jack elliott

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

Is it time to reshuffle the Union's back line?

On Tuesday night, the Union's promising back four of Giliano Wijnaldum, Joshua Yaro, Richie Marquez and Keegan Rosenberry all took the field together and led their team to a shutout.

The only problem: that team was the Union's USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel FC. And they did it at a baseball complex in Harrisburg.

How did it happen that such a talented group of young MLS players have essentially been relegated to the minor leagues to get game minutes? It was only last season, after all, that Rosenberry was the MLS Rookie of the Year Runner-Up, Marquez was being viewed as a potential US national team center back, and Yaro was perhaps the best player in the entire 2016 draft. And adding some offseason pop, Wijnaldum was certainly an intriguing left back prospect from the Netherlands.

But what looked to be the Union’s starting defense in the preseason is now Bethlehem’s starting defense as Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu and Jack Elliott charged their way into the lineup a few weeks back while Fabinho has refused to let go of his long-standing left back role.

And the backline may not be changing anytime soon, even as the Union’s three-game losing streak has sent them tumbling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference ahead of Saturday’s game vs. rival D.C. United at Talen Energy Stadium (6ABC, 7 p.m.).

“I don’t think we have a back four issue,” Union head coach Jim Curtin insisted during his weekly press conference. “We have a team that needs to do a little bit better offensively and be a little bit cleaner with some defensive issues as well. But overall I don’t think there’s a real problem with us conceding a ton of goals.”

As proof, Curtin pointed to the fact the Union have allowed only six goals in their last eight league games, four of which have come over the last two contests with influential midfielder Alejandro Bedoya out of the lineup (and two coming in last week’s loss to the Red Bulls while the Union were down a man).

One of the big reasons for the team’s stinginess has been the surprisingly steady play of Elliott, a rookie from England who in the past few months has gone from late-round draft pick to preseason afterthought to stalwart starter.

And he’s well aware that two of the team’s most hyped prospects — Marquez and Yaro — are waiting in the wings behind him, ready to take their jobs back.

“That doesn’t add pressure,” Elliott said. “It’s good to have that competition there to always keep you on the top of your game. It’s the same with all of the center backs here. We all push each other to be better players and we just have to keep the team going. We know if one of us went down, another one can step in.”

Injuries did in fact force Marquez and Yaro to enter the game on June 3 at New York City FC, but Elliott and Onyewu regained their spots the following game vs. the Red Bulls.

It’s a unique pairing with an unheralded rookie (Elliott) teaming up with a one-time American soccer legend creeping up in age (Onyewu), but it has been working well.

“We have a good understanding of how each other plays and our strengths,” Elliott said. “We’ve played a good seven, eight games together and we found a balance. You see over the last eight games, we haven’t conceded many.”

While the Onyewu-Elliott pairing certainly has been effective, it always seemed like a short-term fix to help stabilize a defense that got off to a rough start this year. The same can be said with Gaddis supplanting Rosenberry, who brings more of an attacking presence to the flank.

So even though the back four as currently constructed might not be the team’s biggest issue at the moment, it’s fair to ask why they’d get the benefit of the doubt when at least some may not be a big part of the team’s future? If three straight losses don't put the team’s top young players back into the lineup, what will? And how will continuing to come off the bench or play in Bethlehem affect their development?

For now, it seems, like Curtin is putting everyone on equal footing, regardless of age, where they were drafted, or which guys were the most hyped last year.

“I don’t think there’s a big drop-off or difference with all eight [defenders], to be honest,” the Union coach said. “It’s good to have these issues, to have a lot of good players to draw from. We had a hard film session but concluded in our last eight, we’ve given up six goals. We can build on that.

“And it does start with defense in this league. You look at teams at the top of the standings in each conference and they defend their butts off for 90 minutes. We’ve been able to do it in patches in games but we’ve just been too inconsistent.”

Maybe, then, it’s time for another change.

Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Aiming for 1st win of season vs. rival Red Bulls

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CSN

Union-Red Bulls 5 Things: Aiming for 1st win of season vs. rival Red Bulls

Red Bulls (5-4-1) vs. Union (0-4-4)
7:00 p.m. on TCN

Coming off a fortunate road draw and shutout against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the winless Union will be tested once again Saturday night when they host Bradley Wright-Phillips and the potent New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know.

1. Building Blocks
For some, last week’s scoreless road draw with the Galaxy, who dominated the Union throughout, was a lucky and undeserved result. For the Union, it was a long overdue step in the right direction. 

“It was something to build on moving forward to Red Bull,” said Union manager Jim Curtin, whose team is coming off back-to-back draws after losing four consecutive games. “It was something positive to build off of, the overall fight and grit from the group to get a clean sheet in a tough environment.

“It’s a minor victory to get a draw, but the clean sheet part of it is good.”

