Photo: Courtesy of Akron University Athletics
PSP talks to Akron head coach Jared Embick about Philadelphia Union SuperDraft pick Robbie Derschang, a winger who was converted into a left back. Embick talks about Derschang’s qualities as a player, where he expects him to play, and how he expects him to develop.
How did Robbie end up at left back for you after coming in as a winger? And do you think that’s a spot he can succeed in at the next level?
I think his position will still be defined at the next level. He played left back for us because in our style of play a lot of our wingers are guys we bring inside like an attacking mid at times. They also have to drift wide and in and out at times. It didn’t really fit his strengths and, to his credit, he realized that and actually came to us because we were struggling at left back and said he could do the job. It fit for us because our left back is a guy that goes box to box and they’re basically wingers in a true sense.
With the amount of time we have the ball they don’t necessarily have to defend as much. I don’t know if his position will stay like that at the next level. I think he can do that, they’re just going to have to be a little bit patient and work with him. He made a lot of strides, and that’s because of how hard he works, but he still needs a little bit of polishing up in that position. He may very well end up being a left mid for teams or maybe back to a left winger if teams just want him to stay wide.
His strengths are: Get the ball wide, go at people, serve a ball in, work rate, intensity, effort. He’s very high-end on those things. They’re going to find a kid that works hard, plays for the team, wants to win, all those things. And has pace, athleticism, and some skill, especially when you’re talking about going at people.
Is he the type of player that’s going to come in and have the confidence to take people on at the next level? When he came to your program as a junior, did it take him a while to acclimate to a higher quality of play?
I think that’s a difficult one. It was more the difficult style of play for his position than necessarily him lacking confidence. He’s pretty confident in his ability. It’s how are they going to ask him to play. We asked him to play a little bit different. We put him at left back and we got what we wanted from him in the attack but he had to grow a bit as a defender.
When you put him at left back, and left backs in your program are expected to hold the ball, get involved in possession… What were you looking for in him as a left back and what did you see that indicated he’d fit and what did you see that made you move him back up top in late October when you were looking for some offense?
We thought it would fit just because when we get going and get a lot of possession, sometimes the other team takes away the middle of the field so we get a lot of space wide. We were looking for him to overlap and get some service and make some late runs getting forward. That worked out pretty well. We don’t drop off when we defend; we press. And he has the athleticism to recover if he needs to. There are many times when we are sitting deep on top of the other team’s eighteen with our back four. When you’re talking about MLS, the game’s a lot more even the majority of the time. What if you have to get a period of a half when you’re locked in your own half, in those things he’ll have to continue to grow. He’s a tremendous kid, willing to learn.
I moved him back up top because we ran into injuries. He was injured himself. Coming off an injury, I was thinking to myself do I want to put him at left back again when he may not be fit enough to go 90 minutes. May only be able to get 60 minutes out of him first game off an injury, and I don’t like rotating anybody in the back line for us. And when I was watching him, when we played midweek, there were guys who hadn’t played a lot and were coming back for training and we had a little small sided game. And [Robbie] ended up scoring six or seven goals in twenty minutes. So I just asked him if coming off injury if I throw you up at left wing do you think you could score us some goals. Coming off injury, it wasn’t a terrible idea. And he said, ‘Yeah, I feel like I can score.’ I think he had three goals in, like, three starts up there. Then we got guys healthy and we moved him back.
What I think people don’t know that probably hurt us is that he got injured in the game against Marquette. And that injury cost us because we put a guy back there that was an emergency left back who hasn’t played much, and that’s how we gave up the goal. Our emergency left back lost his mark and we got scored on when we were trying… I always play the game to win. I could have put a better left back in there, but I thought we could score first before that was taken care of. So we didn’t have him the whole second half on and that was a huge loss. I think if he stayed healthy in that game and didn’t get injured, I think we would have probably ended up winning it.
You talked about him being a competitor for the full 90 every time he’s on the pitch, but losing your mark for just a moment can be an issue for any young player. It’s been an issue for the Union, in general, for a couple years now. That’s not something you guys need to work on a ton since you hold the ball so much. But teams do try to get you on set pieces and things like that. How is he defending those?
