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A Philadelphia Union blog hosted by Christopher A. Vito and Matthew De George

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

On the outside: Assessing the Union's 2017 fullback performance

The fullback contingent, including left back Giliano Wijnaldum,
presented a mixed bag for the Union this season. (DFM/Mikey Reeves)
The Philadelphia Union’s deployment of fullbacks this season was consistent, in that only four players manned the role, hewing to the two-deep philosophy. The results they yielded, as befits the larger narrative, was decidedly mixed.

Let’s not bury the whopper of a stat that involves the one person everyone wants to discuss from this quartet. Here’s the Union record broken down by the starter at right back:

Ray Gaddis, 23 starts, 10-9-4
Keegan Rosenberry, 11 starts, 1-5-5

We can take that further, since Rosenberry played every minute of the 2016 season, which means he was intimately familiar with the late-season collapse that resulted in eight winless games to end the season, including a 90-minute playoff cameo. That means the Union have won just one of Rosenberry’s last 19 starts, a record of 1-11-7.

There’s some bad fortune that factors in to Rosenberry’s predicament – 16 of those 19 starts occurred when the Union as a team were sliding into the abyss. But the coincidence is pretty startling. And oddly, it doesn’t bear out in the left back comparison this season.

Fabinho, 21 starts, 6-10-5
Giliano Wijnaldum, 13 starts, 5-4-4

Again, neither’s record is gleaming. But both went up and down with the Union’s fortunes this season, while Rosenberry’s descent seemed to be one-way.

Going to goal

Consistency in the lineup was one thing; production was an entirely different proposition, and one didn’t translate to the other. All the rhetoric about fullbacks jumping into the attack and the shorthand scouting reports of “watch those fullbacks getting forward” is bunk, according to the numbers.

Union fullbacks contributed a grand total of five assists and no goals. Fabinho led the way with two helpers, one a secondary in the finale. The other three added one each.

That certainly doesn’t capture the group’s full attacking utility. Per, Wijnaldum completed 0.8 key passes per 90 minutes, 20th in MLS among defenders. Fabinho is 24th at 0.7 per 90. Rosenberry ranks in the 70s at 0.4 per game. Gaddis is outside the top 100, well behind many center backs.

Even so, the concrete production lags behind that of past years. In 2016, the fullbacks accounted for 11 goals, with Fabinho notching six assists and Rosenberry pairing two goals with two assists in his All-Star campaign. The 2015 season saw seven goals involving fullbacks, led by a goal and three helpers from Fabinho. Behind Sheanon Williams’ three goals and four assists in 2014, the Union got 11 goals involving outside backs in 2014. And that total was even higher in 2013 at 13, thanks to Williams’ two goals and eight assists.

Stay or go?

This game will be played a lot in the coming days with higher stakes than what the fullback contingent presents. There’s upward pressure within the system to factor into the equation. Second-round SuperDraft pick Aaron Jones had a promising season at Bethlehem. Matt Real has been regarded as the left back of the future, while Academy product Mark McKenzie’s lack of size at 5-foot-11 could made him an outside back at the MLS level once he’s done with Wake Forest.

Fabinho’s contract is up at the end of the year. He’ll turn 33 in March, but at $167,000 in salary and five years of MLS experience, the Union could do worse than holding on to him for a 20-game reserve role.

Wijnaldum, manager Jim Curtin said last week, hasn’t done enough to own the job full-time, to his dismay. If Roland Alberg, the other Dutchman in the locker room, were to leave this offseason (that’s another post), Wijnaldum would lose part of his familiarity and support system. If reports that he’s already unsettled are to be believed, then Fabinho is an important insurance policy.

Gaddis signed a multi-year extension after the 2014 season that he’s three years into. That likely leaves a club option. Gaddis isn’t the dynamic right back the Union should look for (that they hope Rosenberry will be). He probably won’t ever be. But you know what you’re going to get with Gaddis, not to mention his exemplary ambassadorship off the field. Like Fabinho, he’s a hedge against Rosenberry disappointing.

Which brings us to the Ronks-born elephant in the room. The rapport between club and player appears frosty, given Rosenberry’s social media-inspired suspension and his previous inability to get on the field for long stretches. It’s too early to punt on the Rosenberry project, unless that club is given an offer it can’t refuse to do so. He’s had one excellent season and one rough season; conventional wisdom would say it’s worth another year at least to figure out which is the norm and which the aberration.

Heading into an offseason that features an expansion draft, Rosenberry certainly isn’t untouchable in the horse-trading that the Union could engage, but he also shouldn’t be short-sold.

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