A look at potential internal roster replacements

Photo: Paul Rudderow

In his most recent column Dan Walsh anticipated the Union losing three starters from the 2020 team for the 2021 season. He offered the opinion that the team has possible replacements already available.

The absences would be Kai Wagner at left back, Mark McKenzie at left center back, and of course Brenden Aaronson at attacking center mid. Here is a guess at the current internal possibilities at those three positions.

Left Back

Matt Real is the immediately obvious potential in-house replacement at left back, since he deputized for Wagner several times this season with five starts and a few more substitution replacements when Wagner was injured or reconditioning. Like Wagner he is left-footed, and his offensive credentials seem strong. Whether he will have the same defensive bite that Wagner had is a greater question.

Olivier Mbaizo has also stood in for Wagner with starts and replacements, but is right footed.  He is more physical when defending that Real, but does not have a left-footed cross or Real’s other offensive capabilities when playing in the left channel.

Nate Harriel has been primarily a right back with Union II. Anton Sorenson is a physically small  academy player who started the final 11 games of the USLC season, playing the full 90  in all of the last ten. Jackson Gilman is a year younger than Sorenson but physically bigger and  has started some of their postseason friendlies, usually against younger sides.

Possible Left Backs
Name Status Pos Age HT WT Contract
Matt Real HG LB 21.4 6’0” 163 Will be out of contract December 31, 2020
Olivier Mbaizo GC RB 23.3 5’11” 156 Will be out of contract December 31, 2020
Nathan Harriel HG 21 RB 19.6 5’11” 179 Joins first-team January 1, 2021
Anton Sorenson Acad LB 17.8 5’7” 135 Amateur
Jackson Gilman Acad LB 16.6 NA NA Amateur

There is one more player in the left back pool.  The official game guide for Union II for the last game of the USLC season against Pittsburgh on October 3 listed a 6’2″ 180-pound defender named Elias Thomas, born January 16, 2001 from Braunschweig, Germany.  Transfermarkt says he’s a left back. He has spent time at the Barca Residency Academy in Arizona after playing earlier for youth sides in Germany. As of November 30, Thomas remains in greater Philly and is practicing with Union II. There is no evidence that he has played a game in a Union shirt.

Left Center Back

Jack Elliott is the obvious replacement at left center back. He has proven himself to be a quality player there. Slotting him in does create a depth question at center back.

Cole Turner has filled in competently at center back early in preseason, Dante Huckaby played every minute of Union II’s USLC season, most of them at left center back, and Brandan Craig is the youngest and most intriguing of the three. Mani Diop joined the academy from Pennington Prep in Jersey just as the virus suspended play.  He has appeared in several of the post season friendlies.

Possible Left Center Backs
Name Status Pos Age HT WT Contract
Jack Elliott INTL RCB 25.3 6’6” 183 Under contract/ option for 2021
Cole Turner HG DCM 19.6 6’2” 175 Under contract/ option for 2021
Brandan Craig HG 21 DCM 16.6 6’0” 158 Joins first-team January 1, 2021
Dante Huckaby Acad LCB 17.7 5’11” 168 Amateur
Mani Diop Acad RCB 17.5 6’6″ 200 Amateur

Other center backs still with the organization seem less certain to return.

Attacking Center Mid

Aaronson’s internal replacement is less obvious.

Moving Jamiro Monteiro over would mean replacing him in his current position on the left. Anthony Fontana scores, but covers less ground defensively at his instinctive cruising speed than Aaronson did.

Possible Attacking Center Mids
Name Status Pos Age HT WT Contract
Jamiro Monteiro Intl DP LCM 27.0 5’8” 137 Under contract/ option for 2021
Anthony Fontana HG ACM 21.1 5’10” 163 Will be out of contract December 31, 2020
Jack de Vries HG CM 18.7 5’10” 146 Under contract/ option for 2021
Paxten Aaronson HG 21 ACM 17.3 5’6” 131 Joins first-team January 1, 2021
Jack McGlynn HG 21 ACM 17.4 5’11” 140 Joins first-team January 1, 2021

Jack De Vries, Paxten Aaronson, and Jack McGlynn are unproven in first team games, with the latter two only beginning practice with the first team after Union II’s USLC season ended.

