Commentary

Previewing the 2022 Philadelphia Union II

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

The Union’s professional-level player developmental team, Philadelphia Union II, opens play in the newly formed professional player development league, MLS NEXT Pro, when they take on FC Cincinnati 2 at Subaru Park at 2 p.m. this Sunday, March 27.

It’s a brand new era in Union II’s history, which began life as the successor to the legendary Bethlehem Steel, relocated to Philadelphia as Union II several years ago, and spent the last two years largely in pandemic-induced limbo.

Sunday’s game starts something entirely new. Here’s what you need to know.

The league itself

MLS NEXT Pro is owned by Major League Soccer. For the 2022 season it has 21 teams divided into two conferences each of which is further subdivided into two divisions. Each club will play 24 games, 12 home and 12 away.

Eight teams will qualify for postseason playoffs, the four division champions and the two other teams in each conference with the next highest point totals. The playoffs will be a single elimination straight bracket with matches hosted by the higher seed.

The league has implemented the IFAB Concussion Substitution Trial/Initiative allowing teams to make up to two concussion substitutions during a match to replace players with suspected concussions, regardless of the number of normal substitutions already used.

And it has decided that all regular season draws will go to penalty kick shootouts from the penalty spot, with a conventional win earning three points, a penalty kick shootout win earning two, a penalty kick shootout loss earning one, and a conventional loss earning none.

Union II is in the Northeast division of the Eastern Conference. It was last affiliated with USL in 2020 and played an independent schedule in 2021.

MLS NEXT Pro in 2022

Team

2021

 

Team

2021

Eastern Conference

Western Conference

Northeast

   

Frontier

 
Philadelphia Union II

Independent

Colorado Rapids 2

Did not exist

New England Revolution II

USL League 1

Houston Dynamo 2

Did not exist

NYC FC II

Did not exist

Sporting KC II

USL Champ

Rochester

On 4-yr hiatus

Minnesota United FC 2

Did not exist

Toronto FC II

USL League 1

North Texas SC

USL League 1

St. Louis City 2

Did not exist

Midwest

Pacific

FC Cincinnati 2

Did not exist

Portland Timbers 2

USL League 2 ?

Chicago Fire FC 2

Did not exist

Real Monarchs

USL Champ

Columbus Crew 2

Did not exist

San Jose Earthquakes II

Did not exist

Inter Miami CF II

USL League 1

Tacoma Defiance

USL Champ

Orlando City B

Independent

Whitecaps FC 2

May have existed

Eight more teams have already committed to join in 2023 to make 29, so far. Twenty-eight of those 29 2023 teams are wholly owned MLS affiliates.

Nine MLS clubs will have created new professional development teams from scratch. Seventeen more will have last played in one of the two USL professional leagues, in either 2022, 2021 or 2020. Portland Timbers 2’s activity since 2020 is unclear, and the internet hints that Vancouver has most recently existed north of the Canadian border in uncertain format.

These club histories combined with the league’s deliberate flexibility to accommodate a wide range of developmental philosophies suggest the league’s quality of play could vary, perhaps widely.

From the Union’s perspective its quality of play may be the most fundamental question to be answered about the new league. The Union used the old USL Championship system to help develop Brenden Aaronson and Mark Mckenzie and sell them, for perhaps as much as ten-and-a-half million dollars. Will the new league allow the Union to match that productivity and profitability?

Union II’s roster

This Sunday the club’s 20-player gameday roster will probably be drawn from the following group of players, who come from three sources.

  • At least one is a season-long first-team loan-down, and there are likely to be others loaned down on an individual match basis especially early in the year.
  • Nine are Philadelphia Union II-contracted professionals.
  • Twelve are Union Academy amateurs, estimated from individuals known last season.
Loan-downs

The first loan-down – the season-long – is 19-year-old left-footed left back Anton Sorenson who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and stands 5’6” and 126 pounds. Earlier Ernst Tanner comments suggest that Sorenson will spend the year learning how to solve defensive problems with his brain through team coordination and individual anticipation, as well as using his speed and athleticism. Sorenson is officially loaned out from the first team, and Union II is the only logical destination.

Early-season first-team candidates for consistent match-by-match loan-downs may include 18-year-old right center back Brandan Craig, 22 year-old defensive midfielder Jesus Bueno, and 21-year-old defensive midfielder Cole Turner, especially Bueno and Turner given Union II needs and Union gameday roster patterns. (Craig will not be available for the Union II opener since he is away with the U.S. under-20s in Argentina until March 30.)

Any Union loan-downs older than Bueno will play only on injury rehabilitation assignments, almost certainly. Others younger than that may appear occasionally to get game conditioning minutes.

Union II contracted professionals

Unlike MLS, the club itself holds these contracts.

