If Union fans are unfortunate enough to have memories of the 2017 season creep into their conscious, let’s hope they are of Jack Elliott’s surprising rookie season. The fourth round pick was the surprise of the season because he quickly became the team’s most dependable defender. Fourth round picks simply don’t make MLS rosters, let alone start, let alone be dependable, making Elliott’s season the rarest of rare revelations.
But his second season might turn out to be more of a revelation.
The 2017 roster
The Union don’t have a good track record developing young players and whether or not another rookie of the year candidate takes a step back in 2018 will reveal much about an organization that publicly claims they want to build through youth.
Let’s start with last season’s draft class of Keegan Rosenberry, Josh Yaro and Fabian Herbers. Yaro and Herbers had seasons to forget primarily due to injuries but Yaro threw in a couple woeful appearances, the most glaring of which was the stoppage time tackle in the box to acquiesce a draw in San Jose. Jim Curtin had to come to Yaro’s rescue multiple times this season and defend the 2nd pick in the Super Draft. Keegan Rosenberry lost his job to Ray Gaddis for most of the season. Ray Gaddis is a known commodity as an adequate right back with very limited offensive skills, but the runner up to rookie of the year couldn’t beat him out. Herbers had a nice start to his season before it was cut short by a sports hernia.
Let’s take a look at the rest of the Union roster that joined the team before they turned 24 years of age:
- Richie Marquez
- Andre Blake
- Marcus Epps
- Derrick Jones
- John McCarthy
- Adam Najem
- Auston Trusty
- Eric Ayuk (on loan in Swedish top division)
- Ray Gaddis (SBI All-Rookie Best XI in 2012)
The only player on this list that’s reached notable status is Andre Blake, but even his journey was a head-scratcher. Coming out of college as “the LeBron James of goalkeepers” according to his coach, Blake was the number one pick taken by the Union. However, it took the better part of two seasons for Blake to get consistently between the pipes. When he started and was very successful it was hard to imagine what took so long for him get his chance. Nevertheless Blake has developed into one of the top goalkeepers in MLS.
Richie Marquez’s story is similar to Jack Elliott’s. Marquez was a third round pick who got his chance ten games into his second season. From that point on he was one of the Union’s most dependable defenders. That is, until this season. Marquez fell out of favor this season despite typically solid performances in the few games he played. That was due to strong performances from Oguchi Onyewu who was able to provide veteran leadership along the backline with Elliott. Marquez was developing into an above average centerback in the league before his setback this season.
Twenty year old Derrick Jones played central midfield in the early part of this season and turned heads with his poise and maturity. Alejandro Bedoya’s move to central midfield crowded out Jones a third of the way into the season, and Jones would never get another start. There were chances for Jones late in the season, but apparently his form faded in practice and at Bethlehem Steel, and the veteran Warren Creavalle had taken his spot.
Ray Gaddis was a noted rookie in 2012, and while he’s become a solid defender, has never developed an offensive game that has caused any opposition to lose sleep.
None of the other players on the roster developed enough in either direction to assess a shift.
The inglorious history
That was a look at the current situation. History highlights a few more troubling examples with too few positive stories to balance them out. A number of promising young players under the age of 24 have been in the club’s grasp and failed to reach their potential: Roger Torres, Amobi Okugo, Danny Mwanga, Jack McInerney and Zach Pfeffer come to mind. Zac MacMath, another young goalkeeper, might be the biggest success story the Union have from a development point of view. None of the field players mentioned really achieved after the Union let them go, so it might be unfair to blame the Union for their struggles.
Coach Jim Curtin has been quick to suggest it’s the players who are failing to develop but there are also too many examples of potential gone fishing for the Union to simply cast this issue aside. This evidence points to an organization that doesn’t know how to properly develop young talent. That is scary for a team that wants to build through the Academy, like FC Dallas or the current incarnation of the New York Red Bulls. Usually you profess such a strategy after you’ve shown some ability to be successful at it, but in typical Union fashion they are figuring it out as they go.
Which is why what happens to Jack Elliott (and Rosenberry, Yaro and Herbers for that matter) next season will be revelatory. Can the Union start a track record of watching young players flourish and maintain consistent starter roles? Or will they need to turn to veteran players to improve the team. Good luck Mr. Elliott. We’re rooting for you.