Countdown to Kick: Defense eager to impress

Philadelphia Union ended 2019 with a +8 goal differential, tied for fifth best in MLS. They gave up eight more goals than Eastern Conference champs NYCFC, the team with the fourth best defense in the league.

When Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin reflected on the Union’s best season in club history, they immediately agreed that the defense, while strong given its age and experience, needed to improve. Hence the arrival of active midfielders like El Brujo, and the recruitment of Jakob Glesnes.

In preseason, El Brujo and Matej Oravec have used minutes at the No. 6 position to help protect the center of the field, and Glesnes has shown his size and ambitious long balls can give opponents pause about pressing too high.

Now when Jim Curtin looks at his options, he sees a high ceiling but a lot of work still to do.

“I think we have four starting quality CBs,” Curtin said this week. “Obviously, Mark [McKenzie] and Jack [Elliott] ended the season last year very well. And again there's competition every day in training between all of them.”

The Union often play with four defenders, though Curtin is not opposed to exploring a system that integrates all three of Glesnes, Mark McKenzie, and Jack Elliott. The head coach admitted that it’s simply been timing that has kept that formation off the pitch. “We haven’t utilized the three in the back because Mark was away, then Jack was away, and now Jakob’s away, so there hasn’t been a chance to throw three in the back out there, whether to close a game or start that way.”

In front of the center backs, El Brujo struggled on the ball against FC Dallas on February 19, but grew into the match following halftime. “It was tough for him, he had a tough first half,” Curtin explained. “With him we know it’s going to be a growing and learning process. The challenge is to put consistent performances together. I thought he showed grit and fight to bounce back in the second half.”

As the start of the season nears, Curtin is aware that he has a lot of quality and a few lingering questions in the spine of his defense. What he didn’t anticipate was that he’d receive questions about left back this preseason, a spot that Kai Wagner locked down in 2019. The young German has missed the entire preseason working back from an injury, though, so Matt Real is in line to start the season on the left.

“It’s a big test,” the head coach agreed, “But Matt’s played in MLS before. He had a run of games as a starter before and did good with those minutes. And now we need him to do great with those minutes.

“We have full confidence in Matt to do the job there at left back.”

Few positions are as difficult to fill as those on the left side of defense, and the Union know that Real has as much upside as any young American playing right now. In eight days, it looks like the homegrown will get a chance to show he’s ready for the spotlight.

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