Season in Review: Key to big August run, Elliott needs focus going forward

Jack Elliott won a starting center back role by taking his chance in 2017 and running with it. He never lost his spot in the first eleven in 2018, but twice Mark McKenzie took it from him. First an injury sat Elliott down, then McKenzie's fine play after filling in against Columbus. 

It is this context -- that he simply couldn't match McKenzie's speed, and that made it more difficult for the Union to play their preferred high back line -- in which Jack Elliott's season should be seen. He went from late round MLS SuperDraft pick to legitimate option as a starting defender, and his biggest flaw was not being the perfect fit for the club's system as it evolved. A heavily right-sided approach meant Philly needed McKenzie's ability to build with quick, accurate short passing, along with his comfort carrying the ball forward, more than Elliott's field-spreading range. Additionally, where the Union did need range was in defense; Keegan Rosenberry's freedom to attack meant there was a lot of ground to cover. Again, this part of the center back role -- within the Union's system -- favors McKenzie's skill set. 

In other words, Elliott needed to be extremely good in order to hold off his homegrown challenger. And, at times, he was. 
Elliott's return to the lineup after All-Star weekend coincided with one of the Union's strongest runs of form. A brace against New England from the lanky defender jumpstarted a four-match winning streak that effectively separated Philly from the chasing pack. In one particularly strong performance during that run, Elliott and Auston Trusty recovered from an early onslaught to shut out New York City FC at home, finding their line and adjusting to an unexpected 4-4-2 from the opponents. 

Even if he doesn't go into the offseason as a presumed starter as he did a year ago, Jack Elliott remains one of the more intriguing players on the Union roster for 2019. With more flexibility in how the team sets up on the pitch, there may be chances for Elliott to play either on the right or center of a back three. Additionally, Elliott could be used situationally against teams that want to squeeze the pitch and attack second balls because his height should be an asset in games played in the air (though McKenzie learned to use his strength to become more effective aerially as the 2018 season progressed). 

Next season will offer a fresh set of challenges for Elliott. With a new system, every player has a chance to prove they can internalize the playing concepts quickly enough to lock in a starting spot. Elliott will need to show up ready to take the starting spot away from McKenzie; not just because he wants to play but also because the Union need that competition throughout their team. Elliott had to be very good to climb from late pick to starter to, now, league vet.  Now he has to show he can earn his spot back or, if not, maintain his effort and attitude in a bench role.


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