July 27, 2014
Courtesy of Matthew De George, Delaware County Daily Times
CHESTER, Pa. - In many ways, Friday wasn't the debut Pedro Ribeiro had envisioned.
The first-round pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft was forced to wait some four months into the season to see his first minutes at PPL Park. When they finally came, the appearance wasn't in a competitive fixture. It wasn't even at the position for which he was drafted.
Nonetheless, Ribeiro relished all 45 of his minutes in a Philadelphia Union kit Friday night in a 1-0 loss to Crystal Palace in an international friendly, the rookie's long-awaited home debut with the club that picked him 15th in the draft.
"It's a moment I've been waiting for since I got drafted," Ribeiro said. "Even though it's not an MLS game or Open Cup game or official game, but it was good to get on the field with the guys. I got some touches on the ball in a real game. I've played a bunch of games with Harrisburg, but it's still a different environment. It's good to have that first opportunity here at PPL."
Ribeiro's rookie journey has been all-too-familiar for the Union's recent recruits. Andre Blake, who was stellar in net with six saves against the Barclays Premier League club Friday, and Ribeiro are two of nine picks from the 19-selection first round not to have suited up for their clubs in MLS play yet.
Ribeiro has only made the bench for one MLS game, the June 28 trip to New England. He also made the matchday 18-man roster in two U.S. Open Cup fixtures without getting on the field.
The 6-4 Ribeiro has been confined mostly to Harrisburg City, where he's played in seven games for the club, scoring his first two goals of the season Wednesday night. With the Islanders, he's been used mostly as a forward or as the No. 10 midfield player the Union project him as. He played sparingly in defense early in the season to fill in for injuries, and he's capable of holding court deep in midfield. But the consensus is that his physicality and soft touch make him a unique asset as a play-making midfielder, a position where he towers over peers, by six or eight inches in some cases, and is capable of bearing the punishment from center backs and defensive midfielders.
The fact that he was utilized in central defense Friday -- deputizing due to a couple of late injuries, according to Union manager Jim Curtin -- isn't indicative of the club's future direction for him.
As he has all season, Ribeiro took that decision in stride, playing well against Crystal Palace's second unit and making a couple of good recoveries, showing his speed and tackling ability.
The fact that he was able to shine in defense two days after starring in attack for Harrisburg illustrates his versatility and value.
"I feel like nowadays you have to be an overall player, you have to be able to play in different positions, even though they are completely opposite positions," he said. "As a center back, I try to think ahead of the forwards and what they're going to do. And I'm a forward, so I try and figure out what they're trying to do. I try to adjust day-by-day and be ready for whatever it is."
The reminder of Ribeiro's immense promise Friday has reignited debate as to where he belongs. The player identifies most strongly as an attacker, and with the Union having some say in his utilization in that capacity with developmental partner Harrisburg, it's clear that the staff is leaning the same way.
Curtin was less equivocal, recognizing in equal parts Ribeiro's promise and the club's need to find him a permanent home on the field.
"He's one of those guys that can play multiple positions," Curtin said. "We do have to find which one's best, though. You don't want to get caught, and it happens to guys in our league a lot. Is he a center back? Is he an attacking player? Is he a left-sided guy? And next thing you know, you're kind of scrambling team to team."
While Curtin and company decide, Ribeiro is keen to keep improving as a player, at whatever position he's told to play.
"We talk a lot about that in practice, and I've told him since day one, `whatever you need, coach,' first with (John Hackworth) and now with Jim stepping up as a head coach," Ribeiro said. "I still talk to him every day, and whatever he needs from me, I'm up for it. If he needs me to play left back, forward, anything -- I'll do it."