the left side, which means we really should have seen the last of Aurelien Colin as a starter. He just has to stay healthy.

As for Elliott, he has been the complicating factor in all this. Nobody expected him to become the player he has, but he showed this season that he has become one of the league’s best at his position, starting every regular season game and delivering clutch goals at opportune times. He anchored the team’s back line as well as anyone in years. What he lacks in speed, he made up for this season with positioning, aggressive recovery, and smarts. He has everything else you want in a center back, save bulk.

And what else is there to say about Elliott?

What the future holds

The Union showed this season that they can realistically feature all three center backs at different times, now that Curtin has shown a willingness to move one of them (McKenzie) between both the right and left positions.

It will interesting to see how the off-season plays out for each. One would expect other clubs around MLS and even England to inquire about Elliott’s availability, but he’s the most reliable of the group and entering his prime.

While the Union have historically held onto assets far longer than they should, sporting director Ernst Tanner has been shrewd and merciless in parting with them in timely fashion.

Who goes? Who stays? Will we see them all next year?

This wealth of riches fared well for the Union on the whole this season, and it bodes well for the future as well.

28 Comments

  1. You lost me when you said Elliott was an MLS all star………Lolz. It’s most definitely a position that needs to be addressed for next season……..and an RB who can go forward like Wags…….is needed too. How funny, for years we cried for a LB! Now we need an RB…….much easier to find.

    • Old Soccer Coach says:

      The demands placed on the right back changed significantly in the shift to the 4-4-2 diamond.
      .
      And Gaddis is under guaranteed contract for next season, so unless someone else wants him, he’s going nowhere.
      .

      • Ray’s a great person, but I would prefer to have him as back-up RB & LB next year and get in a stud starting right back – one who would help to open up the field more for Ale.

      • Agree with above. You have to love Ray, and he’d be a great guy for squad rotation……thats it. The next progression for the Union would be to get an RB who gets up the pitch like Wags.

      • Ray should get a job within the organization when he is done, like you said….they don’t make many better people than him. He actually played better the last few matches of the season than I’ve seen him play in a few years…..but we still need more there.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Elliott is the league’s 13th best defender according to the Audi Player Index and the 5th best player on the Union according to WhoScored.com

      • You can quote any stat you like, we are subpar at CB and Elliott isn’t very good…..he coughed up just as many goals as the other guys……..and less recovery pace than McKenzie or Trusty. He has an awkward gate and movement style as well…….almost unathletic……

    • I don’t know which Jack Elliott you were watching, Alicat, but I agree with Dan Walsh that the one I watched was an All-Star caliber CB who bailed out his colleagues again and again and again.

      • Haha, scottso…….I know exactly what I am watching! When you say allstar caliber….I chuckle. Sorry dude, I am not buying it. A couple of the goals that people put on Blake in the last two matches are rightly so, but the sequences that lead to them…..Elliott had his imprint all over them. So at the same time, do you follow the sequences of play……you know, things that lead up to goals….like big fat old turnovers out of the back? You didn’t catch at least one of those?

      • DerPhootballSchnauzer says:

        Published facts be damned! Alicat is using alternative facts (Spin cycled by his magic eyes!).

      • Did you play? When you just throw stats at me and nothing else about his game…… I am skeptical about anything you have to say. And I don’t mean playing where you maxed out in high school……I mean, did you really play. Club college ball doesn’t count! And dude, this isn’t politics………they are introducing new statistics all the time in footy….some are much more valuable than others. For example, the new fave is expected goals….do you know what they are? I like that statistic, it makes sense. But still some coaches like it, some don’t put as much value in it. And I haven’t heard a single one of you address his turnovers that have lead to balls in the back of the Union onion bag! And from a fellow German too……wtf? Hahaha

      • Crickets from der dunkopf footy schweinhunt………strictly statboys who never played the game and don’t even understand what they are watching……..its why you have to take anything written here except for Adam, with a grain of salt.

      • Come on, Alicat, really?

        You really don’t believe anything written on PSP?

        I’ve followed your comments here for a long time, and you’ve generally been a good commenter. I figure there must be something that keeps you reading, given that Adam left PSP for the Union a year and a half ago.

        How about we do the usual and just civilly agree to disagree, eh? Make a case, defend in friendly fashion, and enjoy the conversation, just like usual. Sound good? 🙂

      • My apologies Dan, it’s not personal. I obviously appreciate what you guys do, do not get me wrong. I know Adam hasn’t been around in a little while…….der footy set me off and it was a little misguided. Having said that, when you just throw stats at me….I need more. And don’t get me wrong, I like stats…..but I think they have to be taken with a grain of salt. Here’s an analogy, say in baseball you are looking at infield defensive performance over the season and the numbers are real low across the board and it looks like they are stud defensive infielders. But at the same time you 5 stud pitchers like Atlanta did in those mid 90’s with Glavin, Avery, Smoltz, etc…..who only give up a few hits a game and the ones they do are easily playable because of how good they pitch…..beating ground balls, popping up etc. The numbers for that infield would be misleading would they not? Again, sorry dude!

