The Philadelphia Union have been catching the media’s attention as of late, but not necessarily from every part of the squad. Over the offseason, the boys in blue hauled in the likes of David Accam for allocation money and a DP attacking midfielder in Borek Dockal, strengthening the midfield considerably. The defense, by the looks of the preseason, looks very strong heading into 2018, but not too much noise has been made about it. The Union signed three homegrown defenders alone in the offseason, all showing promise, but the main attraction has been put towards the Union’s promising attack, with Accam making the load C.J. Sapong has lighter. As potent as the attack may be, their backline is the spine of the team, and success found there will be detrimental to the club’s success this season.
Fabinho – LB/RB (33)
While Fabinho may be at towards the latter stages of his career, having his services with the Union once again is fantastic. The Brazilian fullback has done well providing an extra option forward, while still getting back to a defensive position to ensure defensive stability. Last year was a bit of a drop from his assist tally in 2016, but with Accam acting as an inside forward for the Union, he will draw attraction away from Fabinho, allowing better crosses in the box for Sapong to get on the other end of. The 33-year-old may be nearing retirement, but he’s still has something left in the tank and can mentor homegrown signing Matt Real, a Brazilian-American from the Bethlehem Steel.
Jack Elliott – CB (22)
A blessing in disguise for the Union, the 4th round pick blossomed into a rock at the back for the Philly faithful. Elliott’s rookie season for the Union was a fantastic one, earning him 3rd in the ROTY voting. With 1.5 interceptions, 1.9 tackles per 90 and just about 1 shot block plus pass deflection, Elliott plays more like the “traditional” CB. Someone who can sit back and make sure that nothing gets by the back line requires great poise and experience, but Elliott does this at the young age of 22. The only flaw to this is that Elliott is known to concede a foul or two here and there. With time, that’s subject to change, making him a great presence at the back. In a couple of years, we may see the armband around him.
Raymon Gaddis – RB (28)
Gaddis has been a Union player for quite a while, marking his debut for the club in 2012. However, this may come to an end. Well, at least his time as a starter. The American has, over time, become more and more of a liability for the club. Like shown vs. D.C. United in Clearwater, Gaddis struggles to mark players on set pieces as well as in open play. Unlike Fabinho, he struggles to create via crossing when going forward as well. The fullback position requires someone who can add width to a team as well as someone who can defend and Gaddis may not be what the Union hoped for when he was first acquired.With the emergence of 2016 Fair Play Award winner and ROTY finalist Keegan Rosenberry, it can very well be hard for him to find minutes this season.
Richie Marquez – CB (25)
If there are any takeaways with Marquez’s preseason, it’s that he shouldn’t be starting for the Union. The final preseason against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, was in fact, very rowdy. The Yaro – Marquez pairing was a complete disaster and it wasn’t entirely down to chemistry. Getting beaten on multiple occasions doesn’t inspire confidence for the fans, Jim Curtin, and even himself. While he may be an experienced CB in MLS, developing ex-academy players in a squad with an average age less than 25 isn’t a bad look for this team. With that said, his minutes on the field may go down slightly.
Mark McKenzie – CB (19)
A youth graduate and Demon Deacons alum, homegrown signing Mark McKenzie has high expectations for the future. While he does have to compete with Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott, McKenzie does have a history that deserves a chance. Playing with the U.S. u20s with Matt Real and playing with one of the best colleges in the nation is no easy task and performing for both sides is incredible. At 6’0 and 185 lbs., McKenzie will be playing a very physical game in MLS, winning aerial duels and putting in strong challenges. At Wake Forest, the 19-year-old was part of clean sheets vs. No. 17 ranked Virginia and No. 19 Butler, winning an ACC Championship in the process.With performances like the ones he’s had in the past, Wake Forest might not be the only team he brings a championship to.
Matt Real – LB/RB (18)
The likely heir to the throne, Matt Real’s got a lot to learn in MLS. Fortunately, he has Keegan Rosenberry and Fabinho to rely on for assistance and mentorship during his developmental stages. The Brazilian-American has experience playing for the u20 U.S. team as well as the u18s. Professionally, he played with the USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC and contributed to a team that would make the playoffs. While they did get knocked out in the conference quarterfinal, being inserted into the XI during the early stages of the season helped with his IQ and inserting him into a team that wants to win rather than focus on development like a youth side would give him a similar taste of MLS. With that, he will take the game he learned and try to incorporate it with the minutes Jim Curtin may give him should Fabinho lack fitness or get hurt.
Keegan Rosenberry – RB (24)
Rosenberry’s a bit of an interesting player. During his rookie season in 2016, he performed well enough to have his name thrown around in the ROTY conversation. He was great defensively, getting in position to make a tackle and win the ball, and did it without earning a single card during that season, winning the Fair Play award. In 2017, however, a sophomore slump stunted his growth. Fabinho played in his position quite a lot due to injury and not getting selected in the XI. Faith was restored during the preseason, though. His movement forward along with how quickly it would take for him to get back, along with having midfielders press a potential man Rosenberry has to mark helped, but the 24-year-old looks to have returned to his 2016 form. The season opener vs. New England Revolution should be a good early test of that.
Auston Trusty – CB (19)
Of all youth products, Trusty has certainly caught the most attention out of Union and MLS fans around the league. After the preseason tour in Tampa Bay, the Philly faithful find it hard to believe that this will be his first season in MLS. While he has had experience for the national team, playing in the 2015 u17 World Cup and u20 CONCACAF Championship, no development could escalate to that scale, that fast. His free-roaming style, calling for the ball, playing from the back, passing range, and ball carrying resemble some European CBs. Kalidou Koulibaly comes to mind. While I doubt Trusty will reach that level, he’s shown similar characteristics which can make his potential CB partner, Jack Elliott, more comfortable when defending. Having a ball-playing CB means he won’t have to make that first pass into the midfield or clear the ball out of instinct as frequently as he did last season. Should Trusty become a regular on the XI, the Union will have a special duo in their ranks.
Josh Yaro – CB (23)
Unfortunately, Yaro didn’t get much time due to a shoulder injury, missing about 3 to 4 months in the process. What’s even more worrying about this, is his aggression. The 23-year-old has only made as many appearances as he has years of his life and accumulated 3 red cards plus 3 yellow cards. With his aggression, comes bad positioning at times, which allows the forward to dart right by him. For being the 2nd overall pick in the 2016 MLS SuperDraft, this is concerning and while it might be early, he has earned the right to be called a “bust”. While he can shield the ball, he’s not comfortable on the ball, lacks discipline, and shows poor concentration. It may come off harsh, but a good defender, especially a high draft pick, should need to have 2 of the 3 things listed. As of right now, Yaro isn’t there yet.
The group of defenders at the Union is interesting. It’s a great mix of youth, potential, experience, and it gives the team hope. My predicted backline will consist of Rosenberry – Trusty – Elliott – Fabinho (working from right to left). It gives the team a good mix of everything and should they gain chemistry, the group will make Talen Energy Center a fortress.