Stejskal: Why the Philadelphia Union are playing the kids at center back

Auston Trusty and Jack Elliott high five - Philadelphia Union - March 3, 2018

The Philadelphia Union didn’t enter the offseason dead-set on beginning 2018 with 19-year-old Auston Trusty and 22-year-old Jack Elliott as their first-choice center backs. Starting the young duo was always an option, but so was bringing in a more experienced, higher-priced player from Europe.

As is always the case in MLS, the Union’s decision came down to more than just talent. Even with more money coming into the league this winter, each team has a finite amount of money to play with. Spending $500,000 on a center back is $500,000 that can’t be spent on an attacker or in a trade.

For teams like Philadelphia, who don’t have the big budgets of teams like Toronto or Atlanta, those calculations are even more important. Unlike their richer rivals, they can’t afford expensive mistakes.

Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin, sporting director Earnie Stewart and technical director Chris Albright knew all that, of course. So, after weighing the hit rate of foreign center back signings around MLS against the talent of their young duo and their overall team needs, their choice became clear.

They’d play the kids.

“As a team that maybe doesn’t spend like other clubs, there was discussion of maybe we do go and spend in that area, in the defense and shore it up, but… we felt we had enough in our own backyard,” Curtin told Tuesday. “Were we nervous? Is it a risk? Absolutely. But at the same time, the guys have done a really good job.”

Elliott and Trusty performed decently in the Union’s first game of the season, a 2-0 win against New England at Talen Energy Stadium on March 3. Though helped by an early Revolution red card that limited what New England could do in the attack, the pair mostly held Juan Agudelo, Diego Fagundez and Co. in check.

Elliott’s solid performance didn’t surprise. The 6-foot-5 Englishman had a productive rookie year in 2017, starting 29 regular season matches and finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting after being selected 77th overall in the SuperDraft out of West Virginia.

Trusty, who has known Curtin since he was a 10-year-old Union Juniors player, was a bit more of an unknown. The Philadelphia-area native signed a Homegrown deal with the Union in August 2016, but he mostly split his time between the US Under-20 national team and Bethlehem Steel in USL in 2017. He made 25 appearances in the lower division and didn’t play at all in MLS last year, though some called for the youngster to get first-team time after the Union fell out of the playoff race. The Union resisted that temptation, however, leaving him to learn and develop in USL. Things weren't always perfect for Trusty in Bethlehem, but Curtin thinks he's better for the experience. 

“I think by giving him that full season there has really, really helped him. And he had some struggles there, he really did, but I think he grew from it. He is willing to listen, willing to learn, he takes in information, watches film, so he’s been really good for us,” Curtin said.

Curtin made sure to note that both Elliott and Trusty, whose average age is three years younger than the next youngest first-choice center backs in MLS, will likely take their lumps this year. The former MLS center back knows that’s how it goes with youngsters in the middle of a back four. Both have room to improve – Curtin said Elliott needs to continue to get stronger after adding seven pounds of muscle to his frame this winter, while the more athletic Trusty needs to improve his distribution – but the Union are, at least for now, set with them as starters.

They’re part of a broader youth movement in Philadelphia, who started 18-year-old Anthony Fontana at attacking midfield in their opener and signed teenagers Matthew Real and Mark McKenzie to Homegrown deals this winter.

Their increased roles also line up with a broader league trend of young, domestically-developed center backs – think Matt Hedges, Walker Zimmerman and Tim Parker – growing into real contributors in MLS.

“As an old center back myself, looking at the ones that have been successful in MLS, in a lot of ways they all have made the league minimum at some point,” Curtin said. “They’ve started from nothing and they’re hungry and they work their way up, and I would put those two in that category.”

“They’ve been good so far, really good in the preseason,” he added later. “I think their relationship is still growing and improving, but I’ve been happy with those two not just in the one game that we won, but also in preseason, in the six, seven games against other MLS teams. They’ve held up.”