Brian Carroll has played the third-most minutes in MLS history. As a defensive midfielder who doesn't compile headline stats, that statistic probably defines the richness of his career more than any other. Though this is only his fifth season with the Philadelphia Union, Carroll has been in the league since 2003. In that time, he's won two MLS Cups and four consecutive Supporters' Shields from 2006 to 2009. At this point, it's safe to say that Brian Carroll has seen almost everything there is to see in Major League Soccer.
But even this season has thrown a few surprises at Carroll. First, he didn't expect to play as much as he's been playing. A prolonged injury to presumed starter Maurice Edu has given Carroll more than 1,600 minutes on the pitch this season. Second, the defense wasn't supposed to actually improve. As of now, the Union are on pace to slightly improve their goals against average over last season, but there have been signs that this defense could be a lockdown unit. Through the first 11 games of the season, the Union ranked third in goals allowed. Considering that they have started two rookies on the back line in every game this season, that's a pleasant surprise.
Brian Carroll has seen a lot of defenses develop in his day and he sees a number of reasons for the improvement. He talked about that progress in a recent interview with Brotherly Game.
"Everybody from forwards to the goalkeeper is taking more of a role in helping out defensively," noted Carroll. "I think you also look at Andre [Blake] coming into his own, having more experience, getting experience with the Jamaican national team, playing more confidently. I think you have Richie [Marquez] who's been in the league now and seen everything, is coming more into his own. He's more comfortable and communicating more."
Beyond a team buy-in and experience, there appears to be a better camaraderie than last year as well.
"I think you have all of that and chemistry plays a big part as well. Guys get along on and off the field and its more enjoyable to work together and it's easier to go out and perform when everyone gets along and knows each other a little bit more intimately," Carroll said. "That all starts with the way that the coaching staff and Earnie [Stewart] approached preseason and brought us together from day one and did a lot of team activities and different things that we haven't really done before."
Speaking of activities that don't happen often, Brian Carroll scored a dramatic goal in Colorado earlier this year that earned the Union a big road point. The goal was just the ninth of Carroll's career.
"Personally it was just nice to get on the stat sheet," he said. "That doesn't normally happen. I'm okay with that. I understand what my role is and I'm happy to do that."
The Union had conceded just a few minutes before after a hard-fought match.
"As a group, we were down. It was late in the game; we didn't have a whole lot to lose at that point," he recalled. "We were able to push and continue to apply some pressure and take a few more chances, and I just took at chance at making a deep run from the top of the box into a space where I had confidence in our teammates winning the ball, and right place right time, and I kept it on frame and it went in. It was a big road point for us 'cause it kept a lot of momentum going."
That's momentum that the Union wish they had back. It was not long after the Colorado match that the league took a break for the Copa America Centenario, and since then, the Union have allowed 2.3 goals per game. During the break, Carroll, who collected eight U.S. National Team caps in his career, took some time to watch his former team.
"It's nice to sit back and just become a fan every once in awhile - being able to watch the games and see how [the U.S. is] doing. There's always a lot of talk and commotion about are we progressing? Is the current staff doing a good enough job? [The U.S.] tied for one of our best ever finishes, there were some great performances and not so great results, but in the end I thought we performed well," Carroll said. "We showed things that we're capable of and we also showed where we need some improvement. There's always going to be chatter about who is in and who's out and who's next. I think we should just continue to focus on improving and realize where we are."
Despite the disappointing results after the break, the Union still find themselves in a playoff race. Carroll reflected on his season so far and what may be a final run in a MLS uniform, even though he hopes that's not the case.
"I'm certainly excited and happy that I've been able to have a role in the team this year, and at this point I'm just having fun and helping the group as best I can. We have done a decent job positioning ourselves in the table so far this season and we need to find a way to carry this on and continue to improve and finish strong, and I hope to be a part of that; whether that's playing all the time or whatever is needed for the best of the team," he said. "I think everybody is taking on that mentality [of doing] whatever is best for the team, and keep rising to the challenge when called upon. I will continue to do that, and I know my teammates will."
The Union have certainly risen to the challenge this year and are exceeding at least outside expectations. Brian Carroll's surprising impact this season is one of the many reasons why.