Analysis / Philadelphia Union II

Midseason Union II roster review, part three: The U II pros

Photo: Ben Ross

Ever since Philly Soccer Page began covering Keystone Sports and Entertainment’s professional-level developmental soccer team, it has reviewed the team’s roster at “midseason.”

To create individual 20-person game-day rosters, the team draws players from three sources.

  1. First team professionals. These practice with the first team daily but come down to receive game minutes with Union II.
  2. Second-team professionals. Union II contracts.
  3. Amateurs. Union Academy U17s and Union Developmental Squad players who play and practice exclusively or primarily with Union II on so-called zero-dollar contracts that preserve their amateur standing for future NCAA play.

Union II Pros

Player

G

Age

Pos

Min

Chris Donovan

9

21.8

S

613

Stefan Stojanovic

8

21.2

S

492

Nelson Pierre

7

17.2

S

266

Jose Riasco

4

18.3

S

104

Carlos Paternina

7

21.1

AM

296

Juan Perdomo

7

21.4

RM

233

Maike Villero

1

21.3

LM

10

Nathan Nkanji

8

20.8

RCB

654

Brooks Thompson

3

20.0

GK

270

Gino Portella

0

21.2

LCB

0

           

Ages, games, and minutes as of 5/31/22.

The 2022 review project has been subdivided accordingly. The amateur segment was published May 25th. The first-team portion appeared June 2nd.

U II Pros

If they have been healthy enough, the first nine listed above have almost always dressed for matches.

Only occasionally has an absence been a true coaching decision, especially when it has not been Maike Villero who is being re-purposed from flank midfield to outside back. Usually when the U II pro players have not dressed, the technical staff has sent first-teamers down to get minutes in their places.

The tenth player listed, Gino Portella, has been informally described as “post-operative.” Given HIPA, we have not asked for details on the exact nature of the injury and its treatment. Earlier Coach LeBlanc has hoped verbally that Portella might return to the practice pitch by June or July. To date he has neither played nor practiced this season, so we do not review him below.

The minutes data is included in the second-team reviews because the first head coach of Keystone Sports’ professional-level player development side, Brendan Burke of Bethlehem Steel FC, once indicated that a player needed a minimum of 8-10 matches to be evaluated fairly as a prospect for future promotion to the first team.

That means 700 to 900 minutes. Evaluation will be on-going process for the rest of the season, and the range of minutes given above tells readers how far along the evaluation pathway each player may happen to be.

In Nathan Nkanji’s case, the sources we have used for published statistics inadvertently omitted an injury substitution event from Tuesday, April 5 in Fort Lauderdale against Inter Miami CF II. We have verified that Nkanji so appeared and added those minutes to the his totals using PSP’s own reporting as documentation.

Four strikers

Chris Donovan has started six times and subbed thrice at striker. He leads the U II  strikers with 613 minutes. He also leads the team in goals with three and has one assist. He has 28 shots with 12 on target.

The man from Conestoga HS and Drexel U has grown quickly into the demands of both MLS NEXT Pro and Union II. Our impression, — we have no access to internal club statistics of course — is that he is the team’s best chance taker. To those like us who do not know the entirety of the organization’s defensive pressing cues and must judge only from results, he seems to have learned his defensive responsibilities quickly and has the pace and stamina to carry them out well.

The three times he has come off the bench, his appearance has coincided with an increase in the effectiveness and quantity of Union II offensive activity. He has a knack for creating open-net scoring opportunities, but has not yet become lethal at finishing them. At the MLS NEXT Pro level, he combines an ability to escape individual defenders with rapid application of defensive pressure against opposing backs. He is a two-way striker, a prerequisite for being considered by Jim Curtin.

We have little way to judge his future ceiling directly. The Columbus Crew drafted but did not sign him. He had not been invited to play in a first team practice since preseason ended, until June 1st when during the June international break the two squads were working together as one.

Were disaster to ravage the first-team’s striker corps tomorrow, Donovan is the strongest candidate for an immediate short-term emergency call-up.  Whether the professional technical staff would call him probably would depend of the depth and breadth of the first team’s disaster.

