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Season review: 2020 Philadelphia Union roundtable

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Despite ending in a disappointing loss to the New England Revolution, it’s hard to describe 2020 as anything other than a success for the Philadelphia Union. The team played their most compelling draw ever against LAFC, and four months later put in a strong performance at the MLS is Back Tournament. While they didn’t find ultimate success in that tournament, the performance there set the standard for the rest of a season which ultimately saw them winning the Supporters Shield, securing a CONCACAF Champions League berth, and setting a league record with the sale of Brenden Aaronson to Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg.

As such, it was an optimistic collection of PSP writers and editors that gathered to discuss the successful 2020 campaign, and speculate about the 2021 season to come.

How will the Union replace Brenden Aaronson?

Paul Catrino: I believe Ernst Tanner has identified his potential targets for the #10 role and will fill that position accordingly with an incoming transfer. While his main contacts may be in Europe, I wouldn’t put it past him to dive into the South American market as he’s done in the past for a creative playmaker that demands attention and creates spacing issues for any defense the Union go up against.

Tim Jones: I do not think Anthony Fontana will replace Brenden Aronson long-term because he does not cover the same amount of ground, and does not create the same quantity of turnovers when defending. Tanner’s end-of-season press conference comments make me think a top priority is to bring in an outsider, and that the process is already well underway.

Chris Gibbons: The thing with Fontana is this: I bet he realizes he’s running out of chances to find a spot in the starting XI here. Certainly the Union ought to bring in game-changing reinforcements at the 10, but expect Fontana to put in the work this offseason to make choosing him or the new guy a harder option than it was this year.

Peter Andrews: As much as I’d love to see Fontana get the first shot at it, I think all evidence is that Curtin sees Fontana as Tim explains above — not quite right for the position.  I expect the Union to spend some of their Aaronson Bucks on Mr. Outside Hire.  And I would guess that the target will be someone in the 22-25 age range, i.e. someone who’s entering their prime and will be able to return value with a sale in a few years.

Thomas Hill: This may be a bit of a strange answer, but I’m not sure the Union can replace Aaronson. What he brought to the team was much more than just his play on the field, and while we may find someone to fill in that gap at the #10, it’s doubtful anyone comes in and generates as much hype within the fanbase.

Andrew Speizman: I agree that Fontana is not the replacement – he possesses a different skill set.  As Tanner has already stated that he’s bringing in a #10, the question is essentially answered.  A creative, DP, center-mid and we’ll all be saying “Brendan who?” by the third match.  And if all else fails, there is always Paxton.

Dan Walsh: Sign a pass-first creative playmaker. Fontana should be in the mix, but he’s not the passing fulcrum around which an attack revolves. Neither was Aaronson, with his low touch rate, but Ernst Tanner can find someone who is.

Jim O’Leary: Just so we have all bases covered I’m going to say it’ll be Fontana. It’s not that long ago it seemed Aaronson couldn’t find his way into a lineup, but once he did he was a revelation. Maybe Anthony could do the same?

Steven Whisler: The defensive ability to cover massive swaths of ground in the press almost comes first. Aaronson was special because he did that and was able to create chances in transition. But the Union can’t only be effective in transition. The next #10 needs to be more of a high-volume playmaker. Someone who is an outlet and dictates the play of the game. That’s not Aaronson’s game, which is fine. But if the Union are to take that next franchise step, the next #10 must have that quality. And is that Anthony Fontana? No, I don’t think it is.

Nick Fishman: Here’s a scary thought we might need to consider: Will the Union reinvest Aaronson’s sale back into the team? We know they’re not a rich club. We don’t know how much was lost due to COVID this season. We may see a cheap placeholder with the “yutes” serving as understudies.

Who was the most disappointing player in 2020?

Paul: I’ll throw Kai Wagner into the fire. Though he only played in half the games he did in 2019 due to injury, his assist total dropped dramatically for someone praised as one of the best attacking left backs in the league. His disappointing performance in the playoffs and verbally signaling his eyes to a European horizon will leave a stain on his Philly reputation should he leave this offseason.

Tim: For me the most disappointing player of the 2021 season is Michee Ngalina.  He clearly was unable to rise to Ernst Tanner’s and Jim Curtin’s standards. He is a greater disappointment because he is gone as a young player of potential, whereas others such as Matej Oravec are still here. Older players who have gone have reached their potential or are blocked.

Chris: I get the heat on Wagner and Michee, but honestly I’m leaning toward Pryzbylko. Obviously his regular season goal scoring slump didn’t matter (since the team won the Shield anyway), but given what Kevin Molino did for Minnesota against Kansas City, it’s clear what a striker on a streak might have done to help the Union in the post-season.

Peter: Kacper is a good shout, Chris, but it’s gotta be Matej Oravec.  The Union paid a transfer fee to get the kid, who arrived with some fanfare — remember, the early indications were that Jose Martinez, not Oravec, was viewed as a long-term project.  Oravec didn’t play a single minute with either the first team or U2 this year, and right now his signing looks to be the first big miss of the Ernst Tanner regime.

Thomas: It’s gotta be Oravec for all the reasons Peter mentioned above.

