One reason behind the Philadelphia Union's strong start to 2020 is depth, and there's perhaps no better example of it than at center back.
In Homegrown product Mark McKenzie and 2017 MLS SuperDraft pick Jack Elliott, the Union have an established pair where the oldest (Elliott) is only 25. Throw in Norwegian signee Jakob Glesnes and veteran Aurelien Collin (who's currently sidelined with an injury), and few teams across MLS are deeper at the position.
In a league where big-money moves favor attacking players, the luxury of being four-deep at one of the most important spots on the field isn't lost on head coach Jim Curtin. A center back during his own playing days, Curtin featured in 172 MLS matches for Chicago Fire FC and Chivas USA.
"I’m a very lucky coach in MLS," Curtin said. "Obviously I rate the center back position highly, maybe I overrate it. But I think in this league if you look across it, there’s not a lot of great center backs. We have a whole stable – obviously Collin is out, but the three center backs that have been playing the minutes have been better than any in the league. They’ve been at the top of their game, they’ve embraced the rotation where it’s two games on, one game off. … We can’t find a drop off at all no matter what the pairing is. Not many coaches, not just in MLS but all over the world, can say they have three that are able to play at the level that these guys are playing."
Curtin has rotated between Elliott, Glesnes and McKenzie for much of the season, prompting the question of if a concrete pairing will emerge. He's still evaluating that, but there are plenty of minutes to go around given recent fixture congestion.
"I believe you have to pick two, you have to find a way to get to two," he said. "That’s also part of what keeps them all sharp right now, is that they know they’re still competing. But when the weather gets cold and the time comes for final stretch obviously, we’ll have to make a difficult decision. You’ve seen us though use all three in games as well — where we sub one out.
"And, again, the demands are different right now and it’s a different season where when five subs are available and three fresh strikers come in, if you’re defending a lead you can sub your center backs. I think they’ll all still contribute, but down the stretch in final five games and then playoffs, I think ultimately you do have to make a decision and go with it."
That sentiment was echoed by midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who said he's enjoyed the passing abilities of Philly's center backs in addition to their defensive prowess.
"They’re all guys that can play between the lines, can play the ball on the ground, but also have the confidence to play those long switches, diagonal balls, and that’s crucial," Bedoya said. "When I first got here, we had guys that couldn’t even play a long diagonal ball to switch the field of play and now we do. Mark has improved incredibly with his left foot – you see him just pinging them over to me when sometimes I’m on the right. Jack and Jacob have no issues playing long diagonal balls, and playing those risky balls right through middle that split the lines.
"Jim wants to rotate these guys, and I don’t think you’ve seen a drop-off in quality at all, and that says a lot about character of those guys and their ability. You always want to play every game, so it could be tough mentally, but I think they’ve taken that pretty well. Big credit to them."