Ray Gaddis

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 Notes: Refreshed Keegan Rosenberry hoping to reclaim starting spot

Union Notes: Refreshed Keegan Rosenberry hoping to reclaim starting spot

CHESTER, Pa. — The fact that Keegan Rosenberry worked his way back into the lineup after getting benched shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. The right back was, after all, an MLS All-Star and one of the league’s top rookies last season.

It was how it happened that was more unexpected — with Rosenberry coming into last week’s game midway through the second half after Ray Gaddis suffered a nasty bruise.

What happened next? The Union, spurred at least in part by the energy that Rosenberry and fellow sub Derrick Jones brought off the bench, erupted for three goals to cruise to a 3-0 victory — their first win of the season and one they hope will be a turning point as they prepare to face another rival in D.C. United on Saturday (7 p.m., The Comcast Network).

“It’s exciting, it’s the first time we really felt like we could rally around a result,” Rosenberry said after Wednesday’s practice. “The performances have been good at times but nothing like getting a real result and getting three points out of a game. I think the energy in training has been higher and I think we’re excited about the game in D.C.”

Rosenberry admitted entering the game when he did was “a little bit difficult” because defenders are used to playing either “90 [minutes] or nothing.” He also said that coming in because of an injury is not ideal and he hopes Gaddis gets healthy.

But now that he did get back on the field, he naturally hopes to remain there and rediscover the form that allowed him to play every minute last season — while feeling refreshed after a couple of weeks to rest his legs.

“It’s the way you respond from this kind of stuff that is most important,” he said. “If I can come back from this stronger, and hopefully the team is stronger, then we’ll benefit from it. … Of course I hope to be involved in the team going to D.C. but whatever [head coach Jim Curtin] thinks is gonna help the team win, then I’m all for it.”

Curtin may have other more pressing lineup decisions with key attacking players Roland Alberg and Chris Pontius both dealing with injuries, but who starts at right back will certainly be a question leading into the game. The Union coach didn’t tip his hand, praising both Gaddis for a “brave” tackle that led to his leg bruise last week and also Rosenberry for entering the game in a tough spot.

“To Keegan’s credit, he came in, made some good initial plays right off the bat to get his feet back under him, connected his passes,” Curtin said. “It’s always tough to come in as a sub to a game as high-paced as that game was, as intense as that game was. I thought Keegan came in and contributed well. We’ll see how Ray recovers.”

Jones’ journey
It wasn’t long ago that Derrick Jones was living in Ghana. Now, the Union midfielder, who moved to Philadelphia six years ago, will represent the United States at the Under-20 World Cup.

Jones wasn’t available to talk to reporters this week; he already left to join his U-20 teammates as they prepare for the tournament which begins on May 20 in Korea Republic. But Curtin gushed about what it means for Jones to become a U.S. citizen and play for his new country in a World Cup — and also what it means for the Union organization.

“It’s great for Derrick. It’s great for the city of Philadelphia. It’s great for the club,” Curtin said. “He’s a Philly kid that worked through our youth academy to the Bethlehem Steel to the first team. Now to go into a U-20 team and represent our country is special for him.

“It hurts to lose him in a lot of ways with the busy schedule coming up. But, at the same time, the relationship with MLS and U.S. Soccer is one that’s growing and everyone agreed to release their players. … I couldn’t be happier for Derrick as a Philadelphian, as a Union player. It’s good for our badge and I know he’ll represent us very well.”

Ode to RFK
Saturday’s game will mark the end of an era as it will likely be the last MLS game the Union will play at RFK Stadium, D.C. United’s long-standing home that will soon give way to a new soccer-specific stadium set to open next year.

Curtin, who has coached and played many games in since D.C. began playing there when MLS began in 1996, gave the old building a fitting farewell.

“Everybody walks in there and says, ‘Man, this place is falling apart.’ There are a lot of negative comments, especially from younger players. And it hasn’t been taken care of very well, there’s no secret there,” he said. “But talk about a stadium with a ton of history in football and soccer. Any time we play at RFK, it’s always felt like a big game. That was maybe kind of engrained in me from some tough D.C. battles. There was always the smell of stale beer and urine or whatever it was from the Dave Matthews concert the night before.

