A View from Afar / Union

Five simmering questions for the Union

Photo: 215 Pix

Philadelphia Union have questions.

Not burning questions. The house is not on fire.

These questions simmer beneath the surface, tugging at your thoughts and worrying you, but you push them aside each time the Union gut out a win over a mediocre opponent through mental toughness, discipline, and smart play.

After all, the team is fun to watch, the Supporters’ Shield afterglow lingers, and when all else fails, there’s Andre Blake, somehow both MLS’s Goalkeeper of the Year and criminally underrated. Union sporting director Ernst Tanner gambled that the Union could survive their major roster gaps until summer, and it’s paid off so far. With help from a soft early schedule, the Union have reached the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals and sit in second place in the Eastern Conference.

Still, these questions simmer, and they’re the sort that separate a decent playoff team from a championship contender.

Do the Union have enough depth?

Maybe, but probably not.

Dániel Gazdag’s arrival adds the playmaker they needed to replace Brenden Aaronson, but keep in mind it often takes a full season for foreign attackers to adjust to MLS. It also improves overall midfield depth via domino effect by pushing Jamiro Monteiro back to a shuttler role, Leon Flach to a rotational utility player, and Anthony Fontana more permanently to the bench. While Monteiro was solid at the No. 10 and Flach has proved a steal, the Union have tiptoed perilously close to collapse with a shoestring midfield depth chart.

Alvas Powell’s signing adds a proven MLS right back who fell off a cliff since 2018 but was once viewed as a potential star. With fellow Jamaican internationals Blake and Cory Burke around, maybe he’ll find a comfort zone again. Expectations are low: He’s a depth piece with upside.

The Union probably still need another reliable backup center midfielder, a striker with pace to spell Sergio Santos, and a left-footed starting center back. That last one is supposed to eventually be Stuart Findley, but he has yet to play an MLS minute.

Before they can add anyone, the Union need to free a roster slot, because they have filled all 30. With four goalkeepers, the six-boy Teenage Midfield Army, and Matej Oravec yet to dent the rotation, several roster spots are occupied by players with minimal first team roles. One must also wonder if we’ve seen the last of the legend that is Ilsinho.

Will Jim Curtin run Alejandro Bedoya into the ground?

Bedoya can’t run forever, even if it sometimes seems like it.

The Union captain was the league’s best center midfielder last year, but he’s 34. Human biology has limits. While this recent break will help, it’s time to manage Bedoya’s minutes so he can survive and thrive until November and beyond. 

How many of you remember Toronto FC’s great Champions League run in 2018?

Right after their domestic treble in 2017 and memorable run to the CCL final in 2018, the wheels fell off. Everyone got hurt, and they failed to make the MLS playoffs in 2018. None of Toronto’s big three stars — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco — has been the same since.

Bedoya needs a breather now and again. Gazdag’s arrival means that Flach’s minutes can come in a rotational role spelling Monteiro, Jose Martinez, and particularly Bedoya. 

Is it time to trade Anthony Fontana?


Fontana has a talent every team wants: He scores goals. Last year, he netted six in 510 regular season minutes, or 1 per 85 minutes. Among MLS players who played at least 500 minutes, none scored at a higher rate.

But Curtin doesn’t rate him highly enough, and Fontana doesn’t fit perfectly into the Union’s 4-4-2 diamond midfield.

Fontana is an attacking midfielder who’s more scorer than playmaker, excelling at late runs into the box to find space and finish with a quick shot and deadly accuracy and power. Maybe he’s not meant to play behind two strikers. Maybe he’s not a No. 10. Maybe he’d be a monster free 8 in Austin FC’s system. If only we had the opportunity to see it.

Curtin didn’t give Fontana the run at No. 10 that many expected this year, not even as a test before the Gazdag signing. The Union manager opted to start untested Jack McGlynn over Fontana in two straight games when Jose Martinez was suspended. McGlynn did fine and shows potential, but come on, are you kidding?

This is the point at which you acknowledge it’s time to set Fontana free.

Trade him for someone who fits Philadelphia’s system, while he still has value. It makes sense, and not just to me. Ask Charlie Davies.

Wait, what did Charlie Davies say?

If you missed this … well, wow.

Davies, who played for the Union in 2016 and 2017, said in a podcast that he saw firsthand that Curtin does not always play the best players, and that includes Fontana.

If you missed it, check out MLS ExtraTime’s May 13 podcast. The discussion on Fontana begins at the 22:35 mark, with Davies advocating a trade of Fontana, but Davies really drops the hammer at the 25:50 mark. Co-host David Gass set this up by saying Curtin would start Fontana if he thought he was the best No. 10 on the team. Davies did not agree.

