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Despite return of Austin Berry, Philadelphia Union "clearly struggling" to find stingy defensive lineup

Philadelphia Union center back Austin Berry should be available for Saturday’s game against Chivas USA at StubHub Center (10:30 pm ET, MLS LIVE) after missing last weekend’s tilt against the LA Galaxy with an ankle injury. But with the team’s back line struggling no matter who gets on the field, Berry’s impending return is not exactly inspiring confidence in manager John Hackworth.

“I think it can definitely help, but to be real fair, whoever we’ve put at center back, our center-back pairings, it’s not like they’ve played well,” Hackworth said on a conference call from Los Angeles on Wednesday. “So having Austin back is certainly a good option for us, but he will have to, like everybody else, prove that he is the best available choice on Saturday.”

While Philly’s backline has sputtered through mistake-filled performances for much of the season, the last two games have been especially troubling, as the Union surrendered nine combined goals in blowout losses to the New England Revolution and the Galaxy.

Due to injuries, suspensions and international absences, the defensive personnel was very different each time. In their 5-3 loss to the Revs on May 17, Berry and Aaron Wheeler started at center back with Sheanon Williams and Ray Gaddis occupying the full back spots. In Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Galaxy, Amobi Okugo (a normal defensive starter who had played two straight games in midfield) and Williams were slotted in at center back, with Gaddis and Fabinho playing full back.

“We are clearly struggling to find a back line that is executing and playing well,” Hackworth said. “It’s something we have to continue to work on. It’s unfortunate that in Sunday’s game we gave up a goal on a set piece – just a simple marking problem in the second minute, and it literally changes everything you’re trying to do. Then obviously we had key guys make some bad mistakes on the next three goals.”

Williams was one of those key guys that made a bad mistake, perhaps partly because the natural right back was asked to play center back for the second time in three games. But that kind of shuffling, while disruptive to chemistry and stability, will not stop until the Union have found a consistent foursome that is producing improved results.

“The reality is it’s tough to balance right now,” Hackworth said. “With each game and through our training sessions, we’re going to try to find the best possible matchup as to what we think can be successful in our game going forward. That presents a whole set of problems for us. But the only way we can get through it is to have a game where our center backs, our defense, our collective team defending, is solid all the way around. Then that establishes it. Until that happens, we’re not in a position to say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing, and these are the guys that are doing it.’”

Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at djzeitlin@gmail.com.