In their 14th start together as a center back duo, Mark McKenzie and Jack Elliott held off a feisty New England Revolution attack for a 0-0 draw on the road Thursday night.
The two combined for five tackles, four blocks, 10 recoveries and a whopping 15 clearances on a busy night at Gillette Stadium. While the Revs produced 15 shots with an xG of 2.01, they mustered just one shot on target, thanks largely to the defensive work of McKenzie and Elliott.
“Mark and Jack have taken a lot of the minutes and done a great job,” Jim Curtin said after the match. “Any time there’s a zero behind you, you can look to the center backs and the goalkeeper for the performance, and I’m really happy with what they’ve done.”
Elliott produced a tackle worth literally two points in the standings in the 87th minute on Gustavo Bou:
It was emblematic of the Union’s night, as the backline scrambled effectively against the Revs’ front four and made play after play in the box. Here’s the passing map for Gustavo Bou, Teal Bunbury, Cristian Penilla and Adam Buksa, and while you can see how active they are in the final third, there’s an awful lot of incomplete passes into the box:
“[It’s] being confident in one another, having trust, and just growing the reps,” McKenzie said after the game on the communication between himself and Elliott. “The trust has been growing in the last couple of seasons and we’re constantly building chemistry.”
While 14 starts isn’t even a full season’s worth of minutes, Elliott and McKenzie have been in the Union first team for their third year together. And of those 14 starts, five have been in knockout matches, including three at this year’s MLS is Back tournament in Orlando. It’s the type of shared experience hard to come by in MLS, where backlines cycle year after year in the churn of roster construction.
Even more impressive on this particular night: both McKenzie and Elliott picked up yellow cards within three minutes of each other in the 50th and 53rd minute, respectively, and neither missed a beat to jeopardize the back line.
It was the second straight shutout for the Union against the Revs after the 1-0 win in the Round of 16 in Orlando. While Bruce Arena was without the talented Carles Gil in both matchups, the New England attack still had enough bite to dominate most of the proceedings in Foxborough.
The next step for McKenzie and Elliott will be consistency and holding up against the elite attacks around the league. Goalkeeper Andre Blake bailed out the Union time and time again in Orlando, and this is still the same defense that let up three to LAFC and let Portland capitalize on two set pieces in a knockout semifinal.
With the matches coming thick and fast during this third phase of the MLS season, the pressure won’t be all on McKenzie and Elliott to deliver. Curtin named the center back group as the deepest in his squad in the postgame press conference and suggested that Jakob Glesnes should see plenty of time due to rotation.
Whichever combination takes the field on Tuesday night, the Union defense should expect another strong showing against the Red Bulls.