The Union first team’s 2021 roster

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Even as we all follow the Union’s 2020 progress through the different phases of home market play, the first-team roster for 2021 has been taking shape.

The roster has numbered 26 this season, with only 22 players currently available given Cory Burke’s immigration difficulties, and Cole Turner, Jack de Vries and Matt Freese’s play for the Union II through this coming Saturday, . At maximum it could be 30 next year, if slots 29 and 30 are occupied by homegrown players.

I have assumed Brenden Aaronson will join Red Bull Salzburg after the Union’s 2020 MLS season is over.

Known certainties

Both Transfermarkt and my accumulated contract notes indicate 19 players are locked into practicing and playing with the Union next year.  I sort these contractual certainties by position, adding the asterisked three 2021 promotions from Union II and the Academy.

  • 2 Keepers: Blake, and Freese.
  • 3 Outside backs: Wagner, Gaddis, and Harriel*.
  • 3 Center backs: McKenzie, Elliott, and Glesnes.
  • 3 Defensive center mids: Martinez, Oravec, and Turner.
  • 3 Central mids: Bedoya, Monteiro, and McGlynn*.
  • 2 Attacking mids: de Vries, and P. Aaronson*.
  • 3 Strikers: Przybylko, Santos, and Wooten.

For 2021, 19 slots are filled and as many as 11 could be open.  Next I consider the 2020 players who are out of contract.

2020 players requiring decisions before next season

The nine individuals below have completed their exercised-option years or are otherwise out of contract. The two Homegrowns are indicated thus “!!

  • Joe Bendik. The Union need a third keeper, since Jamaica’s World Cup qualification will be compressed into 2021’s spring and summer and Andre Blake is their captain. There are no MLS-ready keepers with Union II or the Academy. Either Bendik will be brought back or someone else will be signed.
  • Cory Burke. He  remains unavailable. There are no MLS-ready strikers with Union II. Burke is in his prime and did well in Austria. Ernst Tanner could sell, but I doubt that is his preference given Burke’s record of effective first team contribution and the club’s need for attacking depth.
  • Warren Creavalle. Carrying four DCMs again seems questionable, although Creavalle has some positional versatility. Cole Turner and Matej Oravec have spent a year learning his job with Turner showing clear offensive improvement recently for the farm team, and Danny Flores with Union II has some promise. The 30-year-old Georgian could be left unprotected in Austin FC’s assumed expansion draft.
  • !! Anthony Fontana. 2021 signings Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson provide Fontana with direct competition. But attacking and central midfield is thinly populated on the current roster. Bedoya’s chief understudy should survive, especially since he has been more than a space filler when rotating in. While “the Fontana game” against New England will live in Union lore, his 45 minutes in the second half against Montreal and his start against Miami showed no drop-off in team efficiency or effectiveness. He will return.
  • Olivier MbaizoIn three years of forcing Ray Gaddis to improve, the Cameroonian has not been able to replace him. But he is now reliable defensively at either outside back. He lacks Kai Wagner’s offensive punch when playing on the left. When filling in for Gaddis, he plays well on both sides of the ball. Incoming 2021 Homegrown signing Nate Harriel is a direct competitor, at a position where the Union have not carried more than two when the roster has been only 26. Mbaizo’s return might be in question if Tanner intends to carry only 26 players, but strong defense has always attracted Jim Curtin. And carrying a full 30 would maximize the best development tool available in the COVID-19 environment, namely practice with the first-team.
  • Michee Ngalina. His pace and ball skills make him the heir apparent to Ilsinho as the game-changing attacking substitute, especially if Cory Burke remains unavailable. He does not have a Brazilian “elastic0,”  but he does have pace ankle-breaking high-speed turns while dribbling. The question has been his defense, but the 20-year-old Congolese should return even though he has made no appearances so far in 2020. He is young and inexpensive. And he is currently the fourth striker in a system that starts two.
  • !! Matt Real. Offensively he is proven as Kai Wagner’s back-up. His goal against Red Bulls and his assist against Montreal illustrate that. Mbaizo’s recent starts ahead of him ask questions about his defending. Mbaizo is slightly better, but Real provides significantly better offense on the left. Seventeen-and-a-half-years-old Academy left back Anton Sorenson needs at least another year to learn not to get caught up the field, even though he leads Union II in interceptions by a wide margin.  Harriel may put some competitive pressure on Real, but more likely it indicates shifting from four outside backs to five for next season. If Wagner returns to both health and form, five outside backs would be insurance against a future sale. Like fellow homegrown Fontana and unlike internationals Mbaizo and Ngalina, Real would not need protection in any Austin FC expansion draft this winter.
  • Ilsinho will turn 35 this month. He still provides offensive skills unique in the league, but the league has evolved better schemes to protect against his individual brilliance. He has been more of a creator for others this season, and has played different positional roles. MLS expansion side Austin FC joins play in 2021 and will presumably have some version of an expansion draft. Whether the Union again protect the Brazilian will be interesting to learn.  His reported 2020 salary would cover nearly four senior roster minimum checks ($81,375 for 2020). What he could teach McGlynn and the younger Aaronson might be considerable.
  • Aurelien Collin. Were the Union to promote Brandan Craig as a Homegrown straight to the first-team from the Academy,  it might indicate that the 34-year-old Frenchman’s time in Philadelphia might be over. His salary does cover almost three reserve roster minimum ones ($63,547 for 2020). Of course what he could teach Craig and Harriel in practice might warrant a return.