Attacking center mid seems like it might be a target for a signing from outside the organization while the three youngsters gain experience.


  1. If Brandon Craig plays anything like his father played at Temple he will be a hard nose defender with good size. knowledge of game and speed

  2. unless an obvious fit comes in, Fontana should get the first shot. Continuing to play him off the bench will erode his confidence but more importantly hope. Why kill yourself in practice if you know there is no path forward? If he fails, point out to him why, and let him work it out.

    • I really like Fontana and would like to see him get more time.
      That said, how the Union answer the question of the starting #10 will demonstrate a lot about their priorities for 2021.
      If they spend some “Brendan bucks” to bring in a high-level #10, clearly they are after more metal next year. Hopefully in that case Fontana would get a lot more time than he did this year though.
      If they slot Fontana in at starting #10, clearly their primary goal is developing players to sell. Trying to win medal without a premium ACM at the point of your diamond midfield in a 4-4-2 is generally not a winning proposition.
      I think BA is great and wish the best for him, but suspect he was not in the top 6 MLS ACM this year. He got a lot of attention because he is a homegrown, USMNT sold to Europe and will be elite at some point.

      • Agreed on BA, solid player, but not team of the year. I was surprised exactly how much hype he got, but it brought us $6-$9 million, so not too bad.
        If Fontana gets a chance at the 10, the academy model is at work. Obviously, having never been a starter, there is a need for an insurance player, or at least a fair competition for the role.
        If Fontana’s numbers from last season are anywhere close next season, with the expected number of minutes going up, we can make a nice profit on him as well.
        Looking forward to what next year brings, hopefully all gets somewhat back to normal and us fans can experience the game in person!

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I like the player too…. but it would be derelict to not at least consider –or reasonably argue him moving on to Ernst Tanner’s previous club…. Salzburg is not coincidence.

      • Brendan wasn’t even the best midfielder on our team! His inclusion in the MLS Best XI was really weird.

        Agree completely with your other points. The 10-spot is one where it’s hard to play Moneyball, and hard to develop American talent. If they want an MLS Cup — or even another Supporter’s Shield — they will need a real 10. Brendan is a terrific player, but he’s a two-way creative winger, not a CAM. Curtin himself said it: he’s not a “volume” player, which you need to be to run an offense.

        Also think that Fontana’s performance this year was so eye-opening that they have to give him the opportunity to get more time on the pitch. Maybe as a striker…

      • BA needs to finish better………

      • The other thing to consider is the Union will have a pretty full schedule in 2021 (pandemic-related conflicts aside). CCL will need heavy rotation of the squad, plus USOC, and then the way MLS is compressing the league schedule. I still think if they sign a #10 (per Tanner’s comments today; and hopefully a DP), Fontana should still a good number of starts.

        I know I’m not the only one who suspected he should have been the first sub over Ilsinho in the playoff match vs the Revs. The point being, even if he isn’t a regular starting IX, he will probably be first off the bench with Ilsinho being another year older now.

  3. The good news is that Fontana, Mbaizo, and Real were among the seven players where the Union announced today that they picked up their option for 2021 so we don’t have to worry about them being out of contract. (They also picked up the options on Gaddis, Ilsinho, Wagner, and some guy named Blake who didn’t do a lot for the Union in the last 3 games.)

    • Blake is an interesting case. The new rules for playing in England may make him a transfer target as well. I am not sure he will get enough points, but the new system will change things.

      • I will be surprised if there isn’t a resurgence of international interest in him after this season. England ain’t the only league, whether he qualifies to play there or not.

  4. Judging from the roster announcement at 10:00 AM this morning, my information that Mbaizo was on an option year was incorrect. My apologies to all.

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