Philadelphia Union: Can they Make a Deep Playoff Run Without a Consistent Center Back Partnership?

Aug 20, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Ken Tribbett (4) leaps into the air after scoring a goal during the first half against the Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 20, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Ken Tribbett (4) leaps into the air after scoring a goal during the first half against the Toronto FC at Talen Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Philadelphia Union sit at 4th in the Eastern Conference playoff standings, a playoff spot looks inevitable for them as it has for the length of the campaign.

But as is a problem for the conference-leading NYCFC, their defense has been inconsistent throughout the season. The Philadelphia Union have often been heavily reliant on the super performances of offensive threats like Chris Pontius, Roland Alberg, and former Bundesliga veteran, Tranquillo Barnetta.

A question that’s still searching for an answer remains that of whether the Union can make a legitimate, sustainable push for the MLS Cup Final on December 10th. Their offensive firepower would suggest they can, especially with the additions of U.S. internationals Alejandro Bedoya and Charlie Davies.

On the defensive end, the bigger question marks remain. At outside back, Fabinho and Keegan Rosenberry have proven to one of the best pairs in MLS in their respects. It’s in the middle of the defense where the Philadelphia Union have yet to figure out what the best formula is.

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There have been a number of center back partnerships that the Philadelphia Union have tinkered with. If there’s one area of the field Jon Curtin will want stability, it will be in the heart of his defense. The club has used a rotation of Ken Tribbett, Joshua Yaro, and Richie Marquez. Now with U.S. international Maurice Edu returning to the mix, that will add another selection headache for Curtin.

The skipper will really want to try to nail down the best CB partnership before the team heads into the final games before the playoffs begin. While there have been injuries and unfortunate circumstances surrounding some of the inconsistencies for the Philadelphia Union to have a steady partnership, the fact remains that the club will likely not be able to make a sustained playoff run, nonetheless qualify for the playoffs, without a CB pairing that will stay through the rest of the season.

In his weekly presser from a month ago, Curtin voiced his opinion on the Center Back situation.

"“I love to get consistency there, and it is fair to say along the back line there hasn’t been a hundred percent grabbing ahold of it and running with it like you’d like to see. There’s always going to be mistakes at that position, It’s a tough spot. I think you can always be accountable on every goal, which is hard. There’s always something a center back can do to prevent a goal”."

While much speculation can occur on what the best pairing is, one thing is fairly clear with Union management and fans; Richie Marquez should be in any center of the back line pairing. The former Harrisburg City Islander, who led them to the 2014 USL final, has been the most dominant of the Union’s CB options this season.

Philadelphia Union
Aug 6, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Richie Marquez (16) tries to steal the ball from D.C. United midfielder Luciano Acosta (11) at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial. Mandatory Credit: Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports /

Though you can’t accurately say that any of their CB’s are dominant or have been dominant, Marquez has had the most commanding performances more consistently than his counterparts. Marquez boasts the skill set to be strong enough to deal with the stronger hold-up strikers, while also being quick and agile enough to deal with some of the league’s quicker forwards like Sebastian Giovinco and Gio Dos Santos. Coupling that with his occasional eye for goal, and you have yourself a center back that should be a mainstay on the team sheet.

The real speculation occurs when you move to the second center back. Ken Tribbett has started 14 games this year, while Josh Yaro sits at 10 starts on the season. For Jim Curtin, he should analyze who plays the best alongside Marquez, being that Marquez will likely be in the lineup regardless of the situation. In all but one game this season, that being the season opening 2-0 loss to FC Dallas, the Philadelphia Union have paired Marquez with either Tribbett or Yaro.

When compiling the records, there is a slight nod in one direction. While the Philadelphia Union fared a pedestrian 5-4-4 with Marquez and Yaro, the club is 7-5-3 when Marquez and Tribbett anchor the back line. While not grossly different numbers, that differential in points could be the difference between “home-field” in the playoffs or not.

The Union would much prefer to host a crucial second leg matchup at home rather than travel somewhere like Montreal or NYCFC where the club has played some of their worst games of the season, for a pressure-filled 2nd leg.

In terms of playing style, Marquez and Tribbett offer a lot of the same attributes. Some managers will argue that it’s best to have one CB more strong and aerially gifted, while the other should be more apt at tackling and tracking runners. In this sense, Tribbett and Marquez are both 6’2″, an ideal height for central defenders. They are both gifted in the air, while also both possessing great strength and ability to clear the ball under pressure.

When you pair (ideally) Marquez with Yaro, you are getting that combination of one CB with aerial prowess and strength, and another with impressive speed and tackling ability. Joshua Yaro reads the game extremely well for a 22-year-old, he just needs to cut out the high profile mistakes to become a mainstay in Curtin’s lineup.

Philadelphia Union
May 25, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Joshua Yaro (15) works out prior to the game against the Orlando City SC at Camping World Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

No one will deny the raw talent Yaro possesses, it’s just those mental lapses that need to be corrected quickly if he wants to anchor this Union backline for years to come. While there’s no doubting Yaro and Marquez have had some really good games together this year, the April home shutout against NYCFC and the recent home victory against Sporting KC come immediately to mind, there has been too many inconsistencies when the two play together.

There is also the very unlikely, yet existent chance that Jim Curtin gives Maurice Edu reps in the backline again. Edu made 21 appearances with the club last season, mostly as a CB, and Curtin could turn to his versatile veteran in the final playoff push to provide backline stability. But as stated, this is very unlikely given the Union’s relative team success without Edu all season. The team could most likely use his talents in a holding midfield role instead.

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The final conclusion is that while the Union certainly do have options at CB, there is no pairing on their roster that is going to work seamlessly. But given Joshua Yaro’s inconsistencies this season and combined with the fact that the Philadelphia Union have better results with Marquez and Tribbett.

A Marquez and Tribbett partnership makes the most sense for the club as they finish their season and push for playoff qualification and positioning. Having two imposing center backs at the heart of your defense will always strike fear in opposing clubs, and that should be the case moving forward for these two. The Philadelphia Union are potentially just a steady CB partnership away from competing for an MLS title, something the club has yet to sniff since their expansion in 2010.