The Union’s center back conundrum


In the past, the Philadelphia Union have not had depth at the center back position. This led to converting players to the position. Some of the transitions worked for a time; Amobi Okugo had some success, and Mo Edu was the best defender of 2015 after his conversion. Aside from those two players the Union have had trouble finding quality center backs that they could keep for more than a few years of time.

Since 2014, the Union drafted two center backs, brought in two center backs on loan, and signed three more. Of those seven players, three have emerged as Union starters. Richie Marquez has established himself as the left-center back, and two rookies have been battling for right-center back all year; Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett. As a result, The Union have a center back conundrum that needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

The Union have ten games left in the regular season, and there is still a controversy on who their starting right-center back is. So far Josh Yaro, the Union’s number 2 pick in this past draft, has played 12 games starting 11 of them; Ken Tribbett, the stand out from Drexel University, has played 18 games starting 16 of them. Both have looked good at times this year, but at times have looked like rookies who need to learn. They are two very different center backs; bringing unique qualities to the field.

Yaro is a 21 year old. At  5′ 11″ 163 pounds, he is fast and surprisingly strong. He can keep up with anyone in the league, and for  a stretch of time he held the starting spot by shutting down lethal attackers. Josh first found playing time when Tribbett went down with an injury in April. He started six straight games where he faced Clint Dempsey, David Villa, Chris Wondolowski, Gio Dos Santos, Didier Drogba, Alvaro Saborio, and Kaka. In each game he stuck with those attacking stars and kept them in check. He then sustained an injury that kept him out a month. After a month of injury he was behind Ken Tribbett on the depth chart, until Tribbett went down with another injury. Yaro came on for a thriller against Chicago; the Union won 4-3 and Yaro found a place again.

Three days later he played against Vancouver and got burnt. He was all over the place, and when he was in a place to make a play, he made a rookie mistake. He underestimated Mannah’s speed and over estimated his. Four days later he was out of sorts again against New York Red Bulls in the round of 16 of the US Open Cup. He was a no show in the first half, so was the rest of the team.

The next week in Houston he was having another game where he was all over the place, and sustained an injury that kept him out for a few games. He returned from injury to play against Montreal. In that game he could not stick to Drogba or Piatii, as Montreal killed the Union 5-1. That was the last time yaro found the field, and has sat for the past month. He is a player with a tremendous upside, but his smaller frame, and tendency to get lost in the midst of  a game have cost him a starting spot to Tribbett.

Tribbett is 23 years old. The former Drexel University player is 6’2″ 170 pounds. He is an athletic center back who is good at clearing the ball and making long passes from the back line. He was a surprise starter at the beginning of 2016. Ken was originally signed as a Bethlehem Steel player, and after a great pre-season was signed to the first team. He started the first five games for the Union, and looked decent. Tribbett was learning on the go and slid in nicely next to Richie Marquez.

He was out for over a month, but at the end of May he came in for an injured Josh Yaro and scored the game saving goal off a set piece, which gave the Union a draw in Orlando. Ken kept the starting spot for five weeks and looked solid, show casing his ball movement skills.

He sustained a small injury against Chicago in June, but came in the next game as a sub as Yaro went down injured. Tribbett then played the next three games. In those game, he showed that he too was a rookie. In a home game against New York Red Bull he gave the visitors the early lead by getting caught in possession. Tribbett was way too comfortable in possession and got burned.The next game was the quarter final of the US Open Cup, and while he played alright he made a crucial mistake leading to the Rev’s goal in regulation. If he could have prevented that the Union would have advanced in the tournament. The next game he sat the bench.

That game was the game Yaro looked lost in a 5-1 loss to Montreal, and the past three weeks Tribbett has been called upon and went from looking okay to a sure starter. He played okay against a good Real Salt lake team, He looked even better the next week against DC United, and then this past week he dominated Kei Kamara and New England. He has the starting job for now; his size athleticism and distribution is how he’s holding the spot.

So Philly have 10 games left, and they are hard games. Their fixtures are: vs Toronto, @ Columbus, vs Sporting Kansas City, @ Chicago, vs Montreal, @ Portland, @ Toronto, @ New York Red Bulls, vs Orlando City, vs New York Red Bulls. The Union are going to need stellar play out of their center backs to get results needed heading into the playoffs. These teams are all different attacking teams, and the Union are healthy at the center back position. The job of right-center back is Tribbett’s for now, but could there be a right-center back rotation in place as the year progresses?

That would hurt consistency, but both Yaro and Tribbett have proven to be good at times next to Richie Marquez, and both players have a different skill set.Only time will tell of course, but this center back conundrum seems to present an interesting solution. Maybe Jim Curtin looks at the different skill sets, and sets up the rotation. Yaro playing against the smaller, quicker attackers, and Tribbett playing against the bigger more physical strikers. We will see what happens as the year progresses, but a rotation would be brilliant if it pays of with wins, or foolish if it doesn’t.

The Union play Toronto FC this Saturday! We’ll see who Curtin chooses to go up against Giovinco and Altidore. Come back to Philly Sports Network for a game preview tomorrow. Until then, Peace out!


Mandatory Credit: Rafael Suanes-USA TODAY Sports