The Union’s most powerful player development tool has been severely truncated by the virus.  Game minutes with Union II for deep reserves practicing with the first team will not become freely available again until there is a usable vaccine against COVID-19. Matt Freese, Jack de Vries, and Cole Turner must go through testing and quarantine protocols when they return to the first team for practice after Union II’s season ends Saturday. To illustrate, were Andre Blake to get hurt against Toronto, Joe Bendik’s backup would have to be a goalkeeper from the league’s pool, unless Freese has already begun his quarantine to guard against the possibility (he did not play for Union II last night).

Practice with the first team has become the best player development tool absent a vaccine.  Therefore the Union might perhaps carry more first-team players next year than this. The max roster size may be 30, but in the past Ernst Tanner preferred to spread more money to fewer players.

If the team does not carry the maximum and Austin FC picks someone, two or three of the nine players requiring decisions may not return. Eighteen of the 20 possible senior roster slots must be filled, the club is charged money if they are not.

Supplemental roster slots

The Union has always used supplemental roster slots for newly signed homegrown players.  Slots 21-28 are all occupied for 2020, so the three already-known 2021 homegrown additions probably require creating vacancies.

Mark McKenzie illustrated vacancy creation last winter.  When he received his new new contract, it opened a supplemental slot because the deal moved him to the senior roster.

Brenden Aaronson’s as yet unofficial departure for Red Bulls Salzburg opens a 2021 supplemental roster slot. A new deal for free agent Fontana will do the same.  Were either free agent Real or free agent Burke also to return, the moves  would open the necessary three supplemental slots for the three recently announced new homegrown signings.

If both Burke and Real return on new deals as seems quite possible, that would vacate a fourth supplemental slot and create the capacity for one further new homegrown signing. Maximizing the number of young people practicing with the first team makes excellent sense in the current disease environment.

The leading candidate for a fourth signing is 16.5-year-old Brandan Craig, who is playing well at center back, a position of probable first-team need irrespective of any Mark McKenzie future developments. He is also playing well at defensive center mid. How he handles Union II’s season finale in Pittsburgh Saturday may tell his tale. He did adequately against Hartford last night.

Here is a 2021 depth chart as I imagine it October 1, 2020, using confirmed official signings, and my guesses (in parentheses) about next year. I doubt Tanner has a salary budget sufficient for 30, so I assume Craig does well in Pittsburgh Saturday night and have the roster at 26.

Philadelphia Union 2021 Depth Chart - September 15, 2020

Sergio Santos
(Michee Ngalina)
{Cory Burke)
Kacper Przybylko
Andrew Wooten
Attacking Midfielder
Jack de Vries
Paxten Aaronson
Left Central MidfielderRight Central Midfielder
Jamiro Monteiro
Jack McGlynn
Alejandro Bedoya
(Anthony Fontana)
Defensive Midfielder
Jose Martinez
Cole Turner
Matej Oravec
Left BackLeft Center BackRight Center BackRight Back
Kai Wagner
(Matt Real)
Mark McKenzie
Jack Elliott
Jakob Glesnes
(Brandan Craig)
Ray Gaddis
(Olivier Mbaizo)
Nate Harriel
Goal Keeper
Andre Blake
(Joe Bendik)
Matt Freese


  1. Excellent piece, I love reading about the future.

    The thing I notice most is the focus on Craig being the next HG. And I agree that CB is in need of depth. I can accept Collin as an extra coach in training but I never want to see him on the field. But, does this mean the team is passing over Ofeimu? He has been with U2 for over a year, and from all reports has looked good. You would have thought that if Tanner and Curtin thought he had a future on the first team, he would have already gotten signed.

