Feature / Offseason Issues / Season Review / Union

Finding a game-changer: A Union wishlist

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union

The Philadelphia Union have built themselves a really good team.

A squad that wins the Supporter’s Shield in the midst of a global pandemic is objectively a talented and tightly knit unit that is built with depth and cohesion at nearly every position. Ernst Tanner clearly has a grasp on what kind of players are needed to succeed in Major League Soccer. That’s really good.

The question is: do the Union want to be really good or do they strive for something more?

2021 will be a true measure of their ambition given the ransom of transfer funds that will be at their disposal. Brendan Aaronson’s record transfer and swirling rumors of Mark McKenzie and Kai Wagner’s potential departures leave the Union with some work to do, but nothing that can’t be solved with a heartier than usual checkbook and a thriving academy pipeline with currently incorporated Homegrown talent.

With that in mind, it’s imperative to identify which positions require perhaps a bit more than a project or a placeholder. What Philadelphia need to find in the new year is a game-changer. A player that can elevate an entire squad of hard-workers when the work becomes a bit too hard. You need individual brilliance that can ease the burden of constant cohesion and tactical perfection; much like the Columbus Crew found in MLS Cup MVP, Lucas Zelarayán, When that squad seemed to be at its wit’s end entering their final match of 2020 with injury concerns and last minute COVID-19 omissions, the Argentinian playmaker put the Crew on his back and enabled his defensive minded squad to bunker down, create counterattacking chances to the best of their ability and lift their first major trophy since 2009.

Philadelphia does not have a surefire star (yes, I hear you Andre Blake fans. Obviously he counts). But a team that holds so stout defensively could put any team to the sword if they were able to acquire a talent that could take this Union team to the next level offensively. Luckily, there are a slew of targets that could be ripe for the picking with the incoming wave of transfer funds and the connections Ernst Tanner have developed over the course of his career.

Here are 10 that just make absolute sense for the Philadelphia Union without totally breaking Jay Sugarman’s bank:

Alexis Canelo: Deportivo Toluca F.C.

A ruthless Argentinian striker entering the prime of his career, Alexis Canelo thrives in a high pressure system and can compliment a striking partner with ease in the Union system. Canelo plays with a tenacity that portrays him as hungrier than most in Liga MX when it comes to scoring. Impressive acceleration, aggressive runs in the final third and a clinical finishing record inside the 18; Canelo checks all the boxes for a player that could thrive with good service and proper spacing. All of this while failing to mention he is the primary penalty kick taker for his squad; therefore negating any worry about having someone step up for their first professional PK attempt in a critical Florida based soccer tournament…

Ahem, sorry. It also helps that his contract expires this coming June and he shares the same agent as Erick “Cubo” Torres. Canelo has long term potential written all over him and would demand the attention of a hungry Union fanbase with his tenacity and charisma.

Daniel Johnson: Preston North End

Daniel Johnson already has friends in Chester, PA as an international teammate of Andre Blake and Cory Burke. The Jamaican midfielder got his first real crack at international duty after showing out in the FL Championship with 12 goals and 8 assists last season. An opportunist in the box and a sniper from outside it, Johnson is more than capable from firing from anywhere should he get even a glimpse at net.

The Union finished 3rd in goals scored but only 9th in shots taken. With proven goal scorers already locked in for 2021, having someone that can properly pepper an opposing goalkeeper could lift the Union offense to a different level. Johnson’s quickness and prowess with his left foot makes him a DP worthy target.

Mërgim Berisha: Red Bull Salzburg

A potential trading of treasures could very well be in the cards for Ernst Tanner’s current and former club. Mërgim Berisha is a skilled passer and finisher that could unlock truly ideal Union buildup play. Even as a 22-year old, the German midfielder has shown to be up for high stakes moments in regards to his UEFA Chmapions League experience. So why would Salzburg want to let him go?

