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December 28, 2016

New Year's resolutions for the Philadelphia Union – goalkeeping and defense

Soccer Union
122816_fabinho_PSP Earl Gardner/Philly Soccer Page

Union left back Fabinho reached career highs in assists (6), starts (29), and total minutes (2,517) in 2016.

I've always viewed New Year's resolutions as somewhat corny because you shouldn't have to wait until Jan. 1st to make positive life changes.

There are 364 other days for you to start a new diet, cut back on your drinking, or throw the PlayStation 4 out of the window.

We pick Jan. 1st because it's a clean slate, right? It's a new year, with new opportunities on the horizon. The new year brings a new MLS season, with players returning for training camp after a reflective holiday season.

For the Philadelphia Union, a big part of 2017 will be the growth of a young squad that took steps forward this year. Three rookies played significant minutes and one ended up in the all-star game. The back four featured just one player on the wrong side of age 30, and he had his best season in a Union jersey.

With a solid foundation in place, here's how the Union get better in 2017, starting with the rearguard.

Andre Blake

Strengths – shot-stopping, aerial command in the box, close-range reflexes

New Year's resolution – improve fringe skills

There really aren't many flaws in Andre's game.

One thing he can improve is his distribution, both from the run of play and restarts. His kicking game will get better with time, allowing Philly to build out of the back in a more consistent way.

Another thing I saw was that Andre seemed to develop a slight distrust of his backline in September and October, leading to a few situations where he was overly aggressive or came off his line early. That wasn't necessarily the case earlier in the year.

There were also a couple of times where it looked like he wasn't setting the correct angle, specifically on direct balls over the top of the defense.

This goal, for example, is a situation where Andre is caught in two minds. He initially comes towards the ball, then holds his position and tries to reset his feet in a position where Jordan Morris has an open look at the near post.

That's all I can really come up with for Blake. He was fantastic in 2016 and won the league's Goalkeeper of the Year award to go along with his first all-star selection. His saves, in my estimation, were worth at least a six or seven point swing in total goal differential, which made the difference when it came to postseason qualification.


Strengths – attacking presence, maneuvering in tight spaces, recovery ability

New Year's resolution – hit a beefier cross into the box

The 2016 season opener was Fabinho's worst game for the Union.

After that loss in Dallas, he was one of the most consistent performers on the field, and really showed improvement over the course of the season.

Defensively, he wasn't making the back-breaking mistakes that we had seen in years past. There were really only two games this year where he struggled in that department, one in that Dallas loss, and the second in Portland, where he had issues with Darlington Nagbe's penchant for cutting inside and vacating flank space.

There was also the error against Orlando in October, which can probably be chalked up to communication more than anything.

Pushing forward, Fabinho's offensive game didn't drop off at all in 2016. He was tied for second on the team with six assists and continued to pump balls into the box like your typical Brazilian fullback.

One issue with Fabinho's attacking contributions is that he tends to hit a loopy cross into the box, meaning that he gets under the ball and adds backspin, which takes some power out of the service. Chris Pontius and C.J. Sapong did well enough to attack those balls, but it's harder to generate power from that type of crosse. When you watch Keegan Rosenberry attack, you'll see him hit a more purposeful cross, which is either driven into the box or hit about waist-height between the defenders and the goalkeeper.

At, Fabinho finished with an average player rating of 7.04, which was second best on the team. He also improved his disciplinary record, taking just one yellow card from May to October after beginning the season with five cautions in the first seven games.

Richie Marquez

Strengths – physicality, timing of tackles, endurance and constitution

New Year's resolution – begin to develop veteran shrewdness and acumen

Marquez started 33 games this season and logged the third most minutes in Major League Soccer, finishing behind Michael Parkhurst and teammate Keegan Rosenberry.

Richie was strong in physical situations and won some fantastic, crunching tackles. He generally performed at a consistent level and provided stability at left center back when the RCB position featured constant interchange between Josh Yaro and Ken Tribbett.

His biggest issue was set piece defense, specifically the tendency to get lost in screens and picks. There were a number of times in 2016 where he got caught in traffic and lost his mark, and these situations usually involved him trying to pick up a veteran center back or striker.

One of the things that young defenders struggle with is that they just aren't dirty enough in the mixer. Marquez, in an effort to play a clean game, fell victim to some of the pulling, grabbing, and screening that should be whistled, but will usually go unnoticed when one referee is trying to account for 16 players in the box.

As an example, this goal in Seattle was the product of Marquez taking a shoulder from Clint Dempsey and losing Chad Marshall in the process. This was a veteran move by Dempsey that will never get called.

The other issue I saw in Richie's game is that he tends to play long if he can't find a short or medium passing option. He got better in this department as the season went on, but still lumps the long ball up the field on too many occasions.

Ken Tribbett

Strengths – aerial presence, pushing into space with the ball

New Year's resolution – cut down on the individual mistakes

Tribbett was supposed to play this season with Bethlehem Steel but ended up on the first team roster instead.