Andrew: Oravec is more of an “incomplete” than a “failure”.  My white whale this past season was Monteiro.  He certainly wasn’t bad and at times was quite good, but I kept expecting him to consistently step it up a level at it never really happened.

Dan: Andrew Wooten. He made sense as a signing and was their highest paid striker, but he never got a good run of games to find his form because Kacper Przybylko (and later Sergio Santos) had already won the starting job.

Jim: I think Andrew is right that it’s not fair to condemn Oravec when we’ve seen so little of him. Especially when there’s obvious issues with players we’ve seen plenty of, like every striker for example.

Steven: As everyone has correctly pointed out, Oravec’s absence was a shocker. However, I’m going to go out on a a limb and say Jamiro Monteiro. He had his moments, sure, but Miro wasn’t the game-changer the Union needed him to be on a consistent basis. With Aaronson more of a transitional player, it was on Jamiro to break deep-lying defenses down, and he wasn’t always up to the task this season.

Nick: Maybe I’m the only one that didn’t expect anything from Oravec. Both him and Martinez were complete unknowns to anyone not involved in scouting. There was one midfield position open, and it really needed to be filled by someone with El Brujo’s skillset. That’s why I’m going with Przybylko. We were hoping he’d be a top 10 striker. He wasn’t.

What player are you most excited to watch in 2021?

Paul: Jose Martinez simply because watching him play is gloriously destructive. With a full season under his belt and potential midfield reinforcements on the way, “El Brujo” could cement himself in Union lore for years to come as one of the toughest SOB’s to put on the blue and gold.

Chris: Ditto on El Brujo.

Thomas: I’ve gotta agree with Paul and Chris here and say it’s El Brujo. As much as the mature, statistical soccer fan in me wants to see the team play good looking soccer, there’s something viscerally exciting about watching a player act as a wrecking ball and enforcer. I think his physical style of play has the potential to really get the crowd going once fans are allowed back at The Sube.

Andrew: Can’t argue with Martinez.  He’s fun to watch and surprisingly good on the ball.  With a year under his belt he should have an outstanding 2021.

Tim: Brandan Craig, within whatever competitive venue he may end up playing, because he brings many tools to defensive center mid, the position that must be filled by an extraordinary player for the 4-1-2-1-2 narrow diamond to work. Jack McGlynn will be a close second because of the rapidity with which he learns new things and applies them effectively.

Peter: Sergio Santos.  Entering his third season in MLS and his age-26 campaign, I’m curious whether Santos — the best overall striker on the team, in my evaluation — can put together the kind of 15-goal season that I think he has in him.  He’ll need to stay healthy and prove he can’t be taken off the field late in matches.

Dan: Anthony Fontana. He seems a Clint Dempsey type, a creatively goal-dangerous player who works well as a shoot-first attacking midfielder or second striker with flexibility to play elsewhere in midfield. Right now, he’s still a rotation player, but he could be a star. He needs to level up his defensive play and ball movement to take the next step.

Jim: I agree Dan. Fontana’s hard to fit into the current formation, but I think he could be a player worth changing formations for.

Steven: Okay, here’s my crazy Fontana theory: He is a striker. Yes. A striker. The dude has a ridiculous shot and always pops up in the right place to bang it in. That sounds like a striker to me, not a #10 or box-to-box midfielder. Call him the Delaware Wondo. I would love to see him paired up top with Santos or Kacper. That would get me excited. Otherwise, in 2021, I’m really excited to see which young gun can work their way into the starting rotation.

Nick: While the question and this roundtable imply we’re talking about the Union, I’m going with the technicality. I can’t wait to see what Aaronson and Mark McKenzie do in Europe.

What roster changes need to happen?

Paul: As I said earlier, a creative midfielder will be needed to replace Brenden Aaronson. I believe the Union need to invest in a consistent, game-changing striker because a committee can only get you so far come postseason. Bringing in a couple versatile defenders would be prudent as well (either through the academy or smaller transfers with potential upside down the road).

Tim: There will be an outside attacking center mid, two new strikers from outside, and possibly an experienced depth piece to support Bedoya and Monteiro. It will take an offer such as LAFC received for Walker Zimmerman — or Columbus received a few years ago for the Costa Rican defender who went to Italy — for Tanner to move McKenzie or Wagner.  (I am keeping an ear to the ground concerning Tomas Romero, unlikely as that currently seems.)

Peter: Additions need to be a CAM, probably a youngish striker, probably a reserve midfielder to back up Monteiro and Bedoya.  Departures: McKenzie needs to be sold this offseason, more for his sake than the club’s.  What more can he prove in MLS?

Thomas: The Union have to find someone who can score regularly. See what Paul said above about scoring by committee. Someone who’s greedy and loves to shoot would be a great addition to the squad. Not sure I would play with the roster too much otherwise.

Andrew: The Union will need a center back – two if McKenzie is moved.  An heir apparent/ backup for Bedoya.  The aforementioned #10.  I guess I agree with everyone about the need for a striker.  There is a lot of talent at the position – but also a lot of inconsistency.  The Union just signed an extension with Burke so unless they can bring in a world class talent, not sure it is worthwhile.

