Union's McLaughlin joins Nowak's converts in defense

Union's Jimmy McLaughlin in a reserve match against New England

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

WALLINGFORD, Pa. – Throughout their short history, the Philadelphia Union have made a habit of converting natural midfielders into defenders.

At least for now, teenager Jimmy McLaughlin appears to be next in that line.

Following in the footsteps of Gabriel Farfan, Ryan Richter (now with the Charleston Battery) and others, McLaughlin has been training at right back for most of the season. And the 18-year-old Homegrown signing showed how adept he can be at his new position on Monday, playing a full 90 on the backline and helping the Union to a 4-2 win over New England in their Reserve League opener.

“It’s a new spot for me,” McLaughlin told MLSsoccer.com. “With our formation, it suits me better because we tend to play with central midfielders rather than outside midfielders and I’m a natural outside mid. So from the outside back spot, I can get up the field at the right time and kind of play a similar position to the one I’m used to.”

McLaughlin was joined on the backline by two other midfielders in Cristhian Hernandez (pictured right) and Greg Jordan, as well as rookie defender Raymon Gaddis, during Monday’s Reserve League match.

And the attack-oriented lineup worked well for Philly, who controlled possession, generated a lot of scoring chances and didn’t bend much at all on defense, with the Revs scoring once on a penalty kick and a second time in the final minute of play.

“It’s really good having naturally attacking players back there because all of us are really good on the ball and we all want the ball on our feet and are comfortable with it,” said McLaughlin, who signed with Philly in the offseason after one season at Colgate University. “It makes it easy to play out of the back rather than giving away possession.”

Hernandez, a fellow Homegrown signing in his first pro season, hasn’t been training as a defender nearly as much as McLaughlin but looked similarly strong on the backline, pushing forward with successful deep runs and even scoring one of the team’s four goals.

How exactly have two teenagers been able to seamlessly learn new positions in their first seasons in MLS?

“They’re both very steady, level-headed kids and they take instruction very well,” Union reserve team coach Brendan Burke said. “For Cristhian, the hardest part is just out-and-out defending because he never had to do that in his youth career. But he showed today it’s a simple transition for him.

“Jimmy has been training at right back with the first team, so it’s a little easier for him because he sees it day in and day out. But both guys are so versatile, especially in wide positions. They’re both so comfortable in space, and I think that translated well for us.”

McLaughlin noted he and the rest of the team’s youngsters put a lot of pride into the Reserve League game because they’re all fighting for spots on the first team. That was made apparent every time McLaughlin found himself in the attacking third and had to sprint back to his spot on the backline – perhaps the most arduous part of being a Union fullback.

“It’s a lot of running,” he said. “Sometimes when you make the long run and have to do the long recovery back, it takes a toll. But [head coach Peter] Nowak keeps us in pretty good fitness.”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Philadelphia Union for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at djzeitlin@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.