  2. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Great as always Tim! Clearly you have a much deeper insight into MLS roster building and the various rules/structures, so maybe there are some elements I’m missing but…

    Is there any concern that Fontana will simply just walk away, given that he and Curtain do not seem to be on the same page a lot of the time?

    Wouldn’t another MLS club be interested in a young and talented player or at minimum just bid him up to jack up the Union a bit?

    • Dan C (formerly of 103) says:

      Most MLS contracts have built in team options for a year or two at the end of the contract. However there have been players who successfully signed with teams in other countries as FIFA doesn’t really recognize team options. So it would be interesting if Fontana or Mbaizo went this route,

      • My understanding is that Fontana has been on the option year this season. It has been unusual for there to be two such years in a row for players of Fontana’s stature. Bedoya or Monteiro, yes, but they were a tier above when Fontana’s contract was signed.
        Anohter team could like what it sees, as Scott of Nazareth suggests above, if, as I assume, Fontana will be a full free agent at the end of the year.
        Quite rightly the Union are closed mouthed about on-going negotiations, since leaks are thought to have scuppered promising deals in the past. So we know nothing of what Tanner and Albright may be in the middle of trying to do.
        I would point out that Fontana grew up here in the Union system and should feel he has a clear future with the club if terms can be agreed, Leaving the familiar and known can be a challenge.
        On the other hand the word wanderlust exists for a reason.

    • If Fontana were to with another club outside MLS, the Union would be entitled to some compensation in the form of a solidarity payment. This both covers the Union if he leaves and will make other teams a bit more reluctant to sign him.

      I would be surprised to see him end up anywhere else, unless he really wants to go.

      • The solidarity payment softens the blow, but they would still be leaving a lot of money on the table if they let him leave.

  3. Scott of Nazareth says:

    Great as always Tim! Clearly you have a much deeper insight into MLS roster building and the various rules/structures, so maybe there are some elements I’m missing but…
    Is there any concern that Fontana will simply just walk away, given that he and Curtain do not seem to be on the same page a lot of the time?
    Wouldn’t another MLS club be interested in a young and talented player or at minimum just bid him up to jack up the Union a bit?

  4. Could Ilsinho transition to a coaching position? Either U2 or Academy? Teach the next generation how to nutmeg and read a game?
    Keepers I’m not really worried about, and am cautious to overpay for. I’ve wanted them to bring back Sylvestre since he left…

  5. Andy Muenz says:

    I know that McKenzie is listed as taking up a roster spot, but it’s certainly possible he could be sold to Europe in which case the Union will probably need to keep Collin.

  6. Gruncle Bob says:

    Free agent requirements are 24 years old with 5 years service. Fontana doesn’t meet those, does he?

    • Perhaps I should have said “out-of-contract”? You describe a free agent within MLS. I was referring to out-of-contract status, as in no contractual obligations anywhere.

  7. Not sure how many of you all are on twitter, but @Phillaunion put these highlights up from some of the younger academy players in Brazil this summer:
    Also 4 weekends into the season U13s & U14s had a combined 52-0 goal scoring record:
    The future is bright for the U!

  8. Vince Devine says:

    There’s no way DeVries or Aaronson start at CAM next season. If Brendon goes to Austria, Montiero is the logical replacement to that position if nobody brought in. Montiero’s left mid spot probably goes to Fontana (if signed).

    • While I don’t disagree at all – I think Monteiro is the CAM and Fontana is the 8 until we sign someone else or someone else displaces them – I’m sure in March 2019 no one expected the unproven and relatively unknown Brenden Aaronson to displace the big name Marco Fabian at CAM either.

    • Sorry but disagree.
      Curtin put BA at #8 last game because he trusts BA to play D better than Fontana. The same is true of Montiero. Fontana slots in directly for BA at #10 where D is still important, but less important.

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