Dan: Sign a designated player-level creative playmaker, in the mold of Carles Gil, Alejandro Pozzuelo, Nico Lodeiro, etc. Add reliable depth everywhere in midfield. Sell Kai Wagner for a good price. Add a left back to back up Matt Real, who looks ready to replace Wagner. Sign a reliable backup goalkeeper. Identify a replacement for Mark McKenzie, and sell McKenzie (probably in the summer) to anyone but Celtic, because cold and wet Scotland is where ball-playing center backs go to die.

Jim: It all comes down to the strikers for me. The roster as a whole is blessed with versatile players, which is generally a good thing. But you don’t need versatility from strikers, you need goals. And the current strikers just aren’t getting goals with enough consistency.

Steven: I think Andrew nailed it. The team needs to bring in a left back and centerback for depth. Is Cory Burke going to be the only other striker on the roster, and will it be enough? (See Fontana, Anthony above.) I think Ale Bedoya needs help too. The dude works so hard, but Ernst Tanner needs to find another midfielder who Jim Curtin feels confident enough to start when Bedoya needs a break.

Nick: I’d love to see a DP striker, but I don’t know how the Union will replace McKenzie’s skillset. I fear Elliott and Glesnes are too similar to be partnered on the back line.

Will playing in CONCACAF Champions League change the city’s perception of the Union?

Paul: While CONCACAF play will change the league’s perspective of the Philadelphia Union, the city itself will largely have to ask “what the hell CONCACAF is” before dismissing it entirely as “just another tournament”. This city loves playoff sports and beating rival cities above all else; and selling them on an international competition, while prestigious in all accounts, seems like a tough task.

Tim: To get the city of Philadelphia to pay attention, the Union has to dominate both New York teams and the Boston team, and maybe Washington D. C. Team. It has to win MLS Cup while doing it. Paul is correct when he says that most greater Philly sports fans have no idea what CONCACAF is, let alone what the CONCACAF Champions’ League is.

Chris: The Champions League is another opportunity to crack into the broader sports market here, with the noted addition of a bunch of other country’s fan bases. Since Liga MX dominates the domestic TV soccer market, one might posit that playing teams from that league and other non-MLS leagues to the south would benefit the Union.

Peter: Unless they reach the final, I think the city’s perception of the tournament will be stuck on “what the hell is this thing?”

Thomas: I agree with most of what’s already been said here. If you asked the average Philly sports fan if they knew what the CONCACAF Champions League is, you’d either get asked what the hell CONCACAF is, or if this is the same league with Barcelona and Manchester United. That’s not the fault of Philly fans, the CCL just hasn’t done anything to market itself in the U.S. Give it another 10 years and we’ll see.

Andrew: I have doubts that the non-soccer watching public will bother to follow the Concacaf, even with a local team involved.  But, maybe Liverpool Larry or Barcelona Betty will see the Union playing a Liga MX team, tune in and think “this isn’t so bad”.  It could also pique the interest of the immigrant community within Philadelphia.

Jim: I think the immigrant community is the key. Not that a Cruz Azul fan is suddenly going to become a Union fan, but if the Union can stay in the tournament (and get back to it again in following years) that repeated association can only do things for the team’s reputation.

Dan: If they make a good run, it will strengthen the current fan base and might win over some Mexican league fans. I wouldn’t expect more than that, but that’s a pretty good result.

Steven: Frankly, no. The average Philly sports fan will have never heard of CONCACAF or the madness that is the CCL. But I think Jim has a really great point that it’s a way into the Mexican and Central American communities. Let’s hope the Union don’t miss an opportunity to win some hearts when they face off against teams from those countries.

Nick: If they’re not already a soccer fan, they’re not going to care about this tournament. The hope is it’ll convince the Eurosnobs that MLS is more than a double-A soccer league.


  1. Section 114 (former) says:

    Why isn’t Fontana the successor to Ale? He can understudy for one more year, playing 20-20-90 and we can keep Bedoya at folk force for most of the games.
    Spend our money on a new 9 and new 10. Plus defensive reinforcements.

    • I don’t think Fontana covers the same ground or is as defensively strong as Ale. To be honest, although he doesn’t have the dribbling skills, I see him as a replacement for Ilsinho.

    • i like this. also, Delaware Wondo is beautiful and i fully support that

  2. Agree with Steven on trying Fontana at withdrawn striker – a Alberg foot with a better head and work ethic.
    Alternatively tell Ale he has 60 min per game because you need him every game, and need him to have legs left come Oct.
    Bring Fontana on for Ale at the 60min every game.

  3. This would be a bummer from a fan’s perspective:
    “Here’s a scary thought we might need to consider: Will the Union reinvest Aaronson’s sale back into the team? We know they’re not a rich club. We don’t know how much was lost due to COVID this season. We may see a cheap placeholder with the “yutes” serving as understudies.”

    • Refer back several years to one of Jay Sugarman’s first public statements after Sakiewicz left. They did not then see taking anything back out of the club financially for the foreseeable future.
      I see them ploughing the money back into scouting and the academy.

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