There were games when he was dominant and technically sound, such as the 4-0 win in New England and the 1-1 draw in Toronto. His days as a defensive midfielder and fullback add to his skill as a passer, and he shows good ability to receive in possession, push forward into space, and attempt to build from the back while keeping the ball on the ground.

Ken's biggest issues were his penchant for individual mistakes, and a lack of foot speed that gave him fits when opponents would play over the top or hit a through ball on a misstep from the Union backline. You probably remember the first Toronto game, when Tribbett's troubles saw him pulled at halftime.

We have to remind ourselves that Ken was a rookie at this level. This was his first year in MLS, just like the guys who came out of the SuperDraft. Mistakes were expected, and he ended up playing more minutes than originally projected because of constant injuries to Yaro.

Another issue is that when Tribbett and Marquez played together, their skill sets were a bit too similar. Both were strong and physical ball winners. When Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez played together, the differing skill sets were a nice complement for each other. I think both Tribbett and Marquez would play better alongside Yaro, instead of pairing with each other.

Keegan Rosenberry

Strengths – crossing ability, fitness, maturity and soccer IQ

New Year's resolution – improve two-way balance and recognize center back and channel threats

Rosenberry was ready to play from day one and ended up leading the league in total minutes played, setting an "unbreakable" rookie record in the process.

Let me explain why that record is "unbreakable:"

Keegan played 3,060 minutes in 2016, which is a full 90 minutes in 34 straight games. Percentage-wise, he logged 100 percent of the minutes available to him.

If the schedule expanded to, say 36 games, then you could theoretically have a rookie earn 3,240 minutes, which would eclipse Rosenberry's total.

But you can't have a player earn more than 100 percent of the total minutes in a season. At worst, Rosenberry's rookie record would be tied when you look at the ratio of total minutes available to total minutes played.

That makes sense, right?

Anyway, Rosenberry showed a lot of offensive flash early on. He bombed forward, hit dangerous crosses into the box, and showed very good interchange in tight spaces with Ilsinho and Sebastien Le Toux.

Later in the season, he had some trouble measuring those crosses, and had a tendency to overcook passes while trying to find his range in the early stages of games. His ability to get good balls into the box waned as the campaign dragged on. I think he could have used a break physically and mentally.

Defensively, he improved quickly over the season, and held up well against the likes of Nacho Piatti, Diego Fagundez, and Simon Dawkins in April and May. His 1v1 defending in wide areas was a key area of growth.

One of the things that the staff noted about his game is that they want to improve his positioning with regard to the right center back. For a player with a lot of attacking ability, Rosenberry sometimes became caught too far up the field, leaving a trailing defensive midfielder to aid Ken Tribbett or Josh Yaro. Rosenberry eventually got better at reading the space in that channel and providing cover to the fellow rookies who were playing to his left.

Josh Yaro

Strengths – threat recognition, anticipation, recovery ability, passing

New Year's resolution – stay healthy and cut down on mistakes

Yaro was the highest draft pick of the three rookies, but started the season at Bethlehem Steel.

He was excellent when he finally got on the field at Seattle, and immediately showed an ability to put out fires, chase down attackers, and win 50/50 balls both on the ground and in the air.

Yaro is not the biggest guy, but that's alright when he's paired with a sturdier ball winner. His distribution is excellent, and he made one of the passes of the year when he won a loose ball and split the lines for Le Toux, who put in the cross that Richie Marquez fired home for the 1-0 win against D.C. United.

Yaro did make some rookie mistakes. One that stands out is the failed clearance and whiffed tackle attempt on San Jose's goal in the 1-1 draw. Another was the bit of hesitation that allowed Kekuta Manneh to score in a 3-2 Vancouver home loss. There was also a pair of late game ejections that stemmed from second yellow cards. In the Portland game, he was incorrectly cautioned early in the game, but made a rash tackle around the 85th minute while on that bogus yellow.

One thing I did notice is that Yaro seemed to learn quickly from those mistakes. It was rare to see him make the same error twice, and he usually rebounded well when they did take place.

Yaro also dealt with the passing of his mother and an early season shoulder injury, plus two concussions that took place just 15 days apart in September. It was a difficult year in many regards, but he showed enough to prove that he can be a great contributor for this team if he can stay healthy.

Ray Gaddis

Strengths – 1v1 defense, ability to cover at two positions

New Year's resolution – continue to work on offensive side of game

Ray is a curious case.

Here's a five-year MLS veteran with 10,000 career minutes who earned a contract extension after winning the right back job in 2015, resulting in the trade of long-time starter Sheanon Williams.

A few months later, Gaddis was relegated to a depth role when Rosenberry was drafted. He played just 514 regular season minutes in 2016.

His development was stunted by prior coaches, who failed to properly address the left back situation and simply plugged the gap by putting Gaddis on his weaker foot. That resulted in a ton of starts in a position that he really didn't know. Ray wasn't able to provide any offensive support in that role but served as a solid, if handicapped, lockdown defender.

The irony of that misappropriation is that Gaddis can now backup both Rosenberry and Fabinho in their respective roles. He's not going to give you the attacking threat that either starter provides, but there's still room for Gaddis to improve his game at age 26.