While it may not have been the prettiest match, the Union did scratch out the shutout. It was the club’s first since the opener on March 5, and the first time the Union allowed less than two goals in a game in their last seven attempts.

“We need to build off of that,” attacker Chris Pontius said. “We got a clean sheet now we have to turn it into another one. We were a little lackluster offensively in that game, so we need to do a little both now. We need to win the ball in better spots and spur the attack in that way.”

But now Curtin needs more from his club if the Union want a chance against the Red Bulls.

“Collectively, we can all do a little more,” Curtin said. “Everyone needs to raise their game. We know we have a lot of things we can work on and clean up, we haven’t had a full 90-minute performance. It’s important we get all of our guys playing at their highest potential.” 

2. Elliott’s Impact
Despite the Union’s poor start, one positive has been the emergence of rookie center back Jack Elliott. 

“He’s played great,” said Curtin, who singled out Elliott as an individual who played well against the Galaxy last weekend. “Jack’s skillset, just his size and presence. What people don’t realize is how good his feet are and his passing. He can start the attack. He does read the game very well and he’s two-steps ahead, he has a high soccer IQ, he’s an intelligent guy.” 

That’s high praise for the 6-foot-5, 21-year-old, who was drafted in the fourth round of the 2017 MLS SuperDraft. Elliott is set to start his fourth-straight game Saturday, as he has overtaken Oguchi Onyewu as the club’s full-time right center back. 

“To be honest, the year he’s been above and beyond what we anticipated but it’s a credit to him and how hard he’s worked,” Curtin said. “We gave him an opportunity to debut and he’s done well. He’s a guy who we believe in and who has done a good job in his performance.”

The pressure hasn’t gotten to Elliott. The quiet youngster is fitting in nicely. 

“I’m settling in well,” he said. “Learning how everyone plays. It’s been good.”

But that could change against the Red Bulls. Just a few weeks after guarding New York City FC’s David Villa, Elliott will be tasked with defending the always potent Wright-Phillips.

“He’ll have a tough task this weekend,” Curtin said. “Bradley Wright-Phillips is one of the league’s best strikers.” 

3. Rivalry Expectations
With the Red Bulls and Union on different tracks this season, it would be understandable if the visitors didn’t take the Eastern Conference basement dwellers seriously.

But according to Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch, that won’t happen.

“We made it very clear, and our team is not foolish and not naive, but we made it very clear that this game down in Philly is against a desperate team a team that will throw everything at us,” the manager siad. “They want to show their fans that they are a good team and that their season is still around to be saved.” 

With that known, the Red Bulls have a plan. They want to manage the Union’s motion and match the expected physical intensity.

“It makes them more dangerous than ever,” Marsch said. “A good start will be key, managing the game will be key and being physically up for the game will be key. We’re excited.” 

To keep his team’s attention against a winless Union side, Marsch is playing up the rivalry. Although the two clubs have had emotions flair in recent years, the two sides have never met in the postseason and rarely ever play a match that carries more weight than any other MLS regular season game.

“We wanted to put an emphasis on the game in Philly, it’s a rivalry game and a team that always gives us a great match,” Marsch said. “We know whenever we play Philly they give everything they got and that’s what makes rivalry matches so good. We’ve never had an easy time in Philly, it’s always been a battle so we’ll be prepared for that again.” 

4. Keep an eye on
Bradley Wright-Phillips: The striker, who already has four goals in nine starts this season, has five goals and one assist in eight career games against the Union. If the Red Bulls are going to crush the hosts, they’ll do it off the foot of Wright-Phillips.

Ray Gaddis: Although it’s not a given that Gaddis will even make the start, he’s been one of the biggest surprises of the year for the Union. The overlooked right back took over starting duties for Rookie Of the Year nominee Keegan Rosenberry and seems primed to make his third consecutive start Saturday. “Ray has come in and done a good job,” Curtin said.” He’s given us some good defending.”

5. This and that
• The Union are currently tied for fourth all-time with the longest regular season winless streak in MLS history with 15. The Colorado Rapids, from July 2014 through April 2015, hold the league record with 18 regular season games without a win.

• The Union are 4-4-2 at home all-time against the Red Bulls.

• There’s an illness going around the Union, which claimed Ilsinho last week against the Galaxy and is now attacking Richie Marquez. Both players are questionable for Saturday. Josh Yaro (shoulder) and Maurice Edu (broken leg) remain out. 

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

From England to West Virginia to possible Union starter, rookie Jack Elliott forged unique path

Jack Elliott didn't expect to come to the United States to play college soccer. He didn't expect to get drafted into MLS. Few people likely would have predicted that he'd make the Union coming out of the preseason and even fewer probably believed he'd find his way onto the field just four games into the rookie season.