Seventeen-year-old Union Academy striker Nelson Pierre from Harrisburg, who stands 6’1″ and 170 pounds, was the inaugural Union II MLS NEXT Pro signing. The league has highlighted him as a young player to watch .

He is one of four forwards. Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc indicated that sharpening his defensive pressing coordination with his strike partner and the effectiveness of his offensive off-the-ball movement are goals for the season. He matches first-team DP striker Mikael Uhre in size and is said to have elite pace.

Twenty-one-year-old striker Chris Donovan, who stands 6’1” but is slighter than Pierre at 160 pounds, is the second-team’s oldest player. He was drafted by the Columbus Crew after four years at Drexel, but now the former Conestoga H.S. standout is back in Philadelphia. Together with Pierre he exemplifies the organization’s known commitment to finding players from the greater Philadelphia area.

Stefan Stojanovic is the third Union II striker. He started his NCAA career with St. Louis University’s Billikens, then transferred to the Georgetown Hoyas. He stands 5’8” and looks like a fireplug at 157 pounds. In the only Union II preseason match – against Queensboro FC II – for which we know goal scorers, Stojanovic had a brace. One came off a keeper rebound and the other from excellent positioning.

Union II’s fourth striker has spent eight weeks in signing limbo, officially. He is 18-year-old Jose Riasco from Deportivo La Guaira of Venezuela’s top flight. Reputable Venezuelan sources reported his signing at the end of January on Twitter, and Transfermarkt listed it last Tuesday. Union II only announced it officially Wednesday. Some Venezuelans consider the 6’2” Riasco the country’s top 2006-birth-year soccer prospect. (See PSP’s separate articles on Riasco here and here.)

Twenty-one-year-old flank midfielder Juan Perdomo scored a goal against Queensboro while playing at the right midfield as a starter. Like Riasco he is from Venezuela’s first division, Deportivo La Gara. Transfermarkt lists his transfer as free.

He is joined in the midfield by 21-year-old Maike Villero, who joins from Venezuelan first-division club Atletico Venezuela FC and stands 5’9” and weighs 152. If Villero’s left-footedness means he plays on the left, he has competition from Union Academy amateur and senior Ian Abbey (see Academy Amateurs below) and Boubakar Diallo (see immediately below). Transfermarkt lists Villero as a free transfer.

Carlos Paternina is a third Latin American midfielder. He is a 20-year-old attacking mid from Envigado FC in Colombia’s first division. His nationality and 5’5” 132-pound stature recall former first-team midfielder Roger Torres. Paternina’s signing was announced Thursday. His playing time will intertwine with Academy prospects Bajung Darboe and Anthony Ramirez (see below).

(It is worth noting that Philadelphia Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc has commented more than once that this season’s club is reviving his college Spanish from many decades ago.)

Nineteen-year-old goalkeeper Brooks Thompson turned professional with Swope Park Rangers, as Sporting Kansas City II was then called, in March of 2019. He was rostered to the SKC first-team last season. Union II have signed him to start and be backed up by Academy prospects Edgardo Alguera and Andrew Rick.

The Cinderella story among Union II’s professionals is 20-year-old left center back Nathan Nkanji, born in Cameroon but most recently from the greater Tampa Bay area. Nkanji played well enough in a preseason match against the Union to earn both a trial with Union II and a favorable public comment from Jim Curtin.

An aside

Union II begins 2022 with five internationals among its ten professionals, leaving two other international slots for further acquisitions if there is money budgeted. The international pros have salary expectations, and either two or three have required transaction or loan fees. If the club has used proceeds from the McKenzie-Aaronson sales as working capital for these deals, it has advanced to a new stage of its business plan.

It is beginning to buy young prospects on the international market for development and resale.

Old-time Union fans will remember that when he first arrived former sporting director Earnie Stewart never paid transfer fees for first-team signings let alone second. This year they have paid just short of a million dollars for a second-team player in the same year in which they paid $2.8 million for a first-team DP striker.

Academy amateurs

By a 2017 rule held over from the old USL cooperation processes, only five academy amateurs are allowed to be on a match’s pitch at anyone time. Eleven amateurs remain from the 2021 roster that was removed from sight in mid-January 2022.

A tenet of Coach LeBlanc’s teaching philosophy is that playing a position adjacent to his primary one improves a player’s understanding of his primary one. The multi-position capable players among the eleven mean that the amateurs provide Union II with backup – and therefore competition – at all eleven positions.

Two of the amateur eleven already mentioned above are goalkeepers. Edgardo Alguera is 18 years old and was the backup keeper for the El Salvador national team during January’s Concacaf qualifiers for Qatar 2022. He joined the Union Academy last fall after time in the San Jose Earthquakes organization. The other is 16-year-old Union Academy product Andrew Rick.

