The center back spot is open for the taking...is there a player ready to win the job?

Who will claim the Union's vacant spot in central defense?

Defense question mark

Photo Credit: 
Shaun Kreider

Going into the offseason, manager John Hackworth identified the Union midfield as an area that needed to be addressed in the January transfer window.

The signings of Maurice Edu, Cristian Maidana, and Vincent Nogueira have eased concerns in the center of the park.

Now priority shifts to the defense, and the center back spot vacated by Jeff Parke.

In trading Parke to D.C. United, the Union lost a veteran defender who made 31 starts and played more than 2,700 minutes in 2013.

But the trade sent 23-year-old Ethan White in the opposite direction. He’s one of several center backs in training camp competing for the position. 

“It’s too early, but we like what we see so far,” Hackworth said, when asked about the central defenders in camp. “The reality is that we're still looking for a center back, and if one of the guys here emerges as that guy that we think can start, and play at a high level in this league, then we'll give him the opportunity. From Ethan, to Kevin (Cope), to Richard (Marquez), we're pretty pleased with them right now. But we're still looking and we'll have to evaluate as we go on.”

Parke paired with Amobi Okugo in central defense for 28 of Philadelphia's 34 regular season games last season.

Despite some shaky performances early in the season, that pairing was solid later on, allowing just five goals in a stretch of seven games spanning Aug. 31 to Oct. 19. They did not play together on the back line in the season finale, as Okugo was moved into the midfield to cover for the suspended Brian Carroll.  

“Jeff was a great player last year,” said Okugo. “He was a key component to our team. Unfortunately, he's left the team. But we have new guys, and whether it's Ethan or one of the rookies, or someone else, they're going to have to step up and we're going to have to continue to progress like we did towards the end of last season.”

White signed a homegrown contract with D.C. United in 2010 and debuted professionally against the Union in the now famous U.S. Open Cup game from 2011.

He appeared more than 30 times for United, working through injuries and a Richmond loan spell while phasing in and out of Ben Olsen’s starting 11.

It culminated last year with a 90-minute, shutout performance in the Open Cup final against Real Salt Lake.

“I'm not really thinking about who's going to take the spot,” said White. “I mean, obviously, I want it. But I think my job right now is just to come out and perform the best that I can, and make it a hard decision on Hack.”

Okugo and White know each other well, primarily from their days with various levels of the United States youth national team.

“I've known him since I was like 16,” Okugo explained. “We played together, played against each other growing up, youth national teams and regional teams, stuff like that. In terms of chemistry, off the field we're pretty good. On the field, when he was playing center back, I was always playing center mid. So he was telling me where to slide or where to shift. But if we're going to be playing together I think we'll jell really soon and it's the coaches' decision whether or not we're playing together, whether he's starting or I'm starting or it's one of the new guys. We've just got to make sure our backline is strong.”

And no matter who wins the starting job, it will take time to make the new pairing work.

“It's always a learning process,” Okugo explained. “When Jeff and I started, it took us almost, a good two months [to find cohesion between us] because he came late. He was with the [U.S.] national team. Once we started jelling, we did well.”

What are your thoughts on the Union's current roster? Leave a comment below.

Contact Union writer Kevin Kinkead at k.kinkead@hotmail.com