The Union’s 3-0 loss at Colorado on Saturday probably won’t be remembered by too many people, and for good reason. In addition to the scoreline, it was played at the same time as Villanova’s win over Kansas and part of another Major League game that was on national TV. And there was the imposing shadow cast earlier in the day by Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s goals for the ages in his Los Angeles Galaxy debut.
There was a headline made in the Denver suburbs beyond the scoreline, though, and it deserves more attention than it got in the moment.
The Union started the youngest back line in MLS history on Saturday. It included rookie left back Matt Real (18) and centerback Auston Trusty (19); second-year centerback Jack Elliott (22); and third-year right back Keegan Rosenberry (24). Their average age is 21 years, 115 days.
Villanova basketball players Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are all older than that benchmark.
American sports don’t lack for teenage pros, of course. The Sixers’ Markelle Fultz is 19, as are other one-and-done college products in the NBA. The Flyers’ Nolan Patrick is 19, too.
But global soccer’s development culture is different from the American tradition. Here, it’s news when an athlete’s pro career begins as a teenager. In much of the world, it’s an expectation. There is no college development pipeline. Instead, there are team-run youth academies that spit players out at ages when their counterparts here are finishing high school.
As MLS teams’ academies have grown in recent years, so have opportunities for academy products to make impacts as teenagers. 19-year-old Tyler Adams, a top U.S. national team prospect, has played 27 games for the New York Red Bulls since turning pro in 2016. The Vancouver Whitecaps’ Alphonso Davies turned pro at age 15 in the same season, and now has 39 games under his belt. In Montreal last year, Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla parlayed his rookie season into a seven-figure transfer fee to global superpower Barcelona at age 18.
The Union’s academy started later than others in MLS, so it has taken a while for it to bear fruit. And even then, there has to be a willingness to take the risks that come with playing kids. The Union haven’t always had it, but they do now.
One of those risks is that you get run over in a road game, and that’s what happened Saturday night. The Union’s winless streak in road games is now 14 games, dating back to May 13 of last year — and that 4-0 victory at D.C. United was their only road win of the season. There is no hiding that, especially given Union manager Jim Curtin’s repeated emphasis of the importance of road games in the lead-up to this past weekend.
The risks are even greater when the young players on the field are defenders. It’s one thing to give a young attacking player a shot and back him up with experienced teammates, but another when the only backup is the goalkeeper. Curtin rolled the dice on Saturday, and ended up with a pair of snake eyes.
On Colorado’s second goal, Real kept eventual scorer Dominique Badji onside while watching the action from the flank — and kept watching as Badji scored right in front of him.
On the third goal, Elliot and Trusty had pressed high to help the Union’s attack, and the Rapids ran them over on the counter-attack. Badji had Elliott twisting in the wind on the way to goal, and Trusty watched Johan Blomberg’s setup pass go right over his head.
Union fans were justifiably frustrated. Many of those same fans have celebrated the Union’s youth movement, though, and for good reason. In the bigger picture, one bad game is a speed bump, not a crash.
Elliott and Trusty proved in the first two games that they deserve to be the starting centerbacks. Rosenberry looks closer to his great rookie form than his sophomore slump, and should benefit from Fafa Picault’s return from suspension this week. Real had the aforementioned lapse, but his name wasn’t called much at all until then, which is good for a defender. He should start again Saturday against the San Jose Earthquakes (7 p.m. PHL17), and will keep getting better with experience.
This is not to say that all is right with the Union. There are problems to fix, starting with the lack of offense since Borek Dockal took the reins. But the defense shouldn’t be cause for alarm yet.