While this issue may not be permanent, Jesse Marsch’s Austrian squad has a huge logjam at the forward position. Not including the influx of talent on the wings, Patson Daka and Sekou Koita have developed a blistering goalscoring record up top while highly touted homegrown talents Karim Adeyemi and Chukwubuike Adamu look to be prominent pieces for Salzburg’s long term success. These four forwards are on contract until 2024; and though Red Bull have always been known to be a selling team, their current build seem to indicate a willingness to maintain somewhat of a core and take their growth to another level. A loan opportunity with an option to negotiate down the line could prove fruitful for both sides, but most importantly, the Union land a surefire rising star.

Octavio Rivero: Santos Laguna

Some of you may remember seeing some MLS highlights of Octavio Rivero a few years back for the Vancouver Whitecaps. The young Uruguayan never got to completely break out in the U.S. and eventually moved on to horizons south of the border. Now at age 28, Rivero’s chance creation, decision making and skilled finishing have only gotten better with time and finds himself out of contract in six months. Should the Union see enough to make a play for Rivero, it comes with the risk of him not wanting to be tied down long term. But the chance to bring in a talented forward like Octavio could very well pay off for Philadelphia.

Mauro Júnior: PSV Eindhoven

A Brazilian playmaker that can create on his own, pick out his teammates and finish with style. Yes, Mauro is a prospect that has earned the chance to showcase his ability at a higher level; and Philadelphia can absolutely be that platform for a young midfielder working through the Dutch footballing ranks. Mauro is managed by a fairly small agency as their primary client, which makes selling the idea of playing for the 2020 MLS regular season champions a rather tall glass of “we should at least consider this”.

Mauro has an excellent firs touch that sets him up perfectly in stride when moving with the ball. Even at a young age, he’s proven to his teams that he’s a game changer regardless of the situation. He’s quick to jump passing lanes, distributes effectively and has delivered some stunning moments of brilliance in the Dutch league. Even if it’s not Mauro Philly chooses to pursue, it’s this very type of player that needs to find his way into a Union jersey. That in mind, Mauro fits the bill and would warrant a DP level deal within Philadelphia’s capabilities.

Genki Haraguchi: Hannover 96

He’s the Japanese Ilsinho. Do I have your attention?

Haraguchi can beat two on one traps with tremendous skill and demands defensive attention any time he’s on the ball. Honing his craft as a workhorse, the 29-year old from Kumagaya is tenacious in his approach and yet able to execute offensive maneuvers with finesse and precise body control. Though his skills are highly touted, Haraguchi’s finishing and counter attacking IQ are not to be overlooked as either an attacking midfielder or a secondary striker.

While I fully understand hesitation in basing a move off of World Cup success (paging Mr. M’bolhi), Haraguchi’s nearly heroic efforts against a mighty Belgium squad were more enough to warrant a level of respect at an international level. Now in the final year of his contract, a continued tenure in the Bundesliga could hail in comparison to entering a vastly growing market in the United States with the confidence of Ernst Tanner running the show. It would be bold, it would pay immediate dividends and it would nearly complete a title winning puzzle.

Andreas Voglsammer: Arminia Bielefeld

One of my favorite names on this list (simply because I keep reading it as Volgs Hammer), this Bundesliga striker is a menacing foe with a unique combination of skill, speed and strength. This German attacker finishes with authority and precision; netting double digit league goals in each season from 2017 to 2020. He also possesses a high work rate and tallies a serviceable number of assists despite his knack for the back of the net.

In the final year of his Bielefeld contract, Voglsammer faces stiff competition up top with captain Fabian Klos, newly acquired Christian Gebauer and the impending return of Sergio Córdova from loan. And with a slew of injuries plaguing his 2020 campaign, it seems that the German could be in need of a change of scenery. A high level of effort paired with the necessary physicality, Voglsammer could be an instant impact player for Philadelphia.