You know, a lot of teams would really emphasize restarts against us. So for the amount of opportunities he’s had with us… maybe one or two times he’s lost his mark and maybe that ended up with one goal and one missed chance. But for the most part, he’s pretty focused and does a pretty good job on the restarts. He wasn’t our best marker but I’d easily put him as our third best marker usually. For an outside back – usually your center backs are your two best markers and maybe your D-mid is your third, so to be in the top three is a good sign for him.
Can you talk a little bit about his crossing ability? He’s more of a classic winger that takes people on. How is his crossing at this point?
That’s a good one because he has put in some very good crosses, I’d say this year more than others. But we don’t really have an animal in the box or a guy that’s really good in the air. Our forwards are really good on the ground so we put balls into the box on the ground or cut balls back. But if you whip balls into good areas, they aren’t animals. So I think his crossing ability will actually be better at the next level for teams than it was for us. Because of the type of players that are there, that play the forward line. I think a guy like McInerney will enjoy what Robbie can bring on the crossing level.
I don’t think it’s consistently good enough, but for a starting point where he’s pretty close where, if he continues to work on it, it could be an asset for him in the near future.
His decision making ability. Like you said, you guys are often camped out in the opposition half. The Union have had a lot of trouble forming that umbrella on top of the box and keeping possession. How have you seen him as a guy with the ball making the right decision. Has he developed in the few years you’ve had him?
I think that’s his biggest area we probably helped him with. Those decisions on where to keep the ball when, when to drive forward, where he should be looking to play the ball. I think that’s probably the biggest level of growth in the two years we’ve had him. I think with what I’ve seen in Philadelphia, they’ll help him in that area and help him continue to grow to where he’s going to be pretty fine in that. What he’ll help with is those times when you’re locking teams in when you lose possession because we do that a lot and we work on that a lot so he’ll be able to read those situations pretty quickly at the next level. So he’ll be able to help you sustain pressure in the opponent’s half.
But I think decision-making is still, for any possession team, that is a constant thing to work on. But I think he has grown tremendously in that area and he’s going to come in and probably do a pretty solid job right away with that.
How has he been in terms of a transition defender? Has he made the right decisions closing gaps, picking the right angles?
He improved in that because he’s a great kid. Everything that goes with that: The recovery lines, the angles, the immediate transition part, he’s grown in. Because he’s a fast kid, that’s going to be an advantage of his game both ways. If you’re looking to get out on the counterattack and him to join the attack, he can do that. And when he has to recover quickly, even if he’s a second off, because of his pace, as long as he chooses the right route back, he can get back in it pretty quick, so I think that can be a strength.
But I think that with a lot of rookies, that first year the difference of the speed and the mental game are always going to be under the microscope and won’t be where they need to be right away because they need to adjust to the speed of play. Any MLS team can take a ball you lose and turn it into a goal in five seconds, so I think that kind of fear is tough. With us, only a handful of teams can really do that. So we’ll see. Consistently for us, he was pretty good at it. It’ll be interesting to see how he does at the next level with a little bit faster of the game.
Can you give me a little bit about Robbie as a person? What kind of guy are the fans going to get when they meet him? What kind of locker room presence does he have? How does he handle those tough times like after the Marquette loss?
He’s a great, great guy. He’s one of those guys that’s always with a positive outlook on things. Always, ‘Come on, let’s do this. Let’s get our heads up, let’s push each other.’ All those things. Tremendous amount of positive energy. Smile on his face, very engaging.
From the standpoint of the fans, they’ll love his intensity. My neighbor has been a season ticket holder for over 18 years at Akron games and he says Robbie is one of his favorite players of all time, because of those things I just told you. He’s just a friendly guy. I told Robbie that and Robbie found out where that guys sits and says hi to him every game. He just works and runs and plays with a smile on his face, and plays with so much passion. He’s always positive and it rubs off in a good way. And I think that’s what people will like about him. You’ll see him in it for the cause every game.