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The Union are good now, but for how long?

Photo: Earl Gardner

For matters not relating to the Philadelphia Union, it’s hard to find positive descriptions of 2020. Which as early as May had people already looking to 2021 as the next possibility for positivity. But just because 2020 has actually been going well for the Union doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be considering the future as well.

Sure, the Union are unquestionably one of the best teams in MLS right now. But there’s every reason to expect significant changes coming in the offseason. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, so even if Salzburg doesn’t come through Brenden Aaronson is gone next season. Mark McKenzie will likely be gone as well. Even players who aren’t leaving will likely be seeing their roles change, as Ilsinho and Bedoya aren’t getting any younger. Even players who aren’t necessarily leaving create questions, like 33 year-old Alejandro Bedoya who’s age is clearly catching up with him when it comes to his ability to deliver the dynamic performances we know he is still capable of when fully rested. Still other players, like Jamiro Monteiro and Andrew Wooten, haven’t had explicit problems but it’s clear their play isn’t what would have been hoped this season.

So however successful the Union become in 2020, it’s time to start thinking about what they will look like in 2021 and beyond. So, starting from the back-

Defense

Even once Mark McKenzie is gone, defense is undoubtedly the healthiest part of the team going forward. McKenzie’s departure solves the “three center back” problem, cementing Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes in the starting XI. It does create some questions of depth, with only Aurélien Collin behind them. But UII is running deep with defenders at the moment, and if none of them are at least bench-ready what is the point of the entire team?

Wide defense is less obvious, with Ray Gaddis and Kai Wagner to be the presumed starters. But with Ray’s limitations and Kai’s recent injury propensity that’s obviously not everything Union fans could desire. It is not, however the type of problem that needs to be solved with a massive infusion of cash on, say, a returning USMNT player. Because even if Mbaizo and Real aren’t sufficient depth there, there more pressing needs for the Union’s artificially limited funds. For example-

Midfield

Brenden Aaronson is likely gone, and that’s a good thing. But it’s hard to put a positive spin on what’s happening with some other midfielders. Alejandro Bedoya’s role is going to change, whether it’s more games on the bench, or a change in position entirely (the thought experiment of moving him to right back is too large to tackle here). Maybe Ilsinho can keep being the thirty-minute super-sub, but as it seems his trickery has been found out that may not be the best thing for the Union to count on for continued success. And while the 2020 edition Jamiro Monteiro hasn’t been a liability by any means, he hasn’t been the sensation he was in 2019.

Which means of the four starters one is gone, two have changing or diminishing roles, and one isn’t playing in a way that makes one confident everything will be okay. Of course Anthony Fontana seems ready to fill one of those spots, but who else? Cole Turner, Jack de Vries, and Paxten Aaronson all show promise, and hopefully they all deliver. But what if they don’t? Or, more likely, what if they’re just okay? 2020’s success is coming due to some truly excellent performances, and counting on these unknown quantities to meet or exceed those performances, however much promise they have, could make 2021 another disappointing year for Union fans.

Offense

Here is where things get most dire. Kacper Przybyłko is having another good year. But his history tells us we can’t rule out the possibility of an injury or a cold spell disrupting things. So depth is important, and the Union don’t have much.

It’s hard to find fault in the performance of Sergio Santos, though with just two goals and two goals and one assist it’s hard to say he’s doing “the job”. Of course, he does many things that don’t get tracked on a stat sheet, disrupting defensive strategy and making opposing players work to keep him from finding goal. Likewise Andrew Wooten has just one goal, but four assists show’s he’s not exactly dead weight.

But what good are Santos’ and Wooten’s efforts without Aaronson (three goals) and Bedoya (two) to do the actual scoring? Again, Przybyłko is fine and good; but what do the Union do when Aaronson is gone, Bedoya isn’t on the field, and Przybyłko is injured?

Luckily, there is plenty of time left to address these concerns. Presumably the Union staff are already working on them, hopefully planning a 2021 Union that will only build on the so-far brilliant 2020 version.

40 Comments

  1. So I feel like this discussion is probably best to focus on homegrowns, since they are atleast known. Before Ernst brought them here, we never heard the names Monteiro, Wagner, Santos or Przybyłko before – so it is hard to talk about the next great unknown player Tanner signs. But we DO know about our homegrowns.

