The Union rely more heavily on their small core than any other team in Major League Soccer.The Philadelphia Union have 14 players.
There are technically more than that, obviously - 28 names are listed on the active roster - but just 14 have been used with any regularity, playing 500 or more minutes. That number is the lowest in Major League Soccer. Eight of the 14 have played 2,000 or more minutes. That number is the highest in the league. The math doesn't lie. Philly has a small, overworked player pool.
It would be easy to say head coach John Hackworth's personnel decisions are predictable, mostly because they are. With the Union's back six locked in, tactical adjustments are generally limited to shuffling the same eight players around five positions. In the second half, Antoine Hoppenot will go on as a substitute, as he has in 26 of his 27 appearances. Danny Cruz will come off, as he has 27 of 29 times.
The Union's lack of depth has obvious consequences. Right back Sheanon Williams will miss next week's must-win game against D.C. United thanks to yellow card accumulation. Normally, nominal left back Ray Gaddis would move across to his natural right side and wingback Fabinho would drop from the midfield, but the Brazilian picked up a red card for kicking Toronto's Alvaro Rey on Saturday.
After the usual back four of Williams, Gaddis, Amobi Okugo and Jeff Parke and the auxiliary wide player Fabinho, the defensive player to see the most MLS playing time this season for the Union is 23-year-old Matt Kassel, with a paltry 33 minutes. After him are 22-year-old rookie Don Anding (30 minutes) and 34-year-old, basically-already-a-coach Chris Albright (four minutes). In a game where they can ill-afford mistakes, the Union will either start a defender who doesn't have a half's worth of minutes under his belt a month before the playoffs, or play someone else out of position.
Despite the lack of variation, it's not all doom and gloom for the undermanned side. That familiarity that comes from constantly playing together as a unit has turned a young defensive group (Williams and Gaddis are 23, Okugo and goalkeeper Zac MacMath 22) into a veritable stone wall at the most unforgiving stage of the regular season. The Union have allowed just two goals in their last five games, which is vital, since that's all the offense has been able to produce in the same span. Apart from a few absolute beatdowns (giving up five goals against Montreal and New England, four against Los Angeles), the Union are downright stingy. MacMath leads the league with his 12 shutouts, a single-season franchise record.
"It's big heading into the playoffs," Okugo said of the defense's recent effectiveness. "A lot of games are going to be 1-0, 2-1, so we can't afford any mistakes.
"Our goal was 10 shutouts, and we reached that. We're trying to get as many as possible."
The reason for the Union's realiance on its core comes down to its manager. Hackworth is a player's coach. He plays his guys, those that buy into his system. They're generally an athletic, hard-working, blue-collar bunch, leaving flashier, more luxurious types like Roger Torres and Kleberson to watch from the sidelines.
Many had previous connections to him through his days as a youth national team coach. They are overwhelmingly American. In a league where 41 percent of players are now born overseas, Hackworth won a vital game with a starting 11 that included 10 players born in the USA. Just two foreigners, Trinidadian Keon Daniel and Frenchman Sebastien Le Toux, have earned their way into Hackworth's core 14.
He - and they - speak of trust. Communication. Understanding.
"Hack and I have a good understanding of each other," said winger Cruz, explaining why he is invariably substituted before the game is over. "I'm someone who if I don't feel like I can give the other 10 guys on the field every single thing, if I don't have anything left in the tank, I'm only going to hurt us by being on the field. And I genuinely believe that.
"Hack and I have a really good understanding, we've known each other a long time. So around the 65th, 70th minute mark, I'm usually pretty gassed from the runs, and he does a good job figuring out who needs to come on."
The reason Hackworth plays a midfielder who can't finish 90 minutes is simply because he trusts Cruz. He's hailed the Virginia native as "Philly tough," the physical embodiment of the committed, positive attitude the coach wants to instill in his organization. He's chippy, and physical, and wears his heart on his sleeve. He's the type of player for whom clichés like "giving 110 percent" and "leaving it all on the field" were invented.
Hackworth might need to find a few more of those for next year.