Photo: Earl Gardner
The gritty defensive displays that turned MLS Cup into a long slog to penalties have focused attention on Philadelphia Union’s options in back. After entering the season’s June break with a one game-one goal against target firmly in sight, the Union’s defense cracked, crumbled, and bumbled its way toward the bottom of the league. Even with the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year in net, the defense was powerless to stop powerhouse offenses like…Chicago Fire.
When evaluating Philadelphia’s defensive issues, the simplest approach is to look at individual mistakes. This is the tactic that led many, myself included, to assume the Union would leave Fabinho unprotected in the previous expansion draft. Instead, Philly opted to protect their left back and dangle Pedro Ribeiro, who was promptly snatched up by Orlando and is now without a contract. Fabinho, meanwhile, still makes mistakes. But a serviceable outside back is a valuable commodity in MLS, and the Union were right to protect their asset.
Individual mistakes can lead to financial mistakes
Individual mistakes rightly draw the eye, but they should not necessarily draw the checkbook. As Jurgen Klopp recently argued when defending a mistake his goalie made, “I found eight players who could have defended the goal before Loris [Karius] was involved.” The Union played with young, inexperienced center backs because they planned to play with young, inexperienced center backs. As a club that seemed a year or more away from competing for a cup, Philly felt the freedom to rotate two rookies and a developing third round draft pick (who wasn’t even the first center back Philly selected that year). Playing with youth means allowing for a greater volume of errors, both positional and on the ball. Joshua Yaro, Ken Tribbett, and Richie Marquez certainly collected their fare share of lowlights in 2016, but again: That was, or should have been, part of the plan.
Zooming in on central defense as a position of high need this offseason would be like lifting weights for a year with the goal of picking up something heavy (Peter Nowak’s ego, for example) then hiring someone to pick it up for you. The overarching goal when playing developing players is, and should always be, development. That was the implicit commitment Union brass made at the start of the past season, and it must remain in place, despite salient in-game mistakes. In 2017, the Union defense will be one year older and, if the coaching staff does their job, one year better. Adding a veteran piece to replace departing hanger-on Anderson is a smart move, but it need not be the focus of the 2017 offseason, nor even a major storyline.
The situation is more important than the personnel
To improve the defense, the Union need to improve the midfield. As impressive as the defenses were in MLS Cup, the bigger takeaway is that the match featured two of the absolute best shielding midfielders in the league. Michael Bradley’s evolution into a smart, disciplined midfield anchor allowed Toronto tactical flexibility to get the most out of their roster. And Ozzie Alonso, coming off injuries that made Seattle wonder if he was worth keeping around, used Jedi mind tricks to get away with five fouls in less than 70 minutes without picking up a caution. Both players were instrumental in allowing their defenses to handle the speed and power of the opposition attack, yet when a defense struggles attention turns immediately to the back four, and not the players in front of it. (And the defensive midfield position pales in importance to the bigger tactical issues Philly encountered as the team tired and floundered even after adding the talented Alejandro Bedoya to the roster.)
Heading into 2017, the Union have a long list of names on the depth chart at defensive midfield. Unfortunately, not one name is associated with a player who can perform the duties Philly needs from the position. Maurice Edu has the physical tools, but his physical toolbox has been and remains broken. Brian Carroll and Warren Creavalle both proved to be human coin tosses that could elevate their games at times but failed to provide consistent solutions in 2016. Derrick Jones is gifted but raw, and that’s not a combo the Union lack in the back half of their team right now.
To compete going forward, Philly needs to apply resources to the area of the pitch that is easiest to overlook: Midfield. The dream Nogueira-Barnetta-Edu group will never play together. Scope the current roster and pick an ideal trio to start next season. Bedoya (if he even belongs in midfield)… and…
Many of the individual errors Philly defenders made last year come down to being put in bad situations. As the season wore on, opposing teams found it easier and easier to transition at speed through the center of the pitch, and once a defense is backpedaling they are at a disadvantage. The Union can hope to replace Tranquillo Barnetta with Roland Alberg, or perhaps with Bedoya, but they cannot spend another season treading water and hoping Mo Edu’s body comes good. But they also cannot scrap their defensive project simply because a group of young players didn’t perform like vets. Remember: That was, or should have been, the expectation. Instead, Philly needs to find real talent at defensive center mid, either by shopping in-league (e.g., Dallas’ Victor Ulloa) or abroad. A strong holding midfielder has a better chance of addressing the team’s deeper strategic and shape-based issues, while even the strongest central defender will struggle without adequate protection (think of a good quarterback with a porous offensive line).
Even though the Union scored a lot of goals last year, there is still a clear, undeniable need at striker. In other words, sometimes the most obvious indicator of where resources should go is not also the most reliable indicator.
Though some commentators will look at MLS Cup and at the Union’s central defense and imagine that a simple equation emerges, this is not the case. Philadelphia Union have a long-term plan in back, and they can buttress that plan with smart, affordable, depth signings.
The Union do not, at least not based on the roster as it stands, currently have a long-term plan in midfield. This is where resources should go if the club views their defensive struggles from a broad, holistic perspective.