Featured / Union

It’s okay to feel good, but not too good

Photo credit: Marjorie Elzey

So far the Philadelphia Union have given fans a lot to be excited about this offseason. José Martínez came as an early Christmas present, and together with the signing of Matej Oravec the defensive midfield is shaping up nicely. Ilsinho is coming back, and surprisingly so is Jamiro Monteiro. Even the jerseys got an update with BIMBO replacing their controversial logo on the secondary, and a new primary coming next week.

That’s a lot of good news, and good reason for Union fans to be excited. Especially in the context of so many clear improvements following a 2019 that was unquestionably the Union’s best performance ever. So unbridled optimism must be the reasonable attitude to have regarding the 2020 season, right?

Of course not. Even with these significant and welcome changes, there are still issues waiting to be resolved.

Andre Blake had his worst season ever in 2019. That statement is obviously true, despite the fact that the keeper’s stats (1.58 average goals against, 57.3% save percentage) being inoffensive. Which is a testament to how good Blake has been in the past. But it does open the door for homegrown Matt Freese to challenge for the spot, or even MLS veteran Joe Bendik.

Union stalwart Ray Gaddis played in every regular season game for the Union. How you feel about that is highly subjective. And on the other side of the defense Kai Wagner is headed into his sophomore season, always a dangerous time for young Union players. For the middle defense, Auston Trusty’s departure means if Jack Elliott or Mark McKenzie falter, all hope lies on … Aurélien Collin. (Editor’s note: Rumors of Norwegian centerback Jakob Glesnes joining the Union surfaced after this column was written.)

With few significant changes that’s the same defense that allowed the third most goals (50) going into the MLS Cup Playoffs. So if the Union want to see success, the offense will need to be sharper than they were last season. Too often a brilliant pass by Medunjanin, or crucial cross from the wings, would be squandered by a striker corps that never seemed ready to do the job. And the lineup set to do that does leave one wondering if they’ll be able to deliver.

Yes, Kacper “Striker Muffin” Pryzbylko is returning. He scored fifteen times in 2019, but he also missed the postseason, and the start of preseason, due to injuries. Ilsinho and captain-presumptive Alejandro Bedoya are back as well, though they’re no spring chickens themselves. All of them are capable of making significant contributions to the team’s offense, but health could very realistically prevent any of them from being the work horses they were last season.

Gone are Marco Fabián, Fafà Picault, and David Accam. Whatever you think of those moves, that’s fifteen goals. Roughly 25% of all goals scored by the Union in 2019.

And so the team must look in new places if they want to match, let alone exceed 2019’s relative success. Brenden Aaronson showed promise last year, and by all accounts has progressed even further this offseason. Andrew Wooten appeared to suffer from the standard mid-season transfer flu, a common illness that he should have recovered from by the time Leap Day rolls around. Sergio Santos is another player that was plagued by injuries, but there’s reason to be hopeful that won’t keep him off the field as much this season. Cory Burke’s rehab tour is coming along nicely in Austria. And there’s Michee Ngalina, a forward who is by all accounts on the team.

So there is potential there, in fact I’d say there’s reason for optimism. More optimism than Union fans could be justified in for any season since 2010. But there’s also a tremendous amount of uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty that will allow nagging doubt to persist even if the team manages to start the season strong.


  1. Overall I feel very very good.

    I would feel great if we got a better RB, and/or Mbaizo is able to take the next step.

  2. “…Kai Wagner is headed into his sophomore season, always a dangerous time for young Union players.”

  3. OneManWolfpack says:

    Ugh!!! Can’t we just have something nice? I mean I am of the belief that the most deadly drug on earth is hope… but I mean, come on… we had our best ever season last year. Let’s just build off that and feel good doing into this season. Ironic or not, I just don’t want to read articles like this. Let’s just feel good and see what happens.

  4. Not worried. Nope not worried at all.

  5. Glass half full! Rose glasses on,duct taped in place! Ripped up my Union Cliff membership! Lucky undies on!

  6. In Tanner We Trust says:

    This feels very glass half empty. You make good points but I feel unusually optimistic about this team. The defense is not the same. We moved on from Haris, and have not 1 but 2 solid CDM options. We re-signed Monteiro, which was, in my bold opinion, the 2nd-biggest moment in team history, behind the playoff win. Aaronson has almost certainly improved and I have faith in him. Worth noting that Tanner has not even mentioned a #10 being necessary. Just shows his confidence in Brenden. And finally, between Kacper, Sergio, Cory, Woo, and Michee, SOMEONE has to break out right? I think the 5 of them can combine for 40 goals.
    So yes, you could say I’m optimistic.