Stefan Stojanovic’s commitment to a striker’s defensive dirty running is admirable, sufficiently so that he might be a candidate for re-purposing to a different position should the top of the attack not work out. To be clear, he remains a striker. He has said his greatest strength is his finishing and he remains determined to prove it.

He is a Bosnian Serb born in Chicago who transferred from St. Louis University to Georgetown and switched from a sports management major to economics, demonstrating courageous self-confidence. The switch was an intellectual challenge.

Now, with some help from YSC Academy’s well-known commitment to helping players augment their intellectual toolbox after high school, he is currently enrolled at Penn studying data analytics. He credits Georgetown’s soccer program with his ability to adapt quickly to the Union’s requirements for defending.

He has started six matches and subbed on twice more for 492 minutes. Thanks to New England Revolution II goalkeeper Jacob Jackson, who managed to deflect a breakaway chip, he has not yet scored. He does have an assist, and has taken 13 shots with three having been on target.

As his preseason appearances with the first team suggest, he is the second-strongest candidate for emergency call-up to the first team striker corps tomorrow, because of his ability to withstand Major League Soccer’s physicality – even though he says he needs to get faster and add more strength to his upper body.

Inaugural Union II signing Nelson Pierre was the first striker substitute off the bench in the first two matches, a pattern that fits the 17.2-year-old’s need for both game minutes and engine building. He has since started three and subbed on four more for 266 minutes total. He has two goals – a brace in the second game at Miami – and 12 shots with five of those being on target.

His first job is to “build his engine,” as Earnie Stewart would have said. He has yet to play a full 90 minutes. His longest stretch was 76 against NYC FC II. In his other two starts he has come off after about an hour, the point at which a game’s effort begins to drain physical reserves in a fashion from which it is physiologically harder to recover.

Pierre’s second job is to convert a striker’s defensive pressing cues from requiring thought to being instantaneously instinctive. The ability to be instantaneous ties directly to engine building, at least so it seems to commentators whose only ability to judge relies on observed results.

A third job is to learn to combine better with strike partners, as opposed to relying on superior individual physical gifts. This job is likely the one that will determine when Pierre gets invitations to practice with the first team, as the quality of the challenge their defense provides would be considerably greater than that available from Union II.  He will not beat Blake, Elliott, Glesnes, et al., without teamwork, so he must learn it.

Pierre would rank third as a candidate for short-term emergency call-up to the first team tomorrow. But his youth and inexperience probably mean that his career ceiling is thought to be higher.

Jose Riasco is currently Philadelphia Union II’s fourth striker when judged on performance-to-date. But PSP has directly seen flashes of quality that hint why Ernst Tanner spent roughly a million of the frugal Union’s dollars to sign him.

There are reasons for the contradiction between that transfer fee and today ranking fourth of the four strikers in an emergency

  • For reasons guessed at some months ago, during the two months between his separation from his old side and his arrival in Chester, the 18-year-old Venezuelan was only able to train on his own. Consequently, both his understanding of the organization’s tactical systems and his conditioning lag everyone else’s in a scheme that demands all ten field players act together as one if the scheme is to succeed.
  • He has never lived outside his home country before, and he had no English when he arrived. PSP has directly observed that his language of instruction on the pitch remains a combination of his internal soccer instincts and Spanish. Assistant coach Kleberson has been stationed on Riasco’s side of the pitch during practices, since for him practice still means trying to understand the instructions not just executing them.
  • The Union’s system has been difficult for intelligent, able American soccer players to learn. The best evidence lies in the early career of YSC Academy’s most famous graduate, Brenden Aaronson, who took a full year of play with the first team, and well more than a full year of practice, before he had everything down as instant instinct.
  • Riasco is a physical string bean, 6’2” and so lean as to be almost skinny. He may be whipcord-strong with good leverage, but his MLS NEXT Pro opponents are mobile fireplugs and bowling balls. Venezuela’s style of play is different from North America’s. He needs better strength and more body mass to play here.

