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Fixing the Union: Defensive Edition

In this portion of our new series Fixing the Union, we look at what is going wrong with the defense and goalkeeper positions

MLS: Portland Timbers at Philadelphia Union Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Inspired by a mailbag question, this series is going to look at ways the Union could theoretically become a winning side again.

To put this season’s start in proportion, the Union have started on a historically bad stretch. Beyond the headlines of four straight losses and no wins past August 27th 2016, it truly has been historical.

Since the 2000 MLS season, only four teams have started worse than this team. In 2001, New England Revolution lost their first six games. In 2003, Colorado earned one point in their first six. In 2006, Real Salt Lake also earned one point in six games. Lastly, in 2012, Toronto FC lost their first nine games. After those four teams, the Union are next in line with two points in six games.

With that said, the Union need some sort of changes to their lineup to become a respectable side again. In this portion, the Union’s backline and goalkeeping will be put under the microscope.

At goalkeeper, the Union have a “pretty decent” keeper in Andre Blake. The statline this season for Blake is not pretty. In six games, the Jamaican International has 12 saves on 25 shots as well as a 1.83 Goals Against Average. It looks bad, but Andre Blake is not going to be benched and to blame him for the Union woes would be ridiculous.

The backline is tied for second to last in MLS with 11 goals given up. Currently, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez, Jack Elliott, Ken Tribbett, Oguchi Onyewu, Auston Trusty make the center backs available on the roster.

Onyewu has been one of the lone bright spots this season. Despite this, on Friday night against New York City FC Richie Marquez was paired with Jack Elliott, who made his MLS debut. In his debut, Elliott put in a decent shift, but it was an odd place for the rookie to make his debut, especially against the world-class David Villa.

Marquez has not been the most consistent player either this season so far. On the first goal against NYCFC, he looked partially at fault as he did not see Jack Harrison spring behind him to put the ball into the net.

Marquez and Onyewu have been the starting center back pairing in all but one match so far. With Yaro still working his way back, there’s no fix that would really make sense at this point.

When Yaro does return, a pairing of Yaro and Onyewu could make sense. Yaro is much more mobile than Marquez as well as Onyewu, which could free up the wing back to move up and down the field more. The counter opinion to this pairing is that Onyewu is not the future of this team, while Marquez and Yaro are both young and probably will be around longer term than Gooch. In the end, the pairing is a wash as either Marquez or Onyewu will do a similar job.

Let’s talk full backs now. On the roster, full back wise, Keegan Rosenberry, Fabinho, Ray Gaddis, Giliano Wijnaldum and Aaron Jones make up the available players. Both Keegan Rosenberry and Fabinho, the two starters, have not been very good this season up to this point. Rosenberry himself had an especially poor match Friday night, as his turnover in the defensive third led to Harrison’s goal.

On offense, Fabinho and Rosenberry have not been as visible in the final third as they have been previously. In Friday’s match, Rosenberry especially was a non-factor as he only had two completed passes in the final third all match.

Completed passes by Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry in Friday’s 2-0 loss to NYCFC

Take a look at this map below from the last Union win on August 27th 2016 against Sporting Kansas City.

Completed Passes by Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry in the Union’s August 27th 2016 win over Sporting Kansas City.

For the Union, Fabinho and Rosenberry need to be involved more in the offense, as good things come from the two having more influence in the final third.

Again, Fabinho and Rosenberry are likely not going to be exchanged out at this point, so there’s no real fix to be had here. Unless Giliano Wijnaldum proves himself in USL or starts making in the 18 consistently, there’s no real competition for either two starters.

In sum, the defense - besides maybe center back - does not have much competition for minutes at this point. Blake, Marquez, Yaro, and Rosenberry will be a part of the young core of this defense. If Wijnaldum can prove he belongs in MLS, the defense could be set up for a while. If not, Earnie Stewart may have to go back to the drawing board to find another starting LB for the future.

While the Union have not been good on defense, it is possible it is the midfield that is leading to poor performances, which will be discussed in the next portion of this series.