But there he was last week, having climbed up the depth chart due to surprisingly steady play and a couple of injuries, entering the Union's game vs. D.C. United at RFK Stadium in a daunting spot at halftime. 

And now, with Richie Marquez undergoing concussion protocol and questionable for Saturday's game against the Portland Timbers at Talen Energy Stadium (7 p.m., TCN), the England-born Elliott may very well get the start in Philly's second home contest of the 2017 season.

"At first, there were a bit of nerves," Elliott admitted of his earlier-than-expected MLS debut. "But I didn't really have too much time to think about it and be nervous about it."

Indeed, Union head coach Jim Curtin didn't even get a chance to talk to Elliott at halftime when Marquez exited the match with concussion-like symptoms. Instead, it was performance director Garrison Draper who told Elliott to get on the field and warm up with Curtin relaying a message to the rookie through Oguchi Onyewu.

According to Elliott, Onyewu then told him, "I trust you. Just play your football." And the new center back pairing teamed up nicely to help keep D.C. United in check as the Union sliced their two-goal halftime deficit in half before eventually dropping a 2-1 decision.

Although the loss adds significantly more pressure to the Union's upcoming three-game homestand, with the club winless in its first four games, the play of Elliott was certainly a bright spot as Curtin praised the rookie's passing and positioning.

"I'm confident in Jack that he can play in MLS,” Curtin said. "I believe he has the size, the feet, the passing ability to play in the league. And he showed that, to his credit, against D.C. United."

More than 3,500 miles away, Elliott's parents enjoyed the game from their home in Norbury, a town just outside London. They stayed up until 2 a.m. to watch, unaware that their son would get in. When he did, they proudly texted him, which he saw as soon as he returned to the RFK visiting locker room.

In many ways, it was the culmination of an interesting journey that was set in motion a few years ago when a West Virginia University assistant coach who hailed from his area in England scouted him and offered him a scholarship.

Elliott -- who played so much soccer as a kid in soccer-mad England that the grass in his backyard eventually disappeared -- was planning to go to a university in his home country, but he immediately jumped at the new opportunity to cross the Atlantic.

"It wasn't a huge deliberation for me," Elliott said. "As soon as he told me, I told my mom I really wanted to do it."

Elliott admits that going from London to Morgantown, West Virginia, was a little bit of a culture shock at first, as was the speed and physicality of soccer in the U.S. But his teammates welcomed him in with open arms and he grew into a dominant and reliable player for the Mountaineers, missing only one match in four years and anchoring a backline that recorded eight shutouts during his senior season.

Because of his success in the college ranks, Elliott was invited to the MLS Combine in January, where he thought he played well enough to get drafted -- though he admitted it was never "an expectation." The Union picked him in the fourth and final round with the 77th pick, ahead of only seven other players, with Curtin calling him to congratulate him and telling him he expected "big things."

But the truth is, many players who get selected in the third and fourth rounds of the draft don't get offered an MLS contract with some instead signing with a lower-division affiliate or pursuing professional opportunities elsewhere. In the past, the Union even have had cut late-round draft picks in the first week or two of the preseason.

Having already made it that far, however, Elliott wasn't worried.

"I didn't really think too much about the statistics of all that," he said. "I just played the way I played football -- connecting passes, showing my passing range. I got the height and I've been trying to improve and show what I've got."

Elliott's 6-foot-5 frame is certainly one big reason why he looks like an MLS player, which he showed with a pair of impressive preseason performances before getting rewarded with a rookie contract in late February. With Onyewu providing sound advice, he then quickly passed Ken Tribbett -- last season's surprise rookie starter -- as the top center back reserve behind Onyewu and Marquez, at least until Joshua Yaro returns from a shoulder injury.

"It starts with the preseason," Curtin said. "He came in really fit, really confident and showed his ability to pass out of the back. He got to play in preseason games and we started to see that against some good forwards that he belonged. And his evolution in training each and every day when he goes against our forwards, he does a good job as well. He's progressed very quickly.

"You always have to be ready for your opportunity," the Union coach added of his debut. "That's how it starts. That's how it started for Richie Marquez. That's how it started for Josh Yaro. And now Jack Elliott would be another guy who had that debut moment and rose to the occasion. We really believe in our young guys. It won't be the last time a young guy steps up in a big spot. I'm happy for Jack to get his debut and now we want more."

Whether or not "more" comes Saturday is up in the air. Curtin said he believe Marquez should pass the league's concussion protocol but even then, he'll have a "tough decision" since Marquez has missed some practice time.

Whoever plays will certainly have his work cut out for him against a dynamic Portland attack that features two of the league's premier players in midfielder Diego Valeri and striker Fanendo Adi, who have combined for nine goals this year already. 

But if the call comes, Elliott will be ready for it.

"Coming out of that tunnel," he said, "would be an amazing feeling."