“I’ve seen from my opportunity at the Philadelphia Union that that’s not always the case,” Davies responded. “Sometimes the best players in training or the best players for the moment — whether it’s a week, two weeks, a month, two months, whatever it is — I’ve seen with my own eyes that those players sometimes don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”

Well then.

Recall that 2017 season. 

  • Keegan Rosenberry got benched for more than half the season one year after he played every minute of every game. By season’s end, Rosenberry wasn’t hiding his displeasure.
  • Richie Marquez got sick one day, went from being the league’s fastest center back to benchwarmer, and liked it so much that he quit pro soccer to become a Bensalem cop. 

(Two years later, Auston Trusty repeated the Rosenberry cycle by abruptly going from lineup fixture to benchwarmer to getting traded to Colorado. Though no one has confirmed it publicly, some kind of locker room clash appears to have been at least partially behind it.)

It may feel like ancient history because of how Curtin and the Union have blossomed, but Davies certainly doesn’t think so. 

Why is the Mark McKenzie domino effect the Union’s most significant challenge?

McKenzie’s departure for Belgium this off-season left the Union without the league’s best ball-playing defender in possession. Defensively, McKenzie is a player who thinks coverage and recovery first, making him an ideal complement to a more aggressive, risk-taking and confrontational center back.

His absence has done the following:

  • Made Jakob Glesnes a regular starter, but without the same kind of safety valve next to him. Glesnes is a strong defender, but he is shaky and risky with the ball at his feet, often a giveaway-to-a-goal waiting to happen. (The over-under on the number of people who suffer high blood pressure or heart issues this year watching Glesnes on the ball: 42.) This may be the Union’s most fatal flaw. Opposing teams know they can pressure him into scary giveaways, and the good ones will.
  • Nudged Jack Elliott away from his favored right side over to the left. The underrated Elliott is a top five center back in MLS — and the Union’s best. At right center back, he is all-star caliber. At left center back, he’s just plain good, because it plays away from his greatest strength. No MLS center back is better at long diagonal switch passes, but Elliott has few opportunities for that from the left because his left foot isn’t as strong.
  • Left Olivier Mbaizo without a good safety valve. Mbaizo is a straight line speedster who has stepped up his game, but how often have you seen him dribble in a circle and lose the ball? He’s not great in possession either.
  • Put more pressure on the midfield for the same reason, the lack of a safety valve at the back.

The Union need a solid left-sided center back to allow Elliott to move back to the right, because he and Glesnes don’t complement each other ideally. Maybe Stuart Findlay can be that guy, but he has to consistently make the 18 first.

This back line could prove good enough, but right now, it’s a step below where it was last year. A title contender likely needs to be better.


  1. Great read Dan. Agree with backline section in particular. On Fontana and the Davies comments, was Curtin really wrong on these decisions? Rosenberry seemed like a bad idea at the time, but wasn’t moving on from Trusty to go all in on Mckenzie and elliott/glesnes the right call? I don’t buy that he’s unwilling to play young players, if they’re ready. He clearly put a lot of responsibility on aaronsson and Mckenzie last season. The new crop of academy grads don’t seem seasoned enough to get extended minutes.

    With regards to Fontana, I agree our system probably isn’t the best fit for his strengths. I don’t know for certain, but suspect a decent portion of his goals and minutes last season came when we frequently flipped to a 4-2-3-1 in second halves of matches? Without Aaronson and a healthy ilsinho, they don’t seem to have the the right players to quickly flip to that formation this season.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Agreed, Curtin has definitely proved willing to play young players under the right circumstances. Also, great point about the 4-2-3-1 flips.

      Re: Fontana —
      Yeah, I think Curtin should’ve started Fontana in nearly every regular season game (particularly the ones McGlynn started) to give one last look to see what they have before Gázdag arrived.

      That said, I thought before the season they’d need to acquire a playmaking No. 10 (though I was happy to be wrong on that), so the Gázdag signing wasn’t a surprise.

      • I agree on Fontana. Definitely should have been in there over McGlynn to see how he could handle the 10, which also has the added benefit of keeping Monteiro in his optimal position.

        I suspect Flach being such a pleasant surprise had something to do with that not happening much as well.

  2. Chris Gibbons says:

    I hadn’t heard that Charlie Davies quote. I believe him, but with one major caveat: if a leader values culture over all else, then a high-performing player who is a net-negative to the leader’s goal for culture won’t ever see the field. Maybe that’s true for some of the homegrowns who’ve left, and maybe it’s true for the ones who are here but don’t see the field. Or maybe they’re just not as good as they think they are.