Aymen Barkok: Eintracht Frankfurt

Now to my favorite name on the list (Can I get an Aymen?… Sorry, I’m done). This rising Bundesliga midfielder is a high press menace; chasing down unsuspecting attackers, throwing in a calculated tackle and starting a counterattack on his own. He’s simply a nuisance in that regard, yet it doesn’t detract from his offensive ability on and off the ball. Barkok likes to fire from distance and can beat an array of 1v1 and 2v1 traps with immense technical skill and quickness anywhere on the pitch.

His vision as a midfielder is fairly impressive as well; though I’d be remiss if I said you would be looking at the final product. At 22-years of age, you can see the potential that is clearly present in this young man. That’s the kind of player Ernst Tanner craves at his clubs and luckily has direct connections with in regards to Barkok’s representation at Sports eXcellence Group. This is a talent that cannot be ignored; and with only a year and a half left on his Frankfurt deal, a transfer fee is well within reason should the Union see the talent at play here as well.

Shinji Kagawa: Rogue

Only because I love Shinji and he’s currently a free agent. Certainly a viable, proven placeholder at the 10 position for Paxten Aaronson in 2021 and would be a massive draw due to his history with Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United.

Yago Pikachu: Vasco de Gama

My chaos pick of 2021. His contract expires on January 1st, he is a Brazilian right back that plays with confidence and skill and is the epitome of having a Fabinho back on the Union (except he’s really, really, really good). Ray Gaddis has been a serviceable soldier for Philly and Olivier Mbaizo showed flashes of real talent at age 23. But when it boils down to consistent service and attempting to game plan for such a versatile wing back, there’s no one that’s going to be as openly available at this moment than Yago Pikachu. Sign him, strike a deal with Nintendo and turn Chester into the best place to watch clinical attacking soccer and catch Charmanders in a gravel parking lot.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    Good stuff Paul. Always enjoy the: sit abck in the desk chair, feet up on the desk, hands behind the head…what if? player acquisition columns on this page over the years.
    I am totally opposed in bringing in a right back as I’m on the record it is not an area of need…. but having a player on the team named Pikachu couldn’t possibly be bad of the brand.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    Ten Points to whichever Harry Potter House you give allegiance for knowing this much about so many international sides.

  3. Any player approaching 28-29-30, is a non-starter for me, and I would assume the Union too, unless the price is right(as in DIRT cheap). There’s very little money to be made in these players. Now that the Union have wet their beak in the transfer money, I’d doubt they’d want to invest in a player with low resale value.
    Right back is also a no go for me too. Not because of Ray(though as improbably as it may seem, has again raised his game this past season), nor because of M’baizo, but because spending considerable money, and/or a transfer fee for a right back makes little sense in a money ball world. Could you imagine how the fans would react if the Union spent more money on a right back than they do on their top 2-3 strikers combined? Oh that would be a glorious day on this site.
    Nice write-up though Paul. I look forward to more.

  4. George Rawling says:

    Sign whatever player is most like Lucas Zelarayán

  5. Great list; brilliant research! Would love to see Berisha here.

  6. Good read. It’s easy to forget the goal production we had this season when you’re still smarting from that playoff bounce. Maintaining that in ‘21 is key. I’m very excited to read the next chapter in this team’s history.

  7. A high-pressure aggressively defending, young, attacking center mid.
    A 22-year-old from Arminia Bielefeld who would take a transfer fee for the year and a half left on his contract. Ayman Barkok.
    Transfermarkt values him at amarket value of $2.2 million.
    That’s what they paid for Monteiro. And I think Przybylko may have come from that organization.
    He would need an international slot since 8 are already occupied. That’s $150,000 of GAM in the latest such purchase reported on the MLS website.

  8. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Ooops, Aymen.

  9. Old Soccer Coach says:

    Ooops, Aymen. Sorry.
    Candidate for a loan with a future option to buy?
    That’s how they got Monteiro.

    Barkok is a Moroccan international and so would be involved in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers, and potentially the finals. Would need a reasonable substitute.

  10. Lots of info to soak up Paul! I’m hoping they go for a striker. Scoring goals is always great for a defense!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *