Philadelphia Union might actually have something in Tai Baribo

Union tai baribo
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

With Julian Carranza off to Europe, and a starting spot now open, is Tai Baribo what Union need to replace their DP striker?

I’ll cut straight to the point, the easy answer is no – at least not yet. But after last night’s two goal performance from Tai Baribo, you have to feel better than ever about the 26 year-old Israeli international’s ability to contribute for the Philadelphia Union.

Baribo’s time with the Union so far

Tai Baribo’s arrival in Philadelphia was announced by the Union on August 2nd of last season while rumors of Julian Carranza’s departure to Europe were first starting to swirl. DOOP spent a reported $1.5 million dollars to acquire Baribo from Austria’s Wolfsberger FC, and the signing was met with a considerable amount of optimism with Baribo scoring 37 goals in 73 goals for the Austrian club – the potential to add another tool to an already powerful attacking arsenal.

But at the same time, from situations of the past, Union fans knew Tai Baribo would still need to earn playing time under Jim Curtin’s leadership, no matter his transfer fee or previous scoring record. And they also knew that can sometimes take a while – but as the months passed, the wait continued.

In Baribo’s first half-season with the Union, he appeared in a total of 5 MLS games and just once in the inaugural Leagues Cup for a total of 152 minutes played on the year, which most people agree isn’t really enough time to show that you can make a true impact on the team. Even Baribo’s Union debut was disappointing to watch, with the forward being subbed on for his first minutes as a member of the Philadelphia Union…only for the final whistle to blow literally seconds after he entered the pitch.

After a short offseason, Baribo’s journey took another turn, with an injury keeping him on the sideline for the first few games of pre-season preparations. Like I said before, and like Jim Curtin has said multiple times when he’s been asked about the situation – player’s playing time is largely dictated by them and how hard they work in training and buy-in to what the head coach is trying to achieve, which is the only real explanation we have as to why Tai Baribo had only featured in 5 games for a total of 29 minutes before Wednesday’s breakout performance. 0 goals in 11 total appearances across an 8 and a half month span for a player Union spent a reported $1.5 million dollars on – which if you’re new here, thats a considerable amount of money spent on a signing for the Philadelphia Union

Union tai baribo
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

What we now actually know about Tai Baribo’s game

I think most of us were ready to move on from Tai Baribo and not because he’s been bad – because we really haven’t seen him play much and if Jim isn’t going to utilize him…then why not bring in someone he will use? There were plenty of times when the situation seemed destined for Baribo to get the nod from Jim Curtin, but it rarely came and only in small windows at the end of games.

His one start of the season coming into Wednesday’s game was in the make-up game against Seattle, in which the forward replaced an injured Markus Anderson in starting lineup at the r-start, only to be subbed off for Julian Carranza before the game kicked off. If that doesn’t tell you where Jim Curtin’s head was at with Tai Baribo earlier this season, I’m not sure anything will.

So when Union fans saw the lineup drop on Wednesday night with Tai Baribo manning the attack next to Mikael Uhre, I think all of us were a bit surprised – but also a bit excited to see him get a real shot at showing what he’s worth.

Unsurprisingly to me, he showed a lot of the same qualities Union fans were excited about when he was first signed.He’s a hard-working forward who will run until he can’t anymore, an attribute acknowledged by Jim Curtin in his post-game presser Wednesday night. Baribo’s speed and strength against opposing players makes him a valuable target with both long passes that lead him into space, and direct passes designed for Baribo to hold up play while his teammates get forward to support in the attack. In Wednesday night’s start against Cincinnati, Barbio completed 94% of his passes (15/16), and created a scoring chance in addition to his 2 goals.

Both of Tai Baribo’s goals were almost identical. In both instances, balls were played into the penalty area toward the far post, and headed back across the face of the goal for him to finish. The first assist came from the head of Mikael Uhre, who stretched just about as much as he could in order to get a touch on the ball, and delivered it perfectly to Baribo in traffic. He let the ball bounce and hit it on the volley with his right foot, beating Roman Celentano at the near-post.

The second goal was assisted by Kai Wagner, who headed the ball back across the face of the goal, finding Baribo, who this time volleyed the ball home before taking a bounce. It’s bizarre how similar these two goals are, and maybe the biggest takeaway is Cincinnati’s defense losing Baribo on both plays – but you’ve got to give credit where it’s due, especially for a guy that’s struggled so much to win fans over in Philadelphia.

Tai Baribo’s involvement moving forward

It was great not only to see Tai get his opportunity for Union, but to watch him make the most of it. It’s not entirely a surprise though, even if it felt far-fetched that he’d ever be a contributing member of this Union team at times. Baribo has been facing adversity his entire career, dating back to his youth days where he’d need to take hour-long flights to train with his club Hapoel Rishon Letzion, and dealing with the death of his mother at the age of 11. Through it all Baribo’s been able to maintain his focus and keep fighting toward his goals, and his mentality has stayed the same despite his tough start to times in Philly.

“It doesn’t matter what people think about you or what they say about you, you have to believe in yourself.”

Tai Baribo

So with Julian Carranza off to Europe, and and a DP spot open for Union to fill, does Ernst Tanner go out and get another striker to try and save Union’s lack-luster season? Or do they take their time trying to identify their net Designated Player, and lean on the sudden surge of Tai Baribo for the remainder of the season? I, for one, know what I’d like to happen, and I think we all know what’s more LIKELY to happen – but one thing’s for sure is that Tai Baribo has undoubtedly earned himself more time in this Union starting XI, especially while an open spot is vacant, and that’s backed by Jim Curtin himself.

“I thought he was excellent. That’s not just because of the goals, but because of his work rate. To be able to run and fight that way until he couldn’t run anymore was very good. He’s worked hard to get this start, and now, he’s certainly left a really good impression with the coaches, put in a great shift, and will certainly get more playing time.”

Jim Curtin on Tai Baribo

I’d love for Ernst Tanner to go out and get a DP striker to replace Julian Carranza, while Jim Curtin continues attempting to unlock whatever it is Ernst saw in Barbio initially. Creating good, healthy inner-squad competition and pushing guys to compete for a starting position could benefit this team. But at the end of the day, seeing people give him his flowers after such hard (and justified, at times) criticism is a (very, VERY) small beam of positivity during an abysmal run of form for this Union squad. Let’s all continue to support Tai Baribo, because just like the fans – all these guys want to do is win.

“Tai worked hard in training and we rewarded him — he stepped on the field and gave us everything and did a really good job for us. He earned the start and like a good professional, he took advantage of his opportunity. So, I’m happy for Tai. Tonight was something to build on, but I know he would trade the two goals for some points as well. He did a good job finishing his plays off in the box like a good striker and hopefully there’s more of that in the future.”

Jim Curtin on Tai Baribo

And let’s be honest here; I’m not sure any of us thought Julian Carranza’s time in Philadelphia would turn out the way it did after being acquired by Union for a modest $500,000 from Inter Miami. So who’s to say that Tai Baribo isn’t another diamond in the rough signing by Ersnt Tanner, despite his much, MUCH slower start to life as a member of the Union?

Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union