Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin has found the perfect strategy to keep his team's defensive performance at a high level.
Throughout the season, the former center back has employed a rotation of Mark McKenzie, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes in the middle of defense.
In 10 regular-season games, the Union are one of six Major League Soccer teams to allow fewer than 10 goals. Five of the six clubs reside in the Eastern Conference.
The Union also sit in a tie for second in goal differential among clubs in the East. Only the Columbus Crew and their +14 goal differential are better.
“I’m a very lucky coach in MLS," Curtin said during his weekly press conference Thursday. "Obviously I rate the center back position highly, maybe I overrate it, but I think if you look across this league, there’s not a lot of great center backs. We have a whole stable. The three center backs that have been playing most of the minutes have been better than any in the league. They’ve been at the top of their game. They’ve embraced the rotation where they are two games on, one game off. We can’t find a drop off at all, no matter what the pairing is."
The most used combination is McKenzie and Elliott, a duo that has played seven times together and conceded five goals.
McKenzie and Glesnes, who started together in Sunday's win over the New York Red Bulls, have conceded six goals in five matches, with three coming against Los Angeles FC back in March.
Glesnes and Elliott played together once in the 4-1 win over D.C. United, and they could be utilized again if McKenzie receives some rest either Saturday against New England, or in the upcoming Phase 2, which is supposed to begin next weekend.
“All three of them are selfless and really good people," Curtin said. "As a coach, I’m really lucky and the beauty of having three good center backs, we’re going to be in every game because of that. We can defend with those center backs, with Jose (Martinez), the outside backs and Andre (Blake) behind them. It’s a really nice security blanket to have as a coach. They make my job easy, except for picking them. If I had to pick two right now, it’s really tough."
At some point, Curtin will have to make the toughest decision of the season: picking a center back pairing to ride through the final games of the regular season and the playoffs.
“I believe you have to pick two," Curtin said when asked about his looming decision. "You have to find a way to get to two. It’s also part of what keeps them all sharp right now. They know they are still competing. When the weather gets cold and the time comes for the final stretch, we’ll have to make a difficult decision."
In 2018, Curtin committed to Auston Trusty and McKenzie in the middle of defense with five games remaining in the regular season.
A year ago, the only change in the final five games from the Elliott-McKenzie pairing occurred during a midweek trip to San Jose, when Aurelien Collin slid in next to Elliott.
The distinct difference between the last two years and 2020 is the extra substitutes available. With five changes allowed in three different windows, the Union could make a center back change late in the game, or put all three center backs on the field at once to close out a victory.
"You’ve seen us use all three in games as well where we sub one out," Curtin said. "Again, the demands are different right now and it’s a different season. When five subs are available and three fresh strikers come in and you’re defending a lead, you can still sub your center back. I think they will all still contribute, but I think down the stretch in the final five games and playoffs, I think ultimately you do have to make a decision and go with it."
For now, the rotation will continue with 12 games expected to follow Saturday's conclusion of Phase 1. Elliott was one of five players listed as questionable on the injury report, so we may see McKenzie and Glesnes starting at Subaru Park against New England.
“There’s no reason to drive them into the ground right now because we’re playing well," Curtin said. "There’s not a lot of drop off. I think it’s a good rhythm for them to be in. It keeps them fresh. The demands of the position are hard. The attackers in the league, week in and week out, they take a toll on you and can be a real challenge. Keeping them fresh is something I still believe in, but I am of the belief you want to have your best players playing and not have much change in rotation in those final five games or so, or three games, whatever it may be before you get to the playoffs."
The setup around the center backs from the last two games likely will not change Saturday, as Kai Wagner is still dealing with a lower leg issue.
“(Wagner)’s working towards some fitness, but it’s still unclear when he’ll be ready to go," Curtin said. "I don’t anticipate him being ready for New England, but I would say Mbaizo has come in and done a really good job and Matt is an option as well."
There's no reason for the Union to rush Wagner back from injury as long as Olivier Mbaizo turns in solid defensive performances at left back.
Philadelphia is limited moving forward with Mbaizo and Ray Gaddis flanking the center backs, but the Union have proved that they can find other ways to attack, including through Brenden Aaronson in the middle of the pitch.
Mbaizo and Gaddis can play supporting roles in some attacks, but they could be held back a bit Saturday since the Revolution boast some dangerous wingers.
In the MLS is Back round of 16, Wagner and Gaddis had one of their best performances by pinning Cristian Penilla and Tajon Buchanan outside and not allowing much central combination with Gustavo Bou and Adam Buksa.
New England has added a wealth of MLS experience in midfield in its attempt to replace Carles Gil, who is out for the season. The Revs started Teal Bunbury and Diego Fagundez on the wings in their last match against Chicago.
“It sets up as a dangerous game against a really good New England team, who we have had some decent results against recently," Curtin said. "We are warning the players it’s not a time to feel good about our last performance. We’re going to be missing some bodies. We have to have everybody step up and perform well."
While Curtin is warning against a trap game, the Union have played incredibly well against Saturday's opponent over the last few years. Since the start of the 2016 season, the Union are 7-1-2 in regular-season play against the Revs.
As for the other injuries, Sergio Santos, Warren Creavalle and Ilsinho are listed as questionable alongside Elliott and Wagner.
“Just like every other MLS team right now, everyone’s feeling the affects of the schedule," Curtin said. "There’s ton of injuries throughout the league. The players are being put through a lot. It’s been highly demanding and bodies are dropping quite quickly."
Santos' latest injury could open the door for Andrew Wooten to come into more form. He produced two assists in Sunday's win over the Red Bulls.
Wooten's performance was his best in a Union shirt, but that was not a high bar for him to clear. For the Union to be a legitimate MLS Cup contender, Wooten must develop more consistency alongside Kacper Przybylko for the attacking depth to complement the high level coming from the back.
Pregame coverage for Saturday's match can be heard on Fox Sports The Gambler starting at 7 p.m. ET.
Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union.