    Defense: Harriel is coming up, so they must think highly enough of him. I believe he mostly plays RB, so that seems to solidify that side. That makes us three deep there. My biggest question here is why hasn’t Ofeimu not signed a HG deal yet? If they don’t see him as a future starter, then I would agree CB becomes problematic once McKenzie leaves. At LB, I am ok with Real being next in line once Wagner leaves and Sorenson is looking like a real prospect, just still very raw.

    Midfield: Between De Vries, Turner, Paxten and McGlynn (I am bumping up Fontana to presumed next in line starter) – you would hope 1 or 2 are able to make a mark sooner rather than later. I think Paxten could rotate in sooner rather than later – he has the pedigree and I think Curtin knows that family so well he trusts Paxten to press and play defense. From what I have seen from Union 2, McGlynn has a MLS ready left foot but is not the most athletic. I think the biggest issues here are De Vries and Turner – they got screwed by this wonky season because they would have likely gotten more playing time at Union 2. Turner was actually just sent down and started the last U2 game at the 6. Either way, we have HG bodies in the midfield so at this point you have to at least have some hope 1 or 2 can step up.

    Forwards: This is the problem area. I don’t think we have EVER had a HG striker, right? So we need help here. I think Bohui is highly regarded, and Stafford has looked really good to me in his first few games at U2, but both are probably a few years out still. That basically means we need to hope Tanner can make another great transfer. This is probably the one position we can/need to splash some cash on.

  2. I get it. I do. And with respect, this is my reply to the article.
    .
    ….could we just concentrate on the now….the ever unfolding present which has this team for the first time in almost 11 years genuinely organized as a good team.
    .
    On field results. Check.
    Generally… Just Playing Well. Check.
    Development pathway producing players. Check.
    Potential to move players abroad very soon– which reinfocrces all the above. Check.

    .
    .
    And now I’m supposed to concentrate on all the stuff that could go wrong or needs to be addressed?
    .
    Shit. Philadelphia. Nothing like this town.
    .
    Know what concerns me?
    .
    ..that there are about only 30-some posts after that win. Used to be 100 -125 posts after games. That’s what concerns me.
    .

    • I just wanted to say I really agree with your last point there. Obviously there’s a whole bunch of reasons that could explain why the comments are down, but I think it is something to take note of.
      .
      The Union for probably the first time have a real legit shot at winning the whole thing this season, and yet it feels like we had more fans back in the dark days of 2015.
      .
      This concern doesn’t pertain to the post, of which I agree with the concerns about our long term future up front. But it is something to take note of.

      • I can provide some insight there-

        Our traffic numbers tanked in mid-March. Hard. They improved once MLS is Back happened, but not quite back to the numbers we usually see.

        The obvious explanation is distraction. I know I’m dealing with a lot of it right now and it’s making all of my work (PSP and otherwise) a challenge. I imagine it’s the same for everyone, and in a case where you don’t “have” to participate I don’t blame anyone for not having time for PSP at the moment.

        But there’s also the scheduling. Traditionally the type of work we do here has a longer shelf life. Game on Saturday, talk about it Monday-Friday, new game on Saturday.

        Now with the condensed schedule we’ve got a Saturday game, and only two weekdays to talk about it before the Wednesday game. And Wednesday only has two days of it’s own before the following Saturday game.

        Historic data shows stuff like player ratings, analysis, and columns drove our traffic for several days after publication. But now it’s “two games ago” before most people have a chance to see it.

        Navigating a condensed schedule is a challenge for the team obviously, but it’s also been a frustration on the media side as well. Speaking personally, part of why this is the article it is is because I haven’t had the chance to “digest” the Union the way I normally do.

    • Life might have just steered many regulars here into other patterns. Pandemic has made me much busier than I ever was before (and I don’t work in health care at all). My daily routine of reading here and posting disappeared until the MLS is Back(!!!) tournament started.

      You’d think the sustained success would bring many back. Hard to know. As to the question of this article, yes, let’s focus and delight in the now. We can fret about the future once this season is over.

    • I think part of the lower number of posts is there is a lot less to complain about. Part of it is also waiting until the next day to read the post (coming home from the game and not paying attention to the internet vs. watching the game on TV and reading the game story as soon as it is posted).

