The Philadelphia Union's defense is good.
How good, you ask? Well, they've given up just 11 goals in 10 games, which is tied for second-best in the league. Only LA Galaxy has conceded fewer goals this season, and they've done so with a fairly expensive, veteran defense that has featured AJ DeLaGarza, Ashley Cole, Daniel Steres, Jelle Van Damme, and Robbie Rogers. The average age of that group is roughly 30.
This should come as no surprise. Experience is what makes quality defenders. Good defense is about making smart decisions with the ball, reading your opponents' movements, knowing how to best position yourself to make a play, and those are things that can really only be learned by playing the game, and playing it a lot. That's why, all across MLS, you see the best defenses anchored by older, savvy defenders like Chad Marshall, Drew Moor, and Jamison Olave. Do speed and strength and pure athleticism help? Of course, but it's brains that make a great defensive player, not brawn. Just ask Brian Carroll.
For me, that's what makes the Union's defensive performance this season so impressive. Watching the team play, it's easy to forget that four out of the five starting defenders are 25 or younger.
Richie Marquez already plays like a veteran CB. He's a vocal leader in the back, he consistently bails the team out of trouble with at least one incredibly timed tackle per game. I honestly don't think I have ever seen him lose an aerial duel, and he's growing out a beard to rival Nat Borchers. Believe it or not, Marquez is only 23 years old (he turns 24 on the 26th of May). How a 23-year-old CB is already a leader, and one of the best slide tacklers in the league, I have no idea. Marquez cemented himself as a starter last season, and has proven to be invaluable. He's only going to get better as he gains more experience. I can easily see Marquez being a staple in the Union's defense for the next decade.
Keegan Rosenberry just got some love from MLSsoccer.com's Armchair Analyst, Matt Doyle. In that linked article, Doyle raves about what a revelation Rosenberry has been at right back for the Union this season. He even goes so far as to say that, up to this point, Keegan has done more to earn Rookie of The Year honors than the in-form Jordan Morris. That's pretty big, considering that MLS has been treating Jordan Morris like the second coming of Jesus Christ since he chose Seattle over Europe. Also in the article, Doyle shows great highlighted examples of Rosenberry defending against Giovani dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ignacio Piatti, and Didier Drogba, some of the most dangerous attackers in the league. What the article leaves out is just how dangerous he has been going forward. The best part? Rosenberry is only 22 years old. I think it's safe to say that the young local talent has silenced all the doubters who said the Union reached to grab him at the #3 pick. I can't wait to watch Rosenberry continue to develop in Blue and Gold for the foreseeable future.
Joshua Yaro has been arguably the weakest link of the defense so far, but I think that speaks a lot more to how good the rest of the defense has been rather than his own lack of quality. I think Yaro has been good for a rookie, but there are shaky moments where it's clear he needs some more experience. That being said, I think Yaro's ceiling is extremely high. He's small, but doesn't often get bodied off the ball, and his speed can bail a defense out of a lot of trouble. We've already seen him come to the rescue a few times. His passing out of the back is incredibly calm for a rookie, but he has made some mistakes there. Next to Marquez, I think the Union have a great complimentary CB pair. Yaro has the speed to stay with just about anyone in MLS and Marquez is big and strong enough to battle it out with any forward in the league. Oh, and Yaro only just turned 22. Once he's gotten more games under his belt, he'll be a much more complete and consistent player.
Ken Tribbett was, I think, the biggest surprise. He's 23 years old, played for Drexel, went undrafted, and played a season in USL. I don't think anyone was expecting the Union to use him as a starter this season, and yet, here we are. Tribbett did extraordinarily well in the time he played before getting hurt. I don't think any fan would be upset seeing him or Yaro start next to Marquez. Whether he's a starter, or a solid depth option, Tribbett is a young and valuable piece. I foresee him being one of those stalwart-yet-under-appreciated defenders that play in the league for a long time. These guys are important in a salary cap league, and we're lucky to have him.
I saved the best for last: Andre Blake. What even is there to say about Andre Blake that hasn't already been said? He's incredible. Jim Curtin was recently quoted saying Blake is a "warm blanket" that helps him fall asleep at night. A weird statement? Sure, but I know just what Curtin means. The Union finally have a cemented starter in goal, and he's almost certainly one of the best shot-stoppers in the league. And he's only 25! With some more experience, his positioning and command of the box could continue to improve, and his distribution should get better as well. If the Union can manage to keep Blake from moving to Europe, they won't have to worry about the keeper position for a long, long time.
With all of this young talent, the Union are one young left back away from locking down all 5 defensive positions for the next 10 years. Jim Curtin has always talked about solidifying the defense first, and this season he really put his money where his mouth is. If the Union can keep this group together, imagine how great the defense will be when they are all in the prime of their careers? When they've all grown into seasoned MLS veterans after years of developing chemistry together, they could be an even more formidable squad than the 2011 defense which got the Union into the playoffs.
Man, it just feels really good to have a good team, doesn't it? Drink it in, everyone, and get used to it, because I think that we may be enjoying this defensive core for years to come.