Here are the observed flashes mentioned above.

  • In his first Union II practice – we happened to be in attendance — Riasco instinctively executed a trap-and-turn move with the flawlessness and beauty of finest silk. Only a few times in watching MLS and the Union has this writer been privileged to observe that level of quality. It is instantly recognized, and memorable. The others are a David Beckham long pass in the MLS All-Star game played in Chester, a Zlatan Ibrahimovich trap during warm-ups before a Union match hosting the Galaxy, a perfectly weighted Kleberson cross into the box at the end of a Bethlehem Steel preseason scrimmage in 2017 when coaches had been drafted to substitute due to NCAA prohibitions against academy subs when scrimmaging an NCAA side, and a Thierry Henry perfectly timed withdrawal into dangerous space during a match at PPL Park so long ago that I no longer remember the year.
  • In his first game appearance as a late sub at Seat Geek Stadium in Chicago, Riasco instantly recognized a defensive cue and closed on the opponent with pace and aggression. It happened early in his shift before he’d had a chance to think or become tired. The speed of the recognition-and-response was the “flash.”
  • May 24th at the Power Complex training pitches Riasco scored a goal from 15-18 yards on the left side of the box that was powerfully roofed. His body language as he delivered the strike was calm and certain that he had scored. But the most striking point is that his act elicited no comments from his coaches. They already knew to expect it.

Riasco has started once and substituted on three more times, with one shot that was off target. He currently totals only 104 minutes. From now onward that number will probably increase in every match for which he is healthy.

Three flashes and a shot off target do not win MLS’s Donovan award. Riasco probably will not help the first team this year.

He needs a thousand more minutes before we will know much with certainty. But Tanner’s judgment may be right, that his future ceiling is the highest of the 2022 Union II’s four strikers, even though he would lie fourth in an emergency signing table consulted tomorrow.

Two midfielders

Self-described “Colombiano” Carlos Paternina is a 21.1-year-old attacking midfielder reportedly on loan to Union II with an option to buy. He is physically small but quick and fast with a high level of individual technical skill. He has started four matches and subbed on thrice playing 296 minutes. He has a goal from three shots, and a second shot was on target.

Paternina faces the same instructional challenges as Riasco, but has been present with the side longer.

In the season opener against Cincinnati his play reminded long-time Union fans of fellow Colombian creative midfielder Roger Torres, except Paternina covers more ground more rapidly. He has not had such an effect on any of his subsequent matches. The element of surprise is gone.

Paternina brought energy as well as technical skill off the bench against Columbus in that loss. He had one of the Union’s three shots on target, unfortunately right at the keeper.

The Rochester match suggested that an underlying question may face Paternina’s soccer future in North America. Is he physical enough to survive the style of play? His departure in the 35th minute with a stomach bug was unfortunate because his technique and vision would have continued its periodic usefulness had he been able to continue.

On the organizational depth chart, he lies behind Paxten Aaronsen, to say nothing of Daniel Gazdag. And behind him are 15 ½ year old attacking mid Bajung Darboe and 17.6-year-old Anthony Ramirez. Paternina has competition to remain with the organization.

Venezuelan Juan Perdomo is a 21.3-year-old flank midfielder with the best English of the four Spanish-speaking Union II professionals. It is therefore no surprise that he has made the most progress of the four learning the organization’s defensive system. He is the first choice for the right mid of the narrow diamond in practice but must cope with first-team midfielders taking his game minutes when they come down. It is a good thing that his rudimentary English and the support of team personnel who have Spanish may have allowed him better to understand and cope.

Perdomo has two starts but has subbed on five other times for a total of 233 minutes. His defensive effort to sustain the press has been obvious. Not knowing the cues, we cannot judge how correctly the effort is being applied. He has neither scored nor assisted, and has four shots, two of which were on target. He stands only 5’4” and weighs only 150 pounds but seems to have adapted to North America’s robustly physical style of play.

Perdomo seized his substitution chance against Columbus with enthusiasm and energy. He had two of his club’s seven total shots, one of which was on target.