    • pragmatist says:

      I tend to lean this way, too. I’d like to hear a deeper conversation about this and see if there were personality issues with the players that relegated them to the bench. There are enough guys that love Curtin to make me think that if it was a problem with Jim, it would have leaked already. But the locker room has seemed tight for a couple of years.
      Maybe Jim was still learning and couldn’t get past preconceptions or misunderstandings. But I have to think there is more to these players leaving.

    • Capt John says:

      Curtain has been a puppet throughout his managerial career. More so in the Stewart/ Tanner years when they have dictated selection to further their own agendas. Stewart to play homegrowns when sometimes their lack of ability was so apparent and Tanner to play his purchases, even though they may be struggling with injuries, whilst a better player was available.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        I don’t know that I’d say he’s a puppet, that suggests he offers nothing of his own in the role.

        He was heavily restricted early on in what he could and has had a ton of guidance (some heavy handed, some not) from leadership for how to be a professional coach. That makes sense for anyone entering a job for the first time.

        His success suggests that mentorship was worthwhile.

    • I believe Charlie Davis feels that way, but his opinion I take with a grain of salt. Also I don’t think the Union are concerned about playing the most talented player. I think it’s about getting a certain performance from a player, and how a player performs from there decides whether or not one continues.
      I don’t condone player fights, but one would be silly to think they don’t happen. One might even venture to say they are necessary at points. So if a player was banished because of a locker room scuffle, it better have crossed some kind of line to cause such a reaction. And not just someone getting punched. This worries me way more than what Davies said.

  3. Good article. Regarding Davies comments, too bad, so sad. Curtain is delivering results now but wasn’t with the guys you mentioned and was probably right to move along. I think the Powell move is insurance for Mbaizo leaving. Lastly, I will take this years defensive record as it stands now if it continues.

  4. One question what happens when the Union play a good team that is in form. All the teams in the MLS can’t be a hot mess, right?
    It is long speculated that once you are in Curtins doghouse it is hard to climb out. Honestly I don’t think he rates Fontana because if so he would have gotten his shot a long time ago.

    This might be the the one piece Curtin is missing if he wants to become a bigger coach. Dealing with Stars and temperamental players. Overachieving is good especially on the Unions budget but eventually there will come talented players we need to get into the fold and play even if they don’t gel with curtin or the team immediately.
    I wish we wouldn’t carry players that are more or less coaches and just eat into our line ups. If Collin and Bendik see the field we are fucked.

    • It’s not like the Union haven’t had their issues either. So I’d expect the Union to win, or at least tie.
      Do you think Klopp worried that Bobby Firmino wasn’t bagging 30 goals every season or do you think Klopp was happy with the effort and performance he got from a selfless player? Was Klopp looking for 30 goals or effort and playing a certain role? Did Klopp need to fit Sherdan Shaquiri in, or could he count on James Milner to fill a role anywhere on the field? The point is, talent is not enough. That’s all well and good, but if you aren’t doing the job that is required than that talent means squat. This isn’t the Philadelphia Fontana’s or Trusties. It’s the Union.
      I couldn’t agree more about the Philadelphia Union Senior Citizen mentoring program. One is fine. Three or four requires nap time and rice pudding.

  5. el Pachyderm says:

    The question for me Dan, is not wether the Union have enough depth… the question for me is… let’s observe how little playing time Homegrown kids get by the end of the season and what does that say about Narratives versus Realities?
    Because they can push a development narrative all they want but if you don’t play the kids and constantly bring in ‘upgrades’ then its a bit hollow in light of the reality.
    I am willing to observe before passing judgment -as this is a transition season –with some of these younger kids…. but it is for sure a talking point.
    As far as Anthony Montana Fontana…. I stand by my argument for two seasons now….get the fuck out of this town as soon as possible before you are playing for Jamie Vardy and the Rochester Rhinos. Take that European passport, make your desires known…. and go find it somewhere.