      But mostly less to complain about. (Other then why isn’t Fontana getting more time????)

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        It’s this.

        I can say with evidence that no one listens to the All 3 Points podcast after a win, and we got downloads galore when they lose.

      • That’s pretty funny about the podcast, as I tend to be the opposite.
        .
        If we lose, I’m less inclined to be in the mood to listen to the full bevy of Union pods available – I’d rather listen after a win so we can all celebrate.
        .
        As for commenting, I definitely tend to comment more after a loss to bitch about the glaring holes that should be obvious to everyone!!!

      • Chris, I know I listen regardless. Phone DLs them just the same.

    • I’ll take 30 footy educated posts over 100 posts of “ did we just watch the same match?”……any day of the week.

      • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

        100 %

        It the equivalent of hearing parents yell “send him” every time their team recovers the ball in a u12 game….

      • Ha. Fair rebut.
        .
        I contributed to a good deal of it for awhile there constantly trying to stir the pot.

      • Fritz…….I actually thought of you after the first Union goal the other night. It was a total pressing team’s goal……and I know the style drives you crazy…..you have more of a Catalan taste to your footy….Lolz. I had a chuckle about that………

  3. I think there is a slight flaw in your midfield reasoning as Ilsinho is counted as one of the 4 starters and Martinez is not mentioned at all.

    • Sometimes edits are made in order to help a story flow more smoothly. My paragraph about how Martinez seems legit and we haven’t even seen Oravec yet is one such edit.

  4. In Tanner We Trust says:

    Had the same thought about Ilsinho and Brujo as Andy had above. Also, this feels really pessimistic for a small sample size. Just because the goals aren’t pouring in for Santos and Wooten don’t mean they won’t come. Santos is arguably our most talented forward and is everyone aware of what Wooten did in his last year in Germany?? Bedoya and Ilsinho may not contribute as much next year but between Homegrowns and Tanner finding players from everywhere else, I’m not the slightest bit concerned.

    • As long as Santos can keep himself on the field, he’s going to find a way to contribute.
      .
      I’m a lot less confident in Wooten’s ability to be a difference maker.
      .
      His actions in the 6 Games in Sep
      (yes they are cherry picked, but all the other stats make him look like a #8)
      3 starts 3 subs for Wooten
      .
      1 shot (not on goal)
      1 pass in the box (2 attempts) – Kacper assist v RB*
      2 passes into the box (6 attempts)
      0 dribbles
      4 defensive moves in attacking half (0 in final 3rd)
      – 1 interception
      – 3 recoveries
      2 offside
      2 fouls
      .
      A reminder that those stats cover 6 games, not one.
      .
      *I think he was sad after the Bedoya goal because he realized he got the assist but knew they wouldn’t give him credit for a pass
      .
      He had a nicer game against RB, but he’s not really making a difference in attack overall. In the year he’s been playing here, I’ve seen him take ~one~ shot with any real venom in it (decent shot, but still wide).
      .
      I’m not sure where the 2018 0.5g/game Wooten went, but he didn’t make it here to Philly.

      • In Tanner We Trust says:

        He’s capable of being in the right place at the right time, but there never seem to be rebounds to scoop up. Which is a good thing to a degree. Everyone else is finishing. I’d say I’m concerned about his play but I’m gonna be patient about it.

  5. I know the club isn’t known to splash a ton of cash, but the transfers of McKenzie and Aaronson will likely bring in a hefty amount of money (by Union standards) that can subsidize a midfield replacement transfer. I have faith in Tanner to find an early-20’s midfielder not getting playing time in Germany, Spain, or France and bring him in on a year-long loan with an option to buy.
    .
    This is what the Union have done to me. They have made me…an optimist?!?!
    .
    Almost. Luckily, every other Philly team keeps me grounded. 🙂

    • Came here to comment this as well. Even with a healthy chunk invested back into the academy, an Aaronson transfer will be the largest amount of spending money the union has had to date. I predict there will be plenty of new names next season. Also IMHO bedoya is playing the best soccer of his mls career

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    Does anyone remember 2012-2017? Of course you do. Let’s enjoy this for as long as it lasts.

  7. So the way I see it, there really are only two potential hotspots with the Union, midfield and centerback. At pretty much every other position, we have some degree of “it’s good and should be good for the forseeable future” to “it’s good enough.”

    Goalkeeper: Depending on his form, Blake is somewhere between amazeballs and sufficient, and Joe Bendik is an adequate enough goalie I’m not really all that worried if Blake is sold.

    Centerback: As long as McKenzie stays with the team, I’m not too worried. If he leaves, we could have a bit of a problem with the backup position. Collin is fine as a fourth option, but I don’t think at this point he can be relied on as a top three option. If the academy provides a good enough backup, that’s great, but I don’t want to be one injury away from an untested prospect playing major minutes in a vital position unless Curtin is sure they’re ready.

    Fullback: We can always upgrade from Gaddis but the depth is there and there’s an up and coming player in Harriel.

    Midfield: The midfield situation is really complex because there are some unknowns here. How far are kids like DeVries and Turner from getting meaningful minutes? I think it’s clear based on his substitution patterns, Curtin isn’t too enthused at the idea of playing either of them, but will that change by next year? What about Matej Oravec? He couldn’t get off the bench against Miami either, but is that because Curtin doesn’t think he’s any good? Right now, we have a solid four starting midfielders, a guy like Ilsinho who is basically spot duty plus an occasional start if need be, a very limited veteran in Creavalle and Fontana who is the only midfielder really worth playing. If after Aaronson leaves Curtin doesn’t trust two of DeVries/Turner/Oravec/any current UnionII player to get major minutes for the first team there needs to be a signing.

    Forwards: I really think the Union are fine here. Przybylko is very good, and Santos and Wooten are good striker depth. Cory Burke maybe might come back one day, and then we’d have four strikers even? I wouldn’t mind the Union splashing some cash here, but I also don’t think they really need to.

    So basically, the Union’s only real points of concern are places where their goals are to replenish their backup options, and in the case of the most pressing need (midfield) there is a potential for in house options. That’s a really good place to be in. Obviously, it’s always worth trying to strengthen the squad, but the future looks pretty good to me.

    • Vince Devine says:

      Good observations, however, I think Matt Freese is the #2 goalkeeper. they’re getting him time with U2, but if Blake were to leave or get injured, I believe he’s next in line.

  8. Clare Voyant says:

    As long as Tanner remains, competence is within your grasp.
    MLS gives a chance to well run sides to achieve in-season-but come crunch time talent decides trophy.

    Do they have enough?

    You don’t sell without knowing what comes next. Hopefully, that will be a more talented side going forward.

    More people will arrive than initially thought, I’d suspect.

  9. We now play great, as we did in Orlando. Will all come to an end in the payoffs when Curtin has no plan B, when he needs one. Right now just enjoying the ride.

  10. So here’s the optimist version.
    D: Agree with James…enough said.
    M: El Brujo is the real deal and we haven’t even seen Oravec.
    Fontana’s finishing already seems above average for MLS. In 2021 if he can learn to play as hard-nosed D as Brendan and scores 10+ goals, he is not only our starting #10, but could easily be sold at year end himself.
    Someone posted Paxten’s highlights the other day at U2 and some of them are downright nasty touches! Dad A said somewhere that Brendan and Paxten were playing a lot of 1v1 in the spring and Brendan started the spring spotting Paxten a lot of goals but was playing him “straight-up” by the end of spring. If Fontana gets sold, Paxten takes over #10 in 2022. Other homegrowns in the mix to support midfield.
    O: If you sell BA and MM you have money to splash for a DP striker and play the hottest of Kasper, Santos, Wooten, Burke.
    Last year Tanner said that a field full of $500K players was more his vision than a couple superstars with supporting cast, and Curtin said after the game that a well-organized team playing well together beats a team of individual stars. The academy is full of talent that can provide us with exactly that year after year.
    It’s looking sunny in Philadelphia.

  11. As we sit on the precipice of selling the clubs first homegrown player(s), I don’t think it all that unfair to ask what might be next. I also think it fair to point out that all of us should recognize the position the team is in, is the strongest it has ever been. This position provides a relative comfort as to how things may proceed in the future. Tanner, Albright and Curtin have earned some breathing room if not trust. Will there be change and turmoil? Of course. There has been each of the last 3-4 seasons or so. And the team has shed dead weight, brought in replacements. Most good. Some inconclusive. All the while improving and developing their own talent, or moving it to allocate resources elsewhere.
    .
    So to the question at hand…I’m not worried. There’s a pipeline. There’s homegrowns waiting. The forward situation will be solved by Ernst. I’m betting some diamond from some team we barely know. Even if some of the homegrown talent doesn’t work out, the decision to move on will be made swiftly and in the benefit of the team and hopefully for the player also. How can we know these things? Because it’s what they’ve been doing. Can we all agree they’ve also been doing it well too?

  12. I really don’t like thinking about players leaving. That said…thank you Union academy for getting it right so far! Any players that move on other/bigger better leagues is just awesome!
    I hope the “next man up” mentality will help the team not miss some of the departures. These are great times as a Union fan! I’ll try to keep my focus on the now! Let the guys in charge sweat the details!
    I agree with Packy about the lack of posts! But I also have been not posting as much ! This is always a safe place to go and read…I’ll try to do better! I have been avoiding social media…but I don’t need to avoid this place! Thanks to you all for that!

  13. I think one major negative of this season relates to COVID-19 and is evident in Union II getting beat up a lot. Players like DeVries and Turner are essentially missing a year of playing time since they can’t go down to Union II for minutes. On the other hand, this may help 3-4 years down the line when some of these 16 years got an extra year of experience against teams like Hartford and Pittsburgh.

  14. I think to put Monteiro and Wooten in the same sentence is laughable. Monteiro has been quiet, steady, reliable and one of the reasons besides Aaronson, and El Brujo that they are one of the best in MLS. He isn’t on the ball as much as last year, I think that’s by design. Aaronson isn’t the same as he was last year, he’s in ridiculous form right now. At the 6 you have El Brujo, he makes life easier for everyone in the press. Last year Monteiro played every position in the diamond…….not this year.

    • In Tanner We Trust says:

      I’m starting to give up on telling people Monteiro is fine. And the way I feel about Martinez is the way I felt about Monteiro when he first arrived: a scrappy warrior easy to root for. They both get the job done. Last year people scrambled and were more chaotic, but this year all 4 guys simply do their jobs. Can’t ask for much more.

  15. If you need something to worry about, I think if Tanner has another really good offseason bringing in really good reasonably priced young players like Martinez and Glenses, someone further up the food chain will come looking to steal him. Have there been any recent interviews? Do we know his happiness level here in Philly?

    • He left the Redbull conglomerate to come here. He was at two German clubs prior to that. He chose this project. I’m not saying he’ll be here forever (I hope he will), but I also don’t think bigger clubs are going to draw his eye. I’m sure it would have to be some special challenge to build/rebuild a club.

      • The way I see it, he’s a “development league” guy. His skill set is finding players, building them up, and selling them for a profit.

        As such the buying leagues won’t really want him, as they’re looking for move-in-ready players, no projects. Which mean the Union(/MLS) aren’t competing with England, Spain, or Italy for him.

        They could be competing with Germany, but as he left one of the best organizations in Germany, it’s clear he wanted to go somewhere different.

        So it’s here or, say, the Netherlands. I like to imagine the parity here is appealing to him, compared to Ajax-wins-every-time in the Eredivisie. And as Coolguy mentions, his previous relationship with Richie Graham can’t hurt.

    • Apparently when he signed for Union, he had opportunities to go to places in Germany and China, so I don’t think that he was necessarily looking to move up. He seemed to be particularly interested in the challenges of working in MLS and had a previous relationship with Richie Graham.

      It’d be a stretch to believe he’s going to stay forever, but I see no particular reason to believe he’s going any time soon. Also, it seems like while Tanner is doing a lot to improve Union scouting, that doesn’t mean that some of what he builds won’t stay after he’s gone.

  16. The thing is for me, I’m even more excited for future seasons. Jack McGlynn is an absolute stud and Paxten looks pretty good himself. I think Harriel will be able to be our starting RB in 2022. Like you said we have plenty of U2 CBs who I think can be pretty good in the years to come as well. As long as our academy continues to produce players I think we will be towards the top of the league. Your also missing the point that if we are willing to spend we will be able to with the sellings of Aaronson and McKenzie.

    • Put that money right back into the Academy man, finally a a big return on the club’s investment. Upgrade it even more……..crank out more talent…..rinse and repeat.

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