Four to watch in preseason

Lead photo: Marjorie Elzey; other photos courtesy Philadelphia Union 

Brendan Aaronson was 2019’s unexpected “break out” into the first team.

And he has not yet reached his ceiling.

He is 19 years old, and did well enough at 2020’s USMNT January camp to earn his first cap for the national team, a start in which he was judged to have belonged but not to have had much impact on the match, completing only a few passes albeit at a high percentage completion rate, 12 of 14.

A year ago in the first preseason camp in Clearwater, Aaronson had not yet moved himself into the first team, but now he is firmly there. Who are some candidates to imitate him in 2020?

As outsiders try to sniff out the portents buried amidst the clues of the new preseason, four names seem to have similar opportunities.

Anthony Fontana

Fontana about to score v Chicago

One is homegrown midfielder Anthony Fontana. Fontana played all ninety 90 minutes against Atlanta Wednesday, January 29, probably at number ten in the diamond although without video we cannot be sure. And he played 45 minutes three days later against Chicago probably as a number eight with the same disclaimer. He scored the second goal in the 40th minute by dribbling through as many as five people.

Nearly four years ago Bethlehem head coach Brendan Burke described Fontana’s 16-year-old USL debut in front of 30,000 people at FC Cincinnati as “fearless.” Jim Curtin used exactly the same descriptor last Wednesday when discussing Fontana’s play. Burke had also used the phrases “clean on the ball” and “high volume player,” the latter meaning he covers lots of ground in a short time. They both still apply.

Curtin’s most recent comments, which slot Fontana more as an eight than a ten because of the high volume, continue to suggest that he is Alejandro Bedoya’s understudy. Jamiro Monteiro’s delayed arrival has given him a chance to showcase himself, and he has done it well. He is a year older than Aaronson at 20, and is contractually on an exercised option for 2020, so he is playing for a new contract.

Olivier Mbaizo

Jamoi Topey (42) & Olivier Mbaizo (15) vs. Chicago

A second candidate to imitate Aaronson’s jump into the first team — Cameroonian U23 international right back Olivier Mbaizo — was expected to do so last year but was blocked by injuries. Like Fontana he played 90 against Atlanta and 45 against Chicago, but he did not start the match against the Fire. He is 22 years old, so his time to prove himself is now.

The Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald thoroughly discussed Mbaizo about a week ago.

That Academy right back Nathan Harriel was not mentioned by Union writer Tom Via as being in Florida after he had been present in Delaware suggests the first-team right back battle is between only Ray Gaddis and Mbaizo. Staying injury-free will be Mbaizo’s most basic key.

Matt Real

The final first-team deep reserve who might well break into this year’s gameday 18s is homegrown left back Matt Real. With Fabinho’s departure, Real is the only other professional left back currently in the organization. Number three on the depth chart seems to be an amateur with the Academy U19s who played during December’s Winter DA Cup.

There has been no Union mention of Bethlehem’s 2019 left back Walter Cortes since last November 27th’s comment that negotiations with Club Saprissa were continuing. A web translation of a January 31st internet article indicates that Cortes has played at least one 2020 match for Saprissa and is competing in their senior side for playing time at left back.

Per Jim Curtin, because Kai Wagner picked up a knock in training before the Atlanta match, Real played 90 that day, as he did three days later against Chicago. After Atlanta, Curtin had suggested that Wagner might be back for the Fire scrimmage but he was not. We do not know how to balance caution about Wagner against the quality of Real’s Atlanta game when interpreting Curtin’s lineup for the Chicago match.

Like Fontana, Real is now 20. Like Fontana, Real went for a week to a central European club for training and observation. The Drexel Hill native has a wide open opportunity in front of him.

A dark horse candidate

L-R: Sergio Santos, Jamoi Topey, El Brujo, Kacper Przybylko

Unlike the first three Jamoi Topey, the 20-year-old rising Jamaican international center back, is not a signed Union player. He is returning on loan to Philadelphia Union II. But he has been in Clearwater since the team arrived in Florida, and has played the second half in both preseason matches to date. If he does so this evening against Montreal, that would be the second hint that he may be more than a short-term space filler covering Mark McKenzie’s January absence.

The first hint, second hand but per Ernst Tanner, is that Topey has a green card. Why is this a hint you ask?

Because a few years ago then Bethlehem Steel FC captain and Irish international James Chambers was asked whether he might get such an international-slot-freeing card. The captain dismissed the idea, saying that USL players almost never got them. And the language of the U. S. Customs and Immigration Service website supports him. Athletes’ green cards gotten through employment are for “extraordinary athletes,” and we suspect the government wonders how extraordinary one is if he or she is in the minors.

But in the spring of 2019 Topey had three caps for the senior Jamaican national team including two starts, and the first two were not friendlies like the third against Granada. He subbed on in San Salvador against El Salvador. It was the Concacaf Nations League qualifying match that would have seen Jamaica make the top league of Concacaf’s Nations Leagues had they won. And he started three days later against Costa Rica when the result had become less significant. Also last summer he was away from Bethlehem with Jamaica’s U23s as they tried to make it to Concacaf’s Tokyo Olympics qualifiers.

And speaking of Olympics, almost certainly Mark McKenzie will be away in late February as the US U23s try to punch one of Concacaf’s two tickets to Tokyo. If they succeed, he will probably then go to Japan.

Since the suspicion here is that Jakob Glesnes will become the captain of the defense – Tanner had to spend enough money to persuade Stromsgodset give up their team captain and the Norwegian side says persuasion took a long time, McKenzie and Elliott will be in competition with one another to play alongside him.

In McKenzie’s expected absence Topey could simply “practice up” with the first team while rostered to “The Two”, leaving Aurelien Collin as the gameday reserve behind Glesnes and Elliott. But if that’s the plan, why the green card?

To cover McKenzie’s short absence early in preseason would be more reliably handled by inviting a covering trialist, (see Jamiro Monteiro and Ishmael Conteh, probably). Getting green cards became more time-consuming and trickier last year (see Cory Burke), so using one to cover a short-term early preseason absence seems riskier and less reliable than a trialist.

Check who gets on the plane Monday, February 10th for the club’s second training camp in Clearwater. If Topey is on it, it will be a third hint he has a serious shot at being a fifth Union center back. Ernst Tanner is not the only Sporting Director who knows that the tall Jamaican exists.


  1. With the growth at the USL levels, I assume teams are having to deal with green cards more now.
    I know very little about the minor leagues in baseball and hockey. Are green cards an issue in those leagues as well?

    • I would think less of an issue, as they don’t have “International Slot” issues, and that getting a work Visa is less of an issue then getting a Green Card.

  2. Ray Gaddis will play every minute of 2020.

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