Two defenders

Nathan Nkanji ‘s Cinderella story has been told elsewhere. At the end of January, he was playing club soccer on central Florida’s west coast. Now he is a division III professional defender who no longer comes off late in games because of cramps. The 20.8 year-old’s family came to Florida from Cameroon when he was in second grade. He has taught himself to speak American English like a native.

He has started seven times with the emergency substitution mentioned above. He totals 654 minutes with an assist and two shots, one of which was on target. Six-hundred-fifty-four minutes is the most among the Union II pros, necessitated in part by Portella’s injury.

The first time Nkanji marked Miami II strikers Shaan Hundal and his sub Shanyder Borgelin in Ft. Lauderdale, they gave him trouble. On the second south Florida trip, Coach LeBlanc assigned Nkanji to man-mark Borgelin all over the defensive third. And he marked the former Union II attacker out of the game.

Nkanji has been growing himself and his game like the proverbial weed — physically, technically, and especially mentally.

Nkanji understands his role well. He plays with the aggressive attitude the pressing system demands of a center back. And he now talks on the field communicating with his teammates. He has work to do in the weight room. Discipline, time, nutrition, and coaching will create a more rugged physicality. But already there is much more edge and bite to his play. And there are glimmerings of offensive development, too.

Venezuelan Maike Villero came to Union II as a midfielder. Observations from practice and questions put to coach LeBlanc suggest that his horizons are being expanded to outside back. He is left-footed and physically an adult with good pace.

He faces the instructional detailed in our discussion of Jose Riasco. He still needs to learn the intricacies of an outside back’s tactical responsibilities according to LeBlanc, both offensively and defensively. 

Once Jackson Gilman graduates from YSC Academy and leaves Union II, coach LeBlanc will need a backup at outside back, especially if Anton Sorenson happens to get called up to the U20s. And of course Jack Jasinski’s and Ian Abbey’s departures with Gilman create the same depth needs in the midfield. 

Villero began the regular season recovering from an injury working on the sidelines with the training staff. He has progressed to full contact regular training and has dressed seven times for matches. He has subbed on only once, for ten minutes at the end of the Chicago match April 24th. That will soon change.

One goalkeeper

A goalkeeper review first requires mentioning the Union organization’s netminder customs. First, they do not substitute keepers in games except in case of injury, and elsewhere in this project we have explained the consequent occupational hazard called reserve goalkeeper syndrome. Second, both professional teams prefer to have four keepers available for most practices, not two. If four are not possible, then three.

The second point affects Brooks Thompson. The 20-year-old is often the fourth keeper for first-team practice, especially early in a practice week.

In terms of matches he has started three and been dressed on the bench for three more totaling the expected 270 minutes. The difference between his actual goals allowed and his expected goals allowed statistic is 0.2, meaning he usually makes the saves his team has a right to expect. By comparison Andre Blake’s number is -0.8, meaning he saves nearly one goal a game more than might be expected. We calculate Matt Freese’s same statistic for MLS NEXT Pro in 2022 as -0.2.

Thompson has made two costly goalkeeping mistakes. And he has made three or four spectacular game-saving stops.

Barring disaster it seems unlikely that he will appear in a match for the first team. His future with Union II is opaque because PSP has never seen his amateur competition play in professional games. And keepers practice away from field players except in some scrimmage situations, so our observations have been lesser.

3 Comments

  1. Union fan says:

    An excellent and thorough summary of what’s cooking one level below for the Union. A great series, thank you Tim!

  2. Tim Jones says:

    Glad to be of service. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Tim. Great update, confirming my fears about Riasco and signing him for a mil.

    A long term good friend in Venezuela warned me when we signed him… about home sickness and missed opportunities that stay with the kid too long.

    So we will see if Union management can overcome those obvious concerns and develop that kid’s amazing potential… Or maybe Martinez can figure out how to cook for him!

    Almost, but not really, like Carannza… except he was stuck behind that TOAD Gonzalo, not his own head.

    Peace, out.

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