Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

On Tuesday night, the Union's promising back four of Giliano Wijnaldum, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry all took the field together and led their team to a shutout.

The only problem: that team was the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And they did it at a baseball complex in Harrisburg.

How did it happen that such a talented group of young MLS players have essentially been relegated to the minor leagues to get game minutes? It was only last season, after all, that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year Runner-Up, Marquez was being viewed as a potential US national team center back, and Yaro was perhaps the best player in the entire 2016 draft. And adding some offseason pop, Wijnaldum was certainly an intriguing left back prospect from the Netherlands.

But what looked to be the Union’s starting defense in the preseason is now Bethlehem’s starting defense as Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott charged their way into the lineup a few weeks back while Fabinho has refused to let go of his long-standing left back role.

And the backline may not be changing anytime soon, even as the Union’s three-game losing streak has sent them tumbling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of Saturday’s game vs. rival D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC, 7 p.m.).

“I don’t think we have a back four issue,” Union head coach Jim Curtin insisted during his weekly press conference. “We have a team that needs to do a little bit better offensively and be a little bit cleaner with some defensive issues as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.”

As proof, Curtin pointed to the fact the Union have allowed only six goals in their last eight league games, four of which have come over the last two contests with influential midfielder Alejandro Bedoya out of the lineup (and two coming in last week’s loss to the Red Bulls while the Union were down a man).

One of the big reasons for the team’s stinginess has been the surprisingly steady play of Elliott, a rookie from England who in the past few months has gone from late-round draft pick to preseason afterthought to stalwart starter.

And he’s well aware that two of the team’s most hyped prospects — Marquez and Yaro — are waiting in the wings behind him, ready to take their jobs back.

“That doesn’t add pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s good to have that competition there to always keep you on the top of your game. It’s the same with all of the center backs here. We all push each other to be better players and we just have to keep the team going. We know if one of us went down, another one can step in.”

Injuries did in fact force Marquez and Yaro to enter the game on June 3 at New York City FC, but Elliott and Onyewu regained their spots the following game vs. the Red Bulls.

It’s a unique pairing with an unheralded rookie (Elliott) teaming up with a one-time American soccer legend creeping up in age (Onyewu), but it has been working well.

“We have a good understanding of how each other plays and our strengths,” Elliott said. “We’ve played a good seven, eight games together and we found a balance. You see over the last eight games, we haven’t conceded many.”

While the Onyewu-Elliott pairing certainly has been effective, it always seemed like a short-term fix to help stabilize a defense that got off to a rough start this year. The same can be said with Gaddis supplanting Rosenberry, who brings more of an attacking presence to the flank.

So even though the back four as currently constructed might not be the team’s biggest issue at the moment, it’s fair to ask why they’d get the benefit of the doubt when at least some may not be a big part of the team’s future? If three straight losses don't put the team’s top young players back into the lineup, what will? And how will continuing to come off the bench or play in Bethlehem affect their development?

For now, it seems, like Curtin is putting everyone on equal footing, regardless of age, where they were drafted, or which guys were the most hyped last year.

“I don’t think there’s a big drop-off or difference with all eight [defenders], to be honest,” the Union coach said. “It’s good to have these issues, to have a lot of good players to draw from. We had a hard film session but concluded in our last eight, we’ve given up six goals. We can build on that.

“And it does start with defense in this league. You look at teams at the top of the standings in each conference and they defend their butts off for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do it in patches in games but we’ve just been too inconsistent.”

Maybe, then, it’s time for another change.

Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Facing a rival on national TV

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CSN

Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Facing a rival on national TV

New York Red Bulls (6-7-2) at Philadelphia Union (4-6-4)
5 p.m. on ESPN

After a 15-day break from MLS play, the Union hit the field at Talen Energy Stadium on Sunday to welcome the rival Red Bulls in a nationally televised showdown, hoping to snap a two-game losing streak. 

