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How a coaching change revitalized the Union II season

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

It’s been a hectic year for Philadelphia Union II to say the least.

They started the year with a loss to Hartford and a draw against Loudoun, then they didn’t play soccer for four and half months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They made a return to the field in poor form, losing 6-0 at home to Pittsburgh and then 5-1 to fellow reserve team Red Bulls II. They put up a fight against Hartford, losing 3-2 and then eventually fell once again to Pittsburgh 4-0 on the road. After just 6 games and a season restart, Sven Gartung’s team had recorded just 1 point and lost 3 of its last 4 by 4 or more goals.

And then, a day before the second matchup with Red Bulls 2, it was announced Gartung and the organization mutually agreed to part ways, with the German finding it difficult to remain competitive with a young squad.

Enter “interim” head coach Marlon LeBlanc.

LeBlanc was formerly the head coach at West Virginia University, coaching and developing Union regulars Raymon Gaddis and Jack Elliott during his time there. He left Morgantown in December of 2019, eventually taking a job with the Union academy as the U19 coach. LeBlanc already had strong connections to the academy, with his son Kellan currently playing with U14 team. Due to his brief spell as the U19 coach, Leblanc already had experience coaching several of the U2 players.

That familiarity paid off in his very first game, with the U2 getting their first win of the year, defeating Red Bulls 2 3-2. After that first win, Union II would only go on to earn one more win in their final 10 games, a 4-0 win over Loudoun United. Although Leblanc’s Union II side also posted a poor record on paper, they only lost by 4 or more goals once, in a 6-0 blowout at the hands of the Red Bulls II. In their other 6 losses since the first win, the team only lost by more than 2 goals once, and falling by a 1 goal margin 4 times in that span. The changes LeBlanc made weren’t evident in the side’s record, but made the team competitive, something that is vitally important for a young players development.

So what did LeBlanc change? It wasn’t radical formation change or even a change in play style, something Ernst Tanner probably told him to keep the same. He started deploying his players in their more natural positions and turning to his younger players on the squad.

Brandon Craig was no longer being played as a center-back moving to his preferred position as a central midfielder, a similar move was made with Steve Kingue. Nathan Harriel was also no longer deployed at center-back, playing at his preferred position as left-back. Issa Rayyan, in his limited minutes, was also returned to midfield. The biggest change LeBlanc implemented was giving his youngest players responsibility, making young players such as Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, Danny Flores and Patrick Bohui centerpieces of his attack. Later in the season we began to see more of Caden Stafford and Quinn Sullivan at striker. In addition to making his youngest players centerpieces, he also made the move of rotating the captains armband, giving it to Brandan Craig multiple times, making him the youngest captain in team history at 16.

The job of a reserve team coach isn’t the most glamorous, and can be demoralizing facing defeat after defeat. LeBlanc’s experience in college soccer and briefly as an academy coach already put him in the right mindset for the job, winning is good, but it’s not the most important thing. LeBlanc knows he’s here to guide his players through their first years as professional players, something he was doing at West Virginia, he also knows he has to keep them in a competitive environment to not get discouraged after each defeat.

While their record may not show it, the Union II did improve throughout the season , with LeBlanc finding the perfect balance of competition and development for his young squad.

3 Comments

  1. The Gartung thing is so weird, you would think anyone getting the U2 job would know exactly what they were getting into. It feels like the type of thing where if the Union were as big as the Eagles, Tanner would have fielded a ton of questions on what happened there.

    I liked what LeBlanc did and would love to see him continue. With what happened with Gartung and with the Union preferring to promote from within, I think it would fit well to continue to let LeBlanc learn and grow as a coach with U2.

    • Trajectory. Staying on this course should yield even better 2021 results in both the quality of play and table.

  2. Gruncle Bob says:

    Interesting. Nice piece.

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