With vets out, Union juggle youth on makeshift back line

CHESTER, Pa. – With two of their four starting defenders sidelined last Friday vs. the Portland Timbers, it was widely expected that Juan Diego González Alzate would make his season debut for the Philadelphia Union.

The only other natural defender on the Philly roster besides the starting foursome – and not to mention one of the team’s most highly priced players – González Alzate had started seven straight games last year before getting hurt himself.

But the Colombian defender didn’t even make the trip to Portland as the Union coaching staff opted to shift Sheanon Williams over to center back and give the starting fullback spots to rookie brothers Michael and Gabriel Farfan, both converted midfielders. Ryan Richter, another rookie who’s being transitioned from an attacking role to defense, also made the trip but didn’t see any action.

On Tuesday, Union coach John Hackworth explained why the decision was made to leave a seasoned veteran like González Alzate at home while starters Danny Califf (illness) and Jordan Harvey (red card suspension) sat out.

“It’s not as much about Juan Diego as it is about the Farfan brothers,” said Hackworth, filling in for team manager Peter Nowak, who’s in Poland for a charity event. “When you have them playing at the level they have, that’s really what happened there. We have really good competition within our team right now at certain positions. Both Gabe and Michael have come on and done a fantastic job, proving they deserve that opportunity."

Hackworth also gushed about the play of Williams, who transitioned from fullback to center back with ease and played an assertive, aggressive game against a strong Timbers’ attack.

Right before Friday’s game began, Hackworth, who used to coach the U.S. U-17 team, reminded Williams about the time he played center back for him in a game against Portugal four years ago – and how good he was then. So it was no surprise the 21-year-old was strong and confident anchoring the defense alongside fellow center back Carlos Valdés, even as the Union suffered a 1-0 setback.

“There’s nothing new about Sheanon playing center back,” Hackworth said. “I know a lot of people said he did really well and gave him a lot of praise and asked why we didn’t do this before. It’s interesting. It shows how versatile he is.”

Williams said he felt comfortable in the role, noting that he played center back throughout his college career at the University of North Carolina.

“I just had to refresh my memory a little bit,” he said. “I thought the entire defense did a pretty good job. Other than the goal, we didn’t give up too many chances.”

For Wednesday’s game against the Galaxy at PPL Park (7:30 pm ET, Direct Kick and MatchDay Live), the Union’s starting defensive unit will be back in intact as Harvey and Califf are expected to rejoin Williams and Carlos Valdés.

Dave Zeitiln covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.