Here are five things to know:

1. Getting to know you
It was only last month when the Union last faced the Red Bulls at home, storming to a 3-0 win behind a C.J. Sapong hat trick to snap a 15-game winless streak and kick off a four-game winning streak. And after Sunday’s game, the Union again face the Red Bulls — on the road, on June 28 — in the U.S. Open Cup.

Union head coach Jim Curtin added that should only add more to the rivalry — though he did say that only a playoff meeting will make it a true rivalry.

“There have been some wild games between us,” he said, “so I think there is a little spice in there for sure.”

2. Injury issues
The Union won’t be completely healthy as they try to slow down stars Sacha Kljestan, Bradley Wright-Phillips and the rest of the Red Bulls.

On top of the long-term injuries to Maurice Edu and Brian Carroll, Fabian Herbers (groin) and Warren Creavalle (hamstring) weren’t able to train on Friday while Alejandro Bedoya (hamstring) practiced for a bit but wasn’t included in the projected starting lineup.

The Union captain, fresh off a stint with the U.S. national team (where he sustained the injury), is questionable for the game but Curtin is confident the Union will be fine even if Bedoya can’t go, and even though the team is coming off a 3-1 win over the Harrisburg City Islanders in the U.S. Open Cup game just four days ago.

“We got through the Open Cup game healthy,” he said. “We were able to manage minutes for certain guys. I think we’ll have fresh legs Sunday against a very good Red Bull team.”

3. Showcase for Jones?
If Bedoya isn’t ready to play, Derrick Jones will likely make his first MLS start since April 8 and his first MLS appearance since the last time Philly faced the Red Bulls on May 6. But the 20-year-old midfielder had a good reason for the absence as he was playing for the U.S. at the Under-20 World Cup. He then followed up a strong international tournament with a goal in Wednesday’s Open Cup win over Harrisburg.

“He has a little bounce in his step in training. He’s been really good,” Curtin said. “Now he steps on field vs. Red Bull and Tyler Adams is out there — two young guys who showed really well at the World Cup and they’ll want to get the better of each other in this game coming up. Derrick's done a great job for us when called upon. He’s a guy I have no problem throwing out there. I think he has grown in maturity from his experience at U-20 World Cup.”

Jones said he has  “a lot of confidence” after emerging as a starter at the U-20 World Cup and agreed with his coach that the chance to play against his U-20 teammate Tyler Adams is extra motivation for the weekend.

“We talked at camp and always trashed talk with each other,” he said with a smile. “I can’t wait to see him.”

4. Keep an eye on…
Red Bulls: Everything starts with Kljestan, who leads the team with six assists, and Wright-Phillips, who has a team-high six goals. Slowing them down will be a big test for a Union backline that is still growing as a unit and for goalkeeper Andre Blake, who Curtin hopes will “bail us out a couple of times.”

Union: Haris Medunjanin began to come into his own before leaving for a stint with Bosnia during the international break. He’ll likely need to have another big game for the Union to snap a two-game losing streak, especially if his midfield partner Bedoya is out.

5. This and that
• The Red Bulls have lost six straight road games, the fourth-longest such streak in franchise history.

• The 15 goals the Red Bulls have scored this season are the second-fewest in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only D.C. United and five fewer than the Union.

• The Red Bulls are coming off a 1-0 win over New York City FC in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday.

• Bedoya has committed the most fouls in MLS this season with 33.

• After going winless in their first four home games, the Union have won three straight at Talen Energy Stadium. The last time they won at least four straight home games was a five-game streak from Sept. 20, 2015 to April 23, 2016. 

Inside Doop: Andre Blake's huge game spoiled in Union's 2nd straight loss

Inside Doop: Andre Blake's huge game spoiled in Union's 2nd straight loss

It looks like the Union’s big turnaround has been put on hold.

After starting the season on an eight-game winless streak and then following that with a club-record four-game winning streak, the Union lost their second game in a row over the weekend.

What went wrong in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to New York City FC? And how can the Union regroup during the league’s international break? Here’s a look in this week’s Inside Doop.