  7. LA Galaxy signs Chicharito. Union? Didn’t.

  8. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    One thing makes me think this team can be better is nine starters returning to a team that implemented a new system last year while showing tactical flexibility. As much as I loved Harris, I think he weakened the defence and we might have upgraded that position. Also it looks like Atlanta and Red Bull aren’t having the best off-season. Add in Miami who right now who look like an expansion team. NYCFC have a new coach, Washington has new talent but might take time to gel much like Columbus and Orlando. Hopefully we get off to a fast start and I think Ernst scheduling only MLS teams in pre-season is the way to get ready for that.

  9. There will be some serious reliance on unknown and unproven guys this season. That said, I have confidence in the known quantities and proven ballers in the squad. It’s a mixed bag, really. I’m anxious to get underway and see what our new D-Mids can do.
    It’s both exciting and a little worrying to sign two guys who play in the same area. Is one a developmental signing? Is one a specialist (limited) and we don’t know that yet? Or was it a tactful decision to bring two guys in to compete for one spot? That’s a managerial play as old as the game. Ernst says what he has to as a sporting director. He’s not going to openly say “Martinez/Oravec is better than the other guy” so we’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe one of them never sees the light of the pitch. It’s entirely possible and has happened before in this organization.
    I’m equally anxious to see how the organization reacts in the summer window. If we’re slumping do we make moves like a real organization? Or do we dig in and work with what we got? Flexibility, adaptability, and a the clarity to make those decisions is what bump teams up onto the plateau of greatness. Sugarman has impressed me with all the action this off season. It’s almost like he’s beginning to want to win something.

  10. Joe. Barnett says:

    Desperately need a finisher and a wing with exceptional speed. Union have put all their eggs in the defensive basket. Expect a major offensive signing very soon. If not be prepared for losing a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games and lots of ties. Tanner must see this.the sooner they acquire these 2 needs the better. Otherwise they go backwards. Just being realistic not pessimistic.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      We’re not signing a winger. I loved Fafa and Accam but they clearly don’t fit the vision Tanner and Curtin have in place. Ilsinho is also not a long-term re-signing, considering he doesn’t fit the 4-4-2.

      • Joe Barnett says:

        Just not confident at this point who is going to pick up the goals now that Fafa Accam and fabian are all gone. I liked fafa . Fafa may not have fit the system but I liked his attitude. Kind of reminded me of allen iversons game played a lot bigger than he was and rarely showed any fear. anyway we need to not let up the gas on attacking. Love Kascper but with his history of injuries I don’t expect him to repeat. Need a proven goal scorer that will fit curtins style whatever the heck that is???

  11. Two general observations.
    1. Bethlehem’s excellent young left back last year, Walter Cortes, was last heard about in November, that negotiations were in process. If Cortes remains away, Left back is Wagner, Real, and — as best I can guess — Issa Rayyan who never played on the left side last year but did on the right.
    2. Do not ignore the Jim Curtin comment earlier about formation that mentioned not only the 4-4-2 diamond/rhombus that we all expect, but also the 4-2-2-2 that Bethlehem played most of last season. That shape plays an empty bucket at the tradition #10’s spot with players rotating into that space as opportunity opens.
    My own guess is that in the absence of a Dockal-like #10, they will play the empty bucket there.
    Also, apropos of the speedy winger comments above, do not underestimate Michee Ngalina. All eastern conference USLC coaches last year knew who he was and planned for him. I suspect he is one reason why Tanner felt comfortable dealing Picault.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      Very good point. I wonder if he’s flexible enough to play striker in the 4-4-2 as well as winger when Ilsinho subs in on the right. Imagine Monteiro, Martinez/Oravec, Aaronson, Michee, and Ilsinho as our late-game midfield. Skill, speed, relentless.

  12. One of my favorite parts of MLS Twitter/rumors/forecasting is when fans project hopes and expectations on players they hadn’t heard of 2 months earlier. We are flush with those players this year! Don’t get me wrong, Tanner has earned the trust of fans with his signings, but it’s always funny to read about what is expected of new players when the information is gleaned from YouTube highlight reels and Wikipedia.
    All of that is my cynical way of saying: Let’s see how this all plays out. The FO has taken measures to address areas of concern, and we’re riding a wave of good feelings from last season, so we have the right to optimism.
    But this is also a Philadelphia sports team. Lucy has pulled the football away from many of Charlie Brown’s teams in this town over the years. That’s especially true for those of us with memories that go back into the 80’s and 90’s…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *