Philadelphia Union: Two gambles paying off for Union back line

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 08: Oguchi Onyewu of USa national football team speaks during a news conference at Irene Farm on June 8, 2010 in Irene near Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 08: Oguchi Onyewu of USa national football team speaks during a news conference at Irene Farm on June 8, 2010 in Irene near Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

Poorly timed injuries forced the Philadelphia Union deep into their depth chart early. After taking a chance on both a new and old face, its paying off.

To call the Philadelphia Union’s season a roller coaster as we reach the midway point would be quite the understatement. The Union set the record for the longest win-less streak along with the longest winning streak in club history in the exact same month. Definitely quite the turnaround.

Their issues stem back to last off-season, as the club tried to continue to improve after squeaking into the playoffs on goal difference. To round out the roster, the club took a chance on two intriguing prospects, one a former World Cup starter with a mountain of injuries behind him, the other an unknown English player coming out of college. Both signed minimum deals, and shortly after signing they quickly became the only healthy center back options on the roster.

Finding The Right Pieces

Center back has always been a tough position to find in MLS. Some big name players have come into the league and struggled, while relatively unknown prospects have shined. In a league run with a salary cap, spending large sums on defenders is still relatively uncommon. That trend is slowly starting to change, however, thanks to new mechanisms for adding players. Even with more cash to splash, the results haven’t translated every time.

MLS newcomers Minnesota United are a prime example. Norwegian international Vadim Demidov was brought in on a salary worth over a half-million dollars to be the club’s captain and man the back line. He quickly was overwhelmed by the improved attacks in MLS play before finding his way to the bench. His replacement, Brent Kallman, had played for Minnesota United in the NASL days and was the clubs first signing from their NASL squad, picked up on an MLS minimum deal. Kallman has shined with his chance, locking down a starting role, so much so that Demidov hasn’t been with the club in months.

The Best of Both Worlds

The 21-year-old Jack Elliott was one of two England native center backs the Union selected in the MLS Superdraft, with Elliott being taken with the 77th pick after his four years at West Virginia University and a short stint with the South Florida Surf of the USL-PDL. It was safe to assume he was likely to end up playing with the Union reserves, Bethlehem Steel, in USL given the players in front of him. He had shown promise, and on a reserve minimum wasn’t hurting the cap at all.

Oguchi Onyewu was a different story. The 6’4″ defender was once one of the most promising players in the USMNT player pool, starting in both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, before a long and taxing injury history caught up to him. He dropped from Italian powerhouse AC Milan to Charlton Athletic in League One in England over a four year span, with several short stops in between. It seemed like he had reached the end of his professional career when he found himself without a contract, but he had other ideas. “Gooch” rehabbed and recovered for a year before signing with the Union. A gamble that has definitely paid off.

A Top 5 Pairing

While the club has taken their lumps, one this is clear, the club’s turnaround has a lot to do with Onyewu and Bell becoming one of the top center back pairings in the league. Only the Fire, Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City, and FC Dallas have allowed fewer goals in MLS, and the four of them are the top two teams in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Should the offense catch up to the play of Onyewu and Bell, the Union have a good chance of making a cup run, and they have done so at a bargain compared to the production of the defenses in front of them. Hopefully that bodes well for the experienced veteran who has already proven doubters wrong about his ability as a professional, and the young prospect who now has a promising career ahead of him.