Three thoughts about Saturday’s game
1. Almost two months ago, David Villa embarrassed Union goalie Andre Blake with a goal from practically midfield. This time around, Blake showed Villa — who Union head coach Jim Curtin called the best player to ever play in MLS — that he’s got some magic in him too, making a handful of incredible saves and visibly frustrating the Spanish legend. Blake’s heroics even caught the eye of New York City FC coach Patrick Vieira, who said the Union goalie was “fantastic.” So the fact that it wasn’t enough for the Union to squeak out a road point must have been hard for them to swallow.

2. A couple of old problems from seasons past came back to haunt the Union in this one as they allowed two late goals to blow a lead, both of which were offset pieces. The Union had been much more organized in this regard in recent weeks but were forced to switch their center back duo because of injuries with Richie Marquez coming in for Oguchi Onyewu and Joshua Yaro coming in for Warren Creavalle with Jack Elliot then shifting to the midfield. It’s hard to pin too much blame on Marquez and Yaro since coming off the bench is never easy (especially in Yaro’s case since it was his season debut). But it’s certainly fair to think that the result would have been different if Onyewu and Elliott had been able to remain in their spots all game.

3. As far as storylines go, Fafa Picault scoring the Union’s only goal was a pretty cool one. Born in Manhattan to Haitian parents, Picault said that this was the first time playing a professional match in his home city and that it was the first time that his grandfather — who once played for the Haitian national team — got to see him play live. The fact that his family then saw him score shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise though. Picault has now scored in three of his last five games — which could be even better if he wasn’t robbed last week. If you look at the way Picault has been playing, along with fellow newcomers Onyewu and Haris Medunjanin, suddenly sporting director Earnie Stewart’s offseason looks a lot better than it did a few weeks ago.

Three questions for the week(s) ahead
1. The Union have been dealing with all sorts of international call-ups of late with Alejandro Bedoya missing Saturday’s game to be with the U.S. national team and Medunjanin, wearing the captain’s armband in Bedoya’s place, leaving afterward to meet up with his Bosnia teammates before a World Cup qualifier. Then there are youngsters Derrick Jones and Auston Trusty who will be returning to the team after the U.S. Under-20’s World Cup run ended with a loss to Venezuela in the quarterfinals Sunday. And finally, we also learned Sunday that striker C.J. Sapong and winger Chris Pontius will be joining Bedoya on Bruce Arena’s preliminary Gold Cup roster for a USMNT training camp later this month. These are all good things but it certainly makes Curtin’s day-to-day duties a little more challenging this time of year.

2. Because of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the Union are off until their U.S. Open Cup opener against the Harrisburg City Islanders on June 14, followed by a nationally televised home showdown vs. the rival New York Red Bulls on June 18. Getting four days in between those two games rather than three is a big deal and could mean Curtin won’t be afraid to have a lot of guys go the full 90 minutes in both, especially since he values the Open Cup. Or will Curtin instead opt to throw all his eggs into the Red Bull basket and hope some of the younger backups can prove their mettle against the lower-division City Islanders?

3. Will Curtin and the coaching staff also take this opportunity to reevaluate the backline? It had seemed likely, even with the current group playing so well, that Marquez, Yaro and Keegan Rosenberry would eventually regain their starting spots. But after Saturday’s game, is it fair to say that Onyewu and Elliott are simply better than Marquez and Yaro at this point? And will Rosenberry ever be able to take back his job with Ray Gaddis playing mistake-free soccer? It would be understandable if Curtin sticks with what’s working but it’s also understandable to ask what then happens to Marquez, Yaro and Rosenberry? Will they simply turn into three more once-hyped Union prospects who saw their development stalled and career trajectories altered?

Quote of the week
“Overall, a good performance that gets wasted without any points.” — Union head coach Jim Curtin

Stat of the week
The 14 saves Blake has made in the past two games matches his highest total in any two straight games with the Union.

Player of the week
Blake has had a lot of terrific games for the Union but Saturday’s performance at Yankee Stadium may have been one of his best.