      • Good deal. 🙂

        Also, fair point, re: stats. And I love a good 80s/90s Braves analogy. (I loved watching that team. The constant games on TBS made me a Braves-as-my-alternate-team fan for a brief period of childhood.)

        What I’d say about Elliott is that I think is passing out of the back may be unparalleled among MLS center backs. Yes, he is gangly and slow, but I think he makes up for it in positioning. He is not a perfect CB, but he’s a very, very good one.

        Consider that the Union play without a true d-mid, and the lack of one is why their vulnerability to the counter remains so glaring, particularly when Monteiro isn’t perfect. It makes what their CBs do even more impressive.

        When they’re not making the occasional game-changing error …

      • I’m not a flat out Elliott hater. I think the two things he does well are:1. Close on the oppositions 9 when he has his back turned between the lines…..he steps hard on that guy. Often either winning ball or chasing him back playing negative. It’s something you need out of the CB with that high line. 2. He’s dangerous on set pieces. Good in the air. I have to respectfully disagree on the distribution out of the back. I think it’s one of his week suits. Look at the first goal we conceded against RB, coming to mind. Yes Blake should have had it….but what started the whole thing? He has done that on more than one occasion. I also agree with his lack of athleticism for this level. Second, looking how he was drafted and how McKenzie and Trusty were weened in the Academy, while brief I guess for McKenzie, and have YNT experience together…..you’d have to infer the Union’s plan was for those two to be a CB pair for a long time….or sold for profit. Especially how we are stingy with money. You would probably have inside info on this and more insight than I would…..but from my distance…..that’s my assumption. Great player for squad rotation and to have, but I’m not sold on the great MLS CB label…….those game changing errors are what drive me BS crazy and to me are inexcusable at that level. Particularly how important it is to not concede….it throws your plans out of wack. Cheers mate!

      • And I also agree that not really having a proper 6 or two of them to shield him, it does complicate both CBs jobs…….

    • Well, we’re going to disagree there. I’ll stand behind my statement on Elliott, and I’d put down money that the Union don’t bring in any CBs other than a fourth CB type to replace Collin. Further, I’d say that most MLS teams would trade all their CBs for all of the Union’s, if they could.

  2. Elliot, Mck, and Trusty would’ve all looked better with a competent RB and GK. Gaddis continues to leave egregious holes and Blake had five years of mistakes in one season. Haris also leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to up-the-gut attacks. All three dealt with a lot and handled themselves adequately if you ask me. None of these guys were big money signings. In the world of CBs, they’re kids.
    .
    Trusty had some sort of problem that led to his demise. I’m optimistic he’ll bounce back well enough. Mck is good and his tenacity is second to none on the defensive side. Elliot would’ve looked tremendously better if he didn’t have to worry about his weak fullback partner.
    .
    I think all three will be here next season and I’m quite fine with that. We need upgrades elsewhere, let’s talk midfield options.

    • Big time on Harris shielding the back four……..+1

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        As far as I can gather, the Union allowed the fewest shots on goal in the entire league. Haris was doing a few things right out there as part of the defensive shape, and if Blake played as well as the average MLS goalkeeper, the team would have allowed 10-15 fewer goals over the course of the year.

      • I contribute part of that to how high a line they play and the amount of time we retained possession of the ball.

  3. The Trusty saga is what I’m concerned about more than anything at this point. What happened? Why the cryptic response when he was asked what happened?
    .
    What comes across in Tannenwald’s article is that Trusty is definitely mad at someone or something, having to do with the Union. Is it Curtin, because he exiled Trusty. Is it Ernst because he gave Trusty a low-ball offer to resign him? This is turning into one big juicy nugget of a story IMO. Possibly a worrisome one.

    • I’m curious on this one too……….gives you some insight into the Union locker room. And as a former player who maybe more than once pissed his coach off( surprise!), I relate to these stories….Lolz!

    • el Pachyderm says:

      My guess is he was benched to retain control of him next season… I bet he had a minutes stupulation of some sort.
      .
      Tactical. Or Strategic… depending on the magnifier.

      • I never thought of that. Thank you for bringing that up. I guess it just never occurred to me that a minutes/games played clause would be added in.
        .
        If that is the case, I can’t help think it could have been handled better.

  4. Not being in the locker room, you kind of have to assume Jim was steamed at Trusty after they got their doors blown off by Montreal. In turn, Trusty probably didn’t handle the critism well and reacted in not the best way. He did’t pull a Rosenberry and hit social media, he probably called Jim out in the locker room or training. Something we will never be really privy too, until Austin is at another club!

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