The two of the eleven who are most positionally versatile are seniors Jack Jasinski, 18, and Jackson Gilman, 17. Jasinski has played right back, defensive mid, right mid, and striker in games for coach LeBlanc. He filled in at right back and defensive midfield this past preseason against FC Cincinnati February 3 for Jim Curtin. Gilman has never appeared with the first team but has played right back, left back, left center back, and defensive mid for Union II. Gilman started at right center back against Queensboro.

Samuel Jones, 18, is a center back who has also started at defensive midfield, particularly if LeBlanc employs a double-pivot-and-empty-bucket midfield for defensive purposes rather than the narrow diamond. Jones scored a goal in the fire-aborted U17 tournament in Colombia last October.

Francis Westfield, 16, has played both right back and right midfield for coach LeBlanc. He started at right back against Queensboro.

Pacey left-footed academy senior Ian Abbey, almost 18, has appeared most frequently at left mid. In the Queensboro preseason video clip, the only one posted by Union II itself, he scored in the second half.

19-year-old Senegalese left midfielder Boubacar Diallo, who comes from Senegalese first-division side Diambars FC, is another. Diallo remains an amateur, and he stands about 5’7”.  Union II game notes for the FC Cincinnati 2 opener list him as having started at left midfield against Queensboro in the March 20 friendly and give his uniform number as 52. That number is consistent with his amateur status.

Anthony Ramirez, 17 and on El Salvador’s preliminary roster for the previously mentioned January Concacaf world cup qualifiers, is an attacking mid. He scored a howitzer from distance against Deportivo Cali last October in Colombia the day before the fire.

Two more of the eleven amateurs are strikers, 17-year-old Marcos Zambrano from Ecuador who might qualify as a homegrown international were he to ever make the first-team, and 17-year-old Gael Medrano.

And the youngest of the amateurs likely to be rostered to Union II this season is 15-year-old striker and attacking midfielder Bajung Darboe. Darboe appeared twice for the first team during preseason at the top of the formation, then was with the US U17s in Argentina, and finally spent a brief time at Bayern Munich’s academy in southern Germany. We do not know who invited whom, who bought the plane ticket, or what the instigator’s purpose was. But one of the top three clubs in the world thought Darboe good enough at his age to take a look.

A speculative depth chart

Depth in the defense is weaker than in the attack, and it should be noted that LeBlanc played a double-pivot-and-empty-bucket against Queensboro not the diamond.

2022 Philadelphia Union II

4-4-2 Narrow Diamond

Striker

Striker

Stojanovic

Donovan

Riasco

Pierre

Maedrano

Zambrano

Attck Mid

Paternina

Darboe

Ramirez

  L C Mid

R C Mid

 
Diallo

Perdomo

Abbey

Jasinski

Villero

Def mid

Bueno

Turner
L Back L C back

R C back

R Back

Sorenson Nkanji

Craig

Westfield

Gilman  

Jones

Keeper

Thompson

Alguera

Rick

Known uniform numbers
Uni Player Pos

Source

Confirmed

13 Turner DM

Loan-down

20 Bueno DM

Loan-down

21 Pierre S

Union II Pro

22 Thompson GK

Union II Pro

24 Sorenson LB

Loan down

32 Riasco S

Union II Pro

34 Craig RCB

Loan down

37 Paternina AM

Union II Pro

38 Villero LM

Union II Pro

39 Westfield RB

Academy Amateur

40 Donovan S

Union II Pro

44 Gilman RCB

Academy Amateur

50 Perdomo RM

Union II Pro

52 Diallo LM

Academy Amateur

75 Nkanji LCB

Union II Pro

98 Stojanovic S

Union II Pro

Suspected

23 Darboe S/AM

Academy Amateur

26 Jasinski RB

Academy Amateur

8 Comments

  1. all draws go to penalties

    I guess the players will develop their penalty-taking abilities

    smh

    • John P. O'Donnell says:

      I love it. What’s wrong with trying new things? Tell me you hope they go back to just three subs. MLS also seems to have a good version of VAR and I believe both improved the game.

    • Even more, the goalkeepers will improve their penalty shot-stopping.
      .
      The keepers will get five times as much experience, at least.

  2. Some of these kids will end up on the Philly Spartans I would guess

  3. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Some will also wind up in USL championship teams as well. Hopefully raising the level of play for D2 and maybe even selling players up and down

  4. Tim, I believe I saw that teams are limited to 11 academy players on the roster, but it looks like you’ve listed out 12. Is there a homegrown or U2 signing coming we haven’t heard about yet (maybe Darboe?)? Or are they able to change the academy players rostered on a week by week basis, perhaps?

  5. Tim, thank you once again for the research and explanation narrative. It is very interesting to see the continued development of the club and its strategy.

  6. Andy Muenz says:

    Freese and Real were both down from the Union and went the full 90 today. Bueno went 65 or so and scored the second goal.

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