Going into the season, I don’t think anyone expected much from the Union back line. This was a defense that was giving up over 2 goals a game at the end of last year. The only reinforcements they brought in during the off-season were a 35 year old who hadn’t played professionally in 2 years, a 4th round draft pick, and a young left back who was going to need time in the USL to develop.
But here we are four games into a winning streak. Unbeaten in 6. Recently posting 4 straight shut outs. A historic run of good form for our boys in blue, and one that is mostly a result of a stout defense.
Even more surprising than the display of defensive prowess, is who is responsible for it. If you had told me a few months ago that I would be genuinely excited about a back line consisting of Ray Gaddis, Oguchi Onyewu, Jack Elliot, and Fabinho I would have laughed in your face. I would have been incredibly wrong, and I’m super happy about that.
It’s absolutely incredible that our “back-ups” are performing at such a high level, but it does leave some questions about all of the starting-caliber talent that’s currently sitting on the bench. Depth is always a good problem to have, but when you’ve got young players who need game minutes to continue their development, you want them on the field.
So what now? What do we do with all of this depth?
The first answer, and probably the right one is to continue with the hot hand. Jim Curtin’s first responsibility is to win games. When a back line has given up just one goal in the last 5 games, you don’t mess with that. Keep the current back four in there as long as they keep delivering results.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s unfair to expect these kinds of results to continue forever. A regression to the mean is likely coming at some point. Hopefully we don’t see any serious injuries, but in any professional sport injuries are a part of the game. With these two facts in mind, we can safely assume that players like Yaro, Marquez, and Rosenberry will likely get another chance to prove their worth with the first team. So there’s no reason to try to force them back into the starting line up while the current one is helping the team win games.
Another answer is one that might seem less exciting to many, but might be worth consideration. If our current line-up is working and fits well into the long-term plans, are any of these depth options trade-bait? The team is playing well right now, but it would be foolish to pretend that there isn’t room to improve. If we have a plethora of defensive depth, maybe some of those resources could be traded to acquire talent where we are currently lacking. The #10 spot is one example that jumps out at me.
I’m not sure how much of a market there might be for some of our defenders, but for the right offer, I expect Earnie Stewart to do what is best for the team. This might be something to keep an eye on in the future.
A last thought that might be worth consideration would be to deploy different back lines depending on the game plan. Jack Elliot and Oguchi Onyewu have been excellent, but they’ve played in a system that is catered to their strengths. We’ve seen the Union play more compact soccer where the Center Backs can sit deeper. This eliminates the threat of balls played over the top and footraces to the end line. This has worked lately, but there may come a time when that game plan is not best for the opponent we’re facing. Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez have much different skill sets. They’re both very fast defenders and both are capable of making those break-away preventing tackles. If there’s an opponent particularly vulnerable to a high pressure defense, Josh and Richie will allow the team to stay compressed higher up the field, and really put the pressure on. Why not deploy that backline if the situation calls for it? Conventional wisdom may say you don’t mess with a winning line up, but not all conventional wisdom is as wise as it seems.
What are your thoughts? Now that the Union seems to have a ton of depth in defense, what should they do with it all?