For Pete's Sake / Union

Looking ahead to the second half of the season, three questions for the Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Remember the Philadelphia Union?

Me neither.

It’s been a long three-week break for the Boys in Blue, but that comes to an end this weekend when FC Cincinnati — helmed by longtime Union assistant Pat Noonan and featuring familiar faces like Haris Medunjanin and Ray Gaddis — comes to town to start the “second half” of the MLS season.

(There are still 20 games left to go, as the Union have only played 14.  But it still feels right to call this the start of the “second half.”  Your mileage may vary.)

It’s been a strong start to the season for Philly.  They’ve lost just once and are tied for the fewest goals allowed in the league.  Combined with an inconsistent offense and a penchant for grinding out draws (seven so far), the performance has the Union sitting second in the East (behind NYC FC) and fifth in the Supporters’ Shield table (behind LAFC, NYC, FC Dallas, and Real Salt Lake).

With the action resuming this weekend, let’s look ahead at some of the key questions Philadelphia will face in the second half of the campaign.

Comings and goings

The Union have one of the strongest starting XIs in MLS.

Will they be able to keep that group together through the summer transfer window?

It seems unlikely, especially as it comes to All-Star left back Kai Wagner.  Wagner, 25, has made no secret of his desire to return to Europe and play in a top league.  Although a move didn’t materialize in the less-active winter window, teams in the Bundesliga and Premier League will be sniffing around Wagner, who should be a relatively affordable option.

From the Union’s perspective, if Wagner wants to leave, it makes sense to facilitate his departure rather than cling on to a want-away player.  A transfer fee of $4-8 million would help ease the pain of his exit.  But there would be real consequences for the roster, with Leon Flach (a starter at another position) and Matt Real (unconvincing) as the two best options.  Neither option would come close to replacing Wagner, who’s probably the best in the league at his position.

Other players may attract interest from abroad, too.  (That’s the trade-off of being a great team.)  Jose Martinez, who turns 28 in August, is one of the league’s best defensive midfielders, and he may be looking for a big move or a big payday in the prime of his career.  Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott, who both have European passports, could attract some interest from the continent.  And while it’s probably too soon for one of the midfield teens to be sold, there’s always the possibility that some team will make a long-term play for the likes of Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, or Quinn Sullivan.  (More on them in a minute)

If there are, indeed, outgoings, will Ernst Tanner reinforce the roster with a signing or two?  Last summer saw him bring in Daniel Gazdag — an outstanding signing — and Alvas Powell — a more under-the-radar move that was important down the stretch.  The question is where such a signing could be most useful this season, which brings us to the next question…

Depth charges

The Union expected the Homegrown midfielders — Aaronson, McGlynn, and Sullivan — to play roles this season as depth pieces, in the hopes that one or more would take a big leap.

That hasn’t been the case so far this season.  The three have combined for zero goals, zero assists, and just four shots in 471 minutes of work, spread over 24 appearances (two starts).  They haven’t offered much offensive punch late in games, a contributing factor to the many draws earned by the Union in April and May.

Obviously, this isn’t to say that any of them are poor players or failed prospects.  Becoming an impact substitute is challenging, even for veterans.

But it’s fair to wonder whether the Union have enough depth behind their excellent starting group.  Beyond the kids, the backup strikers have been inconsistent and ineffective, while the other depth midfielder — Jesus Bueno — hasn’t had a minute of MLS action yet.  (He’ll likely get an opportunity starting this weekend, with the Homegrowns off on U-20 international duty for a few weeks.)

When Tanner thinks about reinforcing the squad, a reliable, MLS veteran midfielder who could be counted on as a late-game sub to spell the likes of Alejandro Bedoya and Leon Flach should be at the top of the list.  Like last year’s Powell signing, that kind of player could play a key role on a championship contender if the kids aren’t quite ready.

Either that, or maybe Aaronson, McGlynn, and Sullivan grow into the kind of substitutes who can change games.

Squad goals

Finally, the Union’s offense will stay under the spotlight in the second half.

This isn’t a new conversation this season, so there’s no need to belabor the point.  Philly hasn’t had a ton of goalscoring punch this season, scoring more than two goals in zero of 14 matches so far, despite an MVP-caliber turn from Gazdag and an excellent start to the season from Julian Carranza.

There are reasons for the relatively laborious attack, personnel chief among them.  Offseason splash Mikael Uhre has struggled with injury so far in his first campaign in Philadelphia, and his replacements — Sergio Santos and Cory Burke — have wholly underwhelmed.  As a result, the club’s counterattacks have been less punchy and dangerous.  Opposing teams are also well-aware of how the Union want to play and have paid more attention to not getting caught in transition.

But it’s not hard to see a second-half turnaround coming.  If Uhre returns to full health, he could be a gamebreaker.  His goals against Nashville and New England showcased his speed, finishing, and striking instincts that are a class above the rest of Philly’s options.  And a more reliable, dangerous attacking threat should create even more space for Gazdag and Carranza to operate.