    • This is a really interesting point, Pachy. The narrative is that the Union are a play-your-kids club. But their first choice XI are the following ages: 30; 23, 25, 27, 24; 26, 27, 34, 25; 28, 29/26. Not one is a Homegrown player. (To be fair, Flach, who’s had a lot of playing time this year, is 20 and probably your top reserve. But they had also carved out a big role for Ilsinho, who’s a sprightly 35. And I doubt that Mbaizo, 23, would have featured this year had Gaddis not retired suddenly.)
      The game is about winning, and I think Tanner deserves a ton of credit for building the top of the roster, which has been really successful. And maybe it’s a solid model if one out of every five Homegrowns becomes an MLS-caliber player. But it does, as you say, run counter to the narrative that the Union are unique in trusting their youth.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Great points, both of you.
      I think the Union have demonstrated enough the last few years that they’ll play young guys.
      That said, we also know Curtin doesn’t do much squad rotation, often goes without using his full complement of subs, and will go with his most trusted players as long as possible. That doesn’t leave a ton of room for the current crop of teens, but it’s not like they’ve shown they’re ready yet.
      Fontana, on the other hand, has shown he’s ready to start somewhere. I mentioned a trade above, but an intra-league loan could be a good option too. I’m really curious to see him as a free 8, but only Austin plays that way.

  6. Curtin really does have a habit of leaning hard into preferences. If he likes you, you’re playing until your legs fall off. I remember him running Wenger out game after game after game, despite getting virtually nothing out of him. Other guys go into the doghouse and are never seen again. From Okugo to Rosenberry to Fontana, etc. and so on. Agree with el Pachy that Fontana should find a way out if at all possible. He’s never getting a chance at this club. Period. I think he’d fit in better as an attacking mid in a more straightforward 4-3-3. Curtin has clearly decided Fontana doesn’t fit the way the Union play.

    • el Pachyderm says:

      It has taken a nearly Herculean effort by Jim Curtin for me to move on from his stupidity regarding Okugo. I’m still offended by it.
      Cost him an Open Cup and for anyone who argued it I’ll just tell you…. You’re wrong.

    • I think it’s more Fontana doesn’t fit the way this team plays, vs. Jim deciding it. I don’t think Fontana fits this team as constructed. I’m not saying he isn’t talented. He is. He’s just not a two way player. He’s a heavily offensive player on a team where defensive sacrifice is required and defensive liabilities minimized. Fontana is slow on the pickup when it comes to positioning and defensive recovery. it’s not second nature to him. Attacking with the ball at his feet, on a break or making that late run, completely natural and inventive. Not so much defensively. I also agree it’s probably best for him to leave.

  7. Eddie the eagle says:

    Really Dan,
    If we take your statement, “McKenzie’s departure for Belgium this off-season left the Union without the league’s best ball-playing defender in possession” I think you were watching it through different spectacles.
    If you consider the current back four, they have created more chances and been more progressive than the last four seasons, and can read the game better than previously regardless of your opinion of Mbaizo, and need of a safety valve. There is no Mackenzie domino effect, get over it.

    • I have to agree with this. Our defense is yet again our strong point – 5 GA in 8 games, #3 in the whole MLS (and #2 has played one less game than us…).

      Glesnes and Elliot may not have the “future HG European Transfer and possible NT option” wow factor McKenzie did but they have proven through results they are at least above average MLS CBs.

      Wagner is still Wagner.

      And while Mbaizo started off rough and has gotten better, but still needs to keep getting better, there is no doubt what he brings to the offense is leaps and bounds beyond what Gaddis did. In addition, based on the aforementioned defensive stats, amount of Curtin praise and the eye test, he is far from some leaky faucet at the back.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      Name the MLS center backs you think are better on the ball than McKenzie. I’ll revise my statement if I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. He was the best last year.

      That said, it’s true. We do not share the same pair of eyeglasses. I have my own. 😉

  8. There is no real drop off in long passes from the right with Glesnes there, but we aren’t getting the most out of Elliot. I actually think the pair works together pretty effectively though. Union have the third best defense in MLS – even if Blake is a big reason (2nd best in xG with -3.5 goals against).

  9. i want to make a tee shirt based on this: the six-boy Teenage Midfield Army.

    great read and comments!

  10. Very interesting and thought-provoking piece, Dan.

    Agree with you on Fontana — he should get his shot elsewhere.

    And heartily agree with you on Elliott. Nice to see somebody values him as much as I do. I think he’s top-tier in the league.

    Can’t agree on Glesnes and the “domino effect” though. The Union’s results & defensive performance, as others mentioned above, make it tough to argue that there’s a real problem. Insofar as there is a domino effect, it’s probably more due to Mbaizo and his differences in play style relative to Gaddis and the necessary adjustments thereof.

  11. I’d argue that elliott was better playing right next to him. As far as your comment about glesnes turning the ball over leading directly to a goal, I’m completely at a loss as to what you think mckenzie did. His assist to mexico’s first goal in the concacaf championship is not an isolated incident. I could track the majority of our goals allowed the past couple of years to mckenzie with only 1 degree of separation. You fell in love with his potential. Thankfully so did someone else and he’s gone. This back line not perfect but they’re better this year than in years past.

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