“It certainly is maybe time. That’s probably the best way to put it. Maybe I’m nostalgic, maybe I’m old school or whatever you want to call it, but I still love going there. It’s a really cool place — a special place with a ton of history.”

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

Will Keegan Rosenberry's benching spark second-year Union defender?

CHESTER, Pa. — Over the years, there have been few certainties for the Union, a franchise often in flux. But since the start of the 2016 season, there was at least one: Keegan Rosenberry.

The right back played every minute of his rookie season last year — the only player in MLS to do so — while earning spots in the MLS All-Star game and last January’s U.S. national team camp. And through the first six games of 2017, he once again never came off the field.

But with the team sputtering and Rosenberry not playing as well as he did as a rookie, Union head coach Jim Curtin benched last year’s MLS Rookie of the Year finalist for this past Saturday’s game vs. Montreal.

The Union defense didn’t get any better, giving up three unanswered goals in a brutal 3-3 draw with the Impact. But Curtin hopes the benching could be the spark Rosenberry needs to return to form and regain his place in the starting lineup, possibly for this Saturday’s road tilt against the star-studded LA Galaxy (10:30 p.m., TCN).

“Keegan is obviously a great player for us — a guy who played a ton of minutes, a guy who had never missed a minute since he’s been here,” Curtin said. “I thought it was important for him. He’s been a little caught in two minds between the attack and defending, and maybe lacking a little bit of confidence. At the same time, he was giving maximum effort.

“I had a talk with him. It’s a hard decision but I decided in some instances it’s good … to sit back and watch. That sounds like a coach talking, but I have been in those moments and you’re disappointed as a player to watch, but it also can re-light a little bit of a fire.”

It helps, too, when the replacement is Ray Gaddis, the club’s second longest-tenured player and someone with over 100 MLS starts to his name. And even though he was relegated to a reserve role last year after being a starter for the three seasons before that, Gaddis is never someone who needs to be reminded to stay ready.

“We have a saying in our family, ‘You stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Gaddis said. “It’s not that hard when you have good teammates. It’s a testament to them. They’re pushing me every week in training, and I approach every practice session like it’s a game.”

Considering the Union allowed three goals last weekend, no defender received many plaudits after the game. But none of the goals were really the fault of Gaddis, who showed the same kind of speed and defensive ability that has made him a successful MLS player.

“Ray had a good game,” Curtin said. “Ray did a really good job in his defending, gave us some really good 1 v. 1 defending winning his duels. It’s not easy for a guy who’s been out and has not played 90 in a while to go through the physicality of that. But he emptied his tank, gave everything for the shirt, which he always does. I think he’s one of the best 1 v. 1 defenders that our league has.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Philly’s backline setup was that Gaddis played alongside rookie Jack Elliott, marking the second time in MLS history that two West Virginia University alums started the same match. That was a cool thing for Gaddis, who’s tried to help bring Elliott up to speed after the London-born center back was taken in the fourth round of this year’s draft.

“He’s a humble kid like myself, and that’s what I like about him,” Gaddis said. “He plays hard and that’s what our university produces — hard workers.

“I’m a team-first guy,” he added. “I’m looking at my teammates. They’re looking at me and I’ve been here a while. They’re looking for a push. They’re looking for some cohesion in the back to bring us together. And i feel like I’ve been here a while, so [I can] be a leader on and off the field.”

While Gaddis is certainly an important contributor to this team, he may not stay in the starting lineup for long. Rosenberry remains one of the team’s brightest young stars and may get his job back this weekend vs. the Galaxy — a team he scored his first MLS goal on in last season’s matchup.

“If we’re going to get out of this thing — and Keegan and I have talked about it — he’s going to be a big part of us fighting our way out of it,” Curtin said. “He’s still an important player for us, a very good outside back in this league. And right now, we’re trying to find the right pieces of the puzzle to get that first win.”