Commentary / Preseason / Season Previews

Five Philadelphia Union players to watch in 2019

Photo: Earl Gardner

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our week-long series previewing the 2019 Philadelphia Union season. For the full series, click here.

The Philadelphia Union will be starting the 2019 MLS season with a lot of promising changes in squad makeup and play philosophy. There is a lot to be excited about, especially as the Union try to match the fast tempo and electrifying pace of the game in Europe and abroad. At the same time, expectations will be high for Ernst Tanner’s first season as sporting director and Head Coach Jim Curtin seeks to overcome last season’s glaring vulnerabilities. With unexpected players stepping into starting roles last season and a diverse mix of new players joining the Union in the offseason, there will be a lot of individuals to look out for on the pitch in 2019.

Fafa Picault

The promising winger from the 2018 MLS season will be a prime player to look out for in 2019. Last season, he was able to use his speed on the wings to produce 10 goals, only second on the team to Corey Burke. This season will likely see him start as one of a pair of strikers up front, which should allow him more opportunities to be a finisher for the Union. The Union’s penultimate preseason match against D.C. United showcased Picault’s ability to weave through defenders and create opportunities. If that continues into the 2019 MLS season, he will surely be one of the stars of the team. It is likely that he won’t just be fighting for success with the Union, but for a place on the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team as well.

Marco Fabian

Nobody gets the label of “Mexican Magician” without some magic. Still, Marco Fabian has some of the biggest shoes to fill on the team as he steps into the role vacated by Borek Dockal after the 2018 MLS assist leader left to ply his trade in Prague. Fabian has been talked up by everyone in the Union organization — from owner Jay Sugarman to Tanner and Curtin. A lot of responsibility will fall on Fabian to create the team’s scoring opportunities throughout the season. This is no small feat, especially considering the Union’s record in finishing goalscoring opportunities. Additionally, as Tanner seeks to implement a midfield-heavy game, Fabian will be central to the stability and creativity of the team’s offense.

Auston Trusty

Auston Trusty is the emblem of the Philadelphia Union philosophy of youth and development. Earning his place as starting centerback last season, the Union Academy graduate and Homegrown player will be a barometer of the Union’s success in its approach to team-building from the ground up. In a new formation that calls for the outside defenders to go forward and assist in offense, there will be many one-on-one situations for Trusty to prove his mettle this upcoming season. Trusty had a successful and impressive 2018, especially for a player less than 21 years old, but he also had his fair share of mistakes to learn from. Whether or not Trusty is able to grow and step up to his vital role will be one of the pivotal questions that will be answered in 2019. Indeed, Trusty’s 2019 season will say as much about the Union as an organization as it does about him as a player.

Sergio Santos

The old saying goes that defense wins championships, but offense sells tickets. There is no doubt that the new striker Sergio Santos will be one of the most exciting additions for fans this season. The Brazilian forward will be expected to bring flair, style, and, above all, finishing to the Philadelphia offense. The Union sorely lacked a consistent goalscorer in 2018. Tanner and Curtin are hoping that Santos will be the answer. This is doubly true with the expected formation changes going into the new season. With the new two-striker system, Santos should have more space and freedom when he’s partnered with Picault or Cory Burke. If Philadelphia’s past experience with Brazilian players is any indication, fans are in for some exciting football.

Kai Wagner

The 22-year-old German left back will do little to increase the average age of one of the youngest defensive lineups in the MLS. Wagner will be asked to play a vital role in the Union’s new formation, which utilizes outside defenders for attacking plays. If the preseason was any indication, Wagner will serve as the human equivalent of a baseball pitching machine that serves up crosses into the box for the Union’s midfielders and strikers to connect with. His role will likely mirror what outside backs like Joshua Kimmich are perfecting in Europe. Whether or not Wagner succeeds in offense without leaving the rest of the defense excessively exposed will be an essential test of the sporting philosophy that Tanner is implementing in Philadelphia.


  1. It is hard to believe the the Union brought in Santos to be a sub, but equally hard to believe that he will start over Burke or Fafa. I am all for Tanner implementing a new system based on flexibility vs the rigidity we have had the last two years, but feel like there ought to be some reasonable way to get Santos, Burke and Fafa on the field together with Fabian as #10. Really interested to see how it all works out!

    • Been some mention of Santos having sore knees recently.
      Prior to that he was running with the 1s.

      • He pulled something in his knee in the first part of preseason and has been recovering, so he lost out on some quality time on the field. Hopefully we see him out there at 100% soon.

    • That sounds like a 4-3-3 (not exactly the 4-2-3-1 we used to roll out) with Fafa, Burke, Santos up top. Not likely since Jim will have his hands full just getting the new 4-4-2 diamond up and running.

    • Fafa can actually play defense, he has good fitness, and he plays on the left. So, I wonder if it’s conceivable that he could actually play on the left side of the diamond. It would be slanted upward, perhaps, with him in a more offensive posture, and then maybe Bedoya hanging back a bit more on the opposite side to compensate. But I wonder if that might work, at least against some opponents.

  2. Trusty’s potential leads me to believe with another good season in 2019 he’ll be on the move next winter. Sergio could’ve gone to Liga MX but came here instead. It’s possible we could offer more as stepping stone than Liga MX could. I’m looking forward to the both of them making their impact and making the club some $$$.

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