The Philadelphia Union haven’t had a great track record when it comes to left backs. They started with Jordan Harvey in 2010, who was inexplicably let go the following year (Harvey is now with the Vancouver Whitecaps, where he’s been a fixture since arriving). Then it was Gabriel Farfan (converted left winger), Porfirio Lopez for a hot minute (remember him?), then Ray Gaddis (another converted player, this time from right back), and finally Fabinho - the first honest-to-goodness-I’m-supposed-to-be-playing-this-position left back. Fabinho has been with the team since 2013, however when the Union acquired Giliano Wijnaldum earlier this year the assumption was that Fabinho’s starting days were numbered.
That wasn’t immediately the case though.
My first impression of Wijnaldum was not a good one. Preseason aside (because no one looks good in preseason), I remember watching the stream of the first Bethlehem Steel FC match of the season against the Rochester Rhinos simply to get a glimpse of the Dutch left back that the Philadelphia Union had brought in. I was trying to really watch him and get a feel for why he wasn’t included in the Union’s first team plans as Jim Curtin elected to go with Fabinho - the man Wijnaldum was supposed to replace.
Wijnaldum struggled in the match. Often times he was caught way too far upfield, which put his linemates of Auston Trusty and Ken Tribbett under too much stress. He was also dispossessed easily from the ball, rarely looking comfortable on the ball.
I asked Evan Villella, Brotherly Game’s Bethlehem Steel FC correspondent and USL Editor about how Wijnaldum has improved this season. Villella said that “He definitely got better (as the season progressed). I'm not sure when, but he seemed to kinda pick up his skills in May. He provides everything the Union want in a back,” Villella said. “He’s good on the ball, able to interlink with his wingers (him and Marcus Epps are damn good together), as well as serve some decent crosses.”
Fast forward to Sunday’s 3-0 thrashing of the New England Revolution. Wijnaldum was a force along the Union’s left, limiting Teal Bunbury to one shot on goal and stymieing the Revs’ right wing to just two successful forward passes on the right side. Wijnaldum had four tackles, four interceptions, four clearances, and eight recoveries for the Union.
It’s very possible that it was taking Wijnaldum some time to get adjusted to life in the United States and the rigors of USL and MLS. The farthest trip in the Eredivisie this year is about three and a half hours drive from Kerkrade (home of Roda JC) to Groningen - about equivalent of going from New York City to Washington, D.C.
Wijnaldum’s last match was his best yet, and should make it very difficult for Jim Curtin to revert back to Fabinho for Thursday’s match against Sporting Kansas City. For what it’s worth, whoscored.com has Wijnaldum’s overall rating for the season at 7.24 - second best on the team only behind CJ Sapong (7.25). To his credit, Fabinho’s 6.99 is good for seventh best on the club, but it’s still a full quarter of a point behind Wijnaldum.
Stats aside, just giving the players the eye test also gives Wijnaldum the advantage over the past few games. Wijnaldum isn’t afraid to go forward, however when doing so he seems more calculated than Fabinho throwing caution to the wind and marauding down the pitch. This allows him to sit back and be able to pick out and intercept passes. The last time Fabinho had a match with four interceptions was the Union’s 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo - which ironically enough was the last match the Union won with him in the lineup. Villella adds “What (Wijnaldum) provides over Fabinho at this point is a combination of a good motor as well as some deceptive strength.” Watching Sunday’s match against the Revs reinforces that point.
First impressions can often be wrong. In Wijnaldum’s case, he’s proven he should be the Union’s starting left back - a position the Union aren’t used to having two qualified players for.