August 11, 2016
It's easy to pencil in most of the Philadelphia Union's starting lineup.
C.J. Sapong is the guy up top. Keegan Rosenberry is your right back. Chris Pontius, Andre Blake and Tranquillo Barnetta definitely aren't coming out of the lineup.
One spot, however, is not a sure bet. And that's right center back, where MLS rookies Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro have shared time throughout the year.
Tribbett seems to have the edge right now. He's logged 1,173 minutes over the course of 15 total appearances and earned starts in four of the last five games -- plus the July 20th U.S. Open Cup game against New England.
Yaro is sitting on 896 minutes in 11 appearances and last started in the 5-1 loss at Montreal. The Georgetown product has mostly sat on the bench since late June, when he started three straight games against Vancouver, New York (USOC), and Houston. He had a shoulder injury that snagged him a bit and caused him to miss a couple of games in early June.
Speaking at his midweek press conference, head coach Jim Curtin suggested that neither player has clamped down on the starting RCB spot.
"Right now, we look at it each and every day," Curtin said. "I'd love to get consistency there, and it is fair to say that along the back line there hasn’t been a hundred percent 'grabbing ahold of it' and 'running with it' like you’d like to see. There are always going to be mistakes at that position. It’s a tough spot. I think you can always be accountable on every goal, which is hard. There’s always something a center back can do to prevent a goal. [They are] two good, young center backs, [and we] still have a decision to make this week on the turf [against] Kei Kamara. We faced them in New England and I thought Richie and Ken did a good job with them. But there are still things that the staff is weighing, and we’ll still have discussions."
Curtin was open to talking about the mistakes that both players have made in recent games.
This one from Tribbett in the 2-2 draw with New York was particularly ghastly.
It's just a bad push into the Red Bull press, with a turnover that leads to a goal. That's a bread and butter New York trap.
Tribbett was also responsible for a shocker in the recent draw against D.C., when a turnover and failed tackle allowed left back Taylor Kemp to make a rather linear run for a rather linear goal.
There's a lot going on with that goal, and there are things other players could have done better. Tribbett doesn't get much help from Ilsinho on the sequence. Keegan Rosenberry is already out of the play with his attack-minded positioning. Andre Blake could do better on the save. Barnetta simply allows Kemp to run right by him.
To his credit, Tribbett recovered from that mistake to play a pretty good game.
"Josh has been excellent with us when he’s been called upon and Ken has had some really good games, as well," Curtin explained. "[Tribbett] had good moments in the D.C. game, too, but did have a mistake, you know? On the first goal he plays the ball that gets stripped. We talked about it [Wednesday]. Instead of compounding it and being overly aggressive to win the ball, just drop with Richie there, stay together, and I think Kemp probably puts his foot on the ball and plays backwards, or plays wide, plays safe. By [Ken] over committing in that spot, [Kemp] kind of has like an, 'Oh, I guess I’ll keep going' moment, and he hits a good shot, he hits a heavy ball. So, they made us pay. Again, mistakes are going to happen; it’s how you respond to them. I think Ken will bounce back, whether that’s as a starter or as a reserve."
Just like Tribbett, Yaro has had growing pains as well.
He spoke of his disappointment with this goal in the Vancouver game from six weeks ago.
This one actually started with a bad Barnetta turnover that invited a Whitecaps counterattack. Yaro seemed stuck in two minds and took a swing at the ball as Kekuta Manneh rounded him for a goal.
Here's what Yaro said post-game about that goal:
"Yeah, I definitely thought I was going to [reach it], then I missed it. It's decision making. I don't want to go down and maybe foul him because I thought I was the last guy. Early in the game I didn't want to take a red card and hurt my team. It was judgment, and that's part of playing. You make mistakes that cause a goal like that. It's not great, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I just have to let it go and move on."
This was another mistake, where Yaro takes an ill-advised stab on Simon Dawkins to allow 10-man San Jose to equalize in the final stages of the April 30th home game.
To be fair, there wasn't much team defense on that play. Most of the Union back five looked like traffic cones and Yaro certainly isn't the only one deserving of criticism.
We could sit here and nitpick rookie mistakes all day long, but that's part of the growing process for these young players. Both guys have displayed plenty of positives throughout the year. Yaro has shown an ability to put out fires, recover well, and clean up teammates' mistakes. He was immense in the May 20th shutout against D.C. United and also played the brilliant secondary assist on the game-winning goal.
Tribbett has gone into spells where he dominates aerial duels and clears everything that comes his way. He's quietly won some important tackles and made a goal-line clearance that ended up on Sports Center.
The upside is certainly there for both players. It's not uncommon to see rookies plateau, but you'll only get improvement in year number two.
The Union just needs one of these two to earn the starting spot, put it in a figurative chokehold, and never let go.
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @Kevin_Kinkead