Richie Marquez

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.

Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

Defense-first Richie Marquez happy to play unlikely hero for Union in win over D.C. United

CHESTER, Pa. — For all of his professional career, Richie Marquez has been a 6-foot-2, defense-first center back with no goals to his name. 

On Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium, he played the offensive hero. 

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’m a defender and I don’t get to score often, so now I know what forwards feel like. It feels good.”

In the 90th minute of what felt like the host’s inevitable fourth straight draw, the game quickly turned when a foul and restart allowed Sebastien Le Toux a cross opportunity near the right sideline outside the box. The Frenchman placed a perfect right-footed cross that cleared the head of C.J. Sapong and went to Marquez, who impressively willed the ball into the goal for a 1-0 Union win over D.C. United (see game story).

“Surprisingly, we train like that,” Marquez said. “In our second sessions, we do some finishing like that, crossing and everyone gets a shot at it, so credit to coaches for that.”

Union manager Jim Curtin also gave his coaches credit for the pinch, stating getting the big defender to be more offensive-minded was a strategy the team has been pushing all season.

“Because he’s such a defense-minded guy, that initial ball comes in, and if it doesn’t go straight to one of our guys, he’s in retreat mode, defense-first mode and he’s running back,” Curtin said. “Mike Sorber, B.J. Callaghan mentioned to him to take a little risk and stay up there every once in a while. If you’re not in the box, you’re not going to score. Richie was committed to stay in the box and scores a pretty good goal.”

Curtin, a former center back, was happy Marquez was able to open his MLS goal account. Still, the manager would much rather his defenders go unnoticed. 

“Richie is a great player, a young center back who is growing in confidence with the ball,” he said. “It’s nice to get a goal, but I do like it when it’s quiet and we’re not talking about the center backs.”

Pontius revenge
Following the emotional 1-0 win over his former club of seven years, Union forward Chris Pontius, who was acquired this offseason, played it cool. The emotions weren’t what he expected.

“It felt like a soccer game,” he said. “Once you get on the field, I was expecting it to be different but it actually wasn’t. I kept my emotions in check.”

So, if it felt like just another game, the win wouldn’t be any sweeter, right?

“I won’t say that, I won’t say that,” he said laughing. “Some wins are ugly, some wins are pretty and this was one of the uglier ones. But beating my former team is a bit sweet.” 

Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

Richie Marquez scores last-minute game-winner to propel Union over D.C. United

BOX SCORE

CHESTER, Pa. — Richie Marquez picked a perfect time for his first career goal. 

In the 90th minute, with the match on the line, Sebastien Le Toux’s right-footed cross sailed over the head of C.J. Sapong and to the feet of center back Marquez, who smoothly buried the volley to give the Union a 1-0 win over D.C. United on Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium. 

“My first mentality as a defender is to go back and protect my goal,” the 23-year-old said. “I was staying alive for the play and the ball came in from Seba. I just judged it and was able to get my foot on it.” 

But while Marquez played hero, he couldn’t have done it without the heroic second half of Andre Blake, who made two saves for his third shutout of the season. 

“It’s a great feeling,” Blake said. “I haven’t had a shutout in a while so to get this one tonight, hat’s off to the guys. It wasn’t our best soccer but we stuck to it. If we’re going to be a champion, we definitely have to win games like these.”

In the 63rd minute, Blake made one of his best saves of the season, when a play into the Union box was one-hit with an acrobatic shot by Alvaro Saborio. 

With superhuman speed, the keeper was able to extend his left arm and keep the ball out.

“It was a reaction save,” Blake said. “As I said before, I’m in net to make the saves and do everything I can to keep my team in the game.”

The win continues the Union’s home dominance, pushing their home record to 4-0-2 and overall record to an impressive 5-3-3, keeping the club atop the Eastern Conference standings. D.C. United continued their inconsistency at 3-5-4.  

“There’s a belief within the group,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “I think it’s clear. Even when it’s not our best night, we can win a 1-0 game and roll up our sleeves and fight. I think it’s a testament to the group. The belief in the group is strong.”

The two evenly-matched clubs weren’t shy in trading equal pressure early on, but neither side could find the urgency needed in the final third. But as the first half pushed on, it was the Union that began to take control. 

Led by the active play by Fabinho, who had the Union’s only shot on goal of the half in the 37th minute, the Union went into the break with 54.9 percent of the possession with three corners to United’s one. The score, however, remained 0-0. 

“I’m disappointed that we weren't man enough to see out the game despite that call,” United manager Ben Olsen said. “It’s a game that could probably go either way. We’re disappointed, but it is what it is.” 

The Union pressure wavered in the second half, but could be chalked up to the fact that the club was missing Vincent Nogueira, who suffered an oblique strain in practice on Thursday. Filling that spot was Warren Creavalle, who played beside Brian Carroll.

“Vince is a key to our team, so it hurts,” Union forward Chris Pontius said. “But we have quality guys who have played significant minutes stepping in. For the whole team, it wasn’t the prettiest of games and D.C. did a good job making it that way for us.”