Eventually, the Union will score three goals in a game this season.  (Jinx.)

Will it be enough to earn the club first place in the East?

19 Comments

  1. Deez Nuggs says:

    First in the East would be nice. But sturdy outings leading to an MLS Cup run would be better.

  2. Are there any reliable (or even unreliable) rumors about transfers for Wagner or Martinez? Genuinely curious. I feel a bit skeptical these guys will ever move, particularly Martinez.

    • MLS website contributors are already reached the stages of saying it’s a question of when and not if for Wagner this summer. Haven’t seen as much about Martinez

      • Any specific destinations? MLS contributors tend to act more as league cheerleaders than genuine sources of information.

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      The @UnionRumors Twitter account tends to be on top of these things. So, I check it out regularly during silly season.
      .
      Most recent for Kai was some club names and a dose of skepticism from Jonathan Tannenwald: Stuttgart, Hertha Berlin and Leeds United

  3. Tim Jones says:

    Whether this detail has any relevance or not is up to readers to judge. Wagner got a green card earlier. Martinez has not.
    .
    Jack Elliott has had one for some time and just got a nice salary increase from his off-season new contract. Jakob Glesnes got his GC roughly at the same time as his contract was extended this past off-season.
    .
    Parts of all these situations that are none of our business are how the players’ families feel about living away from home.
    .
    I will illustrate the last point with some Bethlehem Steel FC history.
    .
    All of you remember that Philly native Pat Richter, now a first team assistant coach, made the very first Philadelphia Union side in part because he came to camp in shape. He won the beep test, and Nowak struck me as the type of guy to use that to send a message.
    .
    Towards the end of his playing career he came back to play for the brand new Bethlehem Steel FC. He was captain that first year. I recall hearing that his wife was having her first child and wanted to be near their families while experiencing that.
    .
    And there were unconfirmed reports later that Borek Dockal’s wife was homesick for Czechia.
    .
    Family issues are private matters, but can play meaningful roles in career decisions.

  4. MikeRSoccer says:

    I think we need a TAM or DP level signing at the 8 spot. Between Wagner/Martinez potentially leaving, Bedoya’s age, and Flach’s poor offensive acumen, the team needs more than depth at the 8 spots. Even if there are no departures and Bedoya remains healthy, it is clear (IMO) that Flach is not an 8. He lacks the offensive vision and passing abilities required by the position, particularly in our system. His struggles moving forward are at a level that it appears teams are giving him more space; drive the ball to the weak link and you can kill attacks. Flach needs competition and it is time to get the Bedoya heir on deck. Spend some of the Aaronson sell-on money!

  5. I’m looking forward to the second half of this season as it will probably be my last. 2023 will find me noping the f*** out. Enjoy apple tv everyone. It was fun while it lasted.

    • If I read the press release correctly, you’ll only need the MLS subscription to watch the games and can download the apple TV app for free to watch the games through. I don’t believe you need to also have the apple TV+ subscription. Also, if you’re a full season ticket member, you’ll get that MLS subscription for free.

      • This is also a national deal. It may/may not affect local TV deals. I would expect the local TV to be unaffected, and that this is similar to the MLS ticket or current package on epsn+.

        I don’t have any information one way or the other.

      • Correct – season ticket holders will be able to watch the MLS games. Others will have to subscribe to Apple TV.

    • This is for the national streaming service. I don’t think it applies to the local TV coverage in any way. This is replacing the current espn+. I suspect they will stream the local coverage rather than send a team to each game.

      • Local broadcasts will be affected. With a very few exceptions on ESPN or Fox, all games will only be available on Apple – which is why they are paying what they are paying. No more local broadcasts according to the reports. Maybe Apple will capitulate if the outcry is big enough, but I wouldn’t count on it. Get prepared for national only broadcast.

      • https://www.sporttechie.com/why-mls-and-apples-streaming-deal-game-changer-for-sports-media-landscape

        “The media rights deal is monumental not only for the long-awaited financial outlay—sources told Sports Business Journal that Apple is guaranteeing $250 million per year with revenue-sharing escalators based on subscription numbers—but also for its structure. The elimination of team-centric local deals is a fundamental change to the sports media landscape.”

  6. John P. O'Donnell says:

    I find it hard to see them doing anything unless it’s selling a player and then bringing in a replacement. For the most part other than the strikers, most everyone is having a good season and since the pre-season combination at striker has seen little time together…. I believe they’ll have plenty of patients going forward.
    .
    If Wagner is out, I believe Matt Real is the immediate starter and if they sign anyone they’ll have to beat him out for the position.

    • Deez Nuggs says:

      I obviously can’t speak for Tanner, but he is more familiar with the European time schedule for these things than the US nonsense. I wouldn’t bet on what he does either way, but he’s said before that it is easier to bring in players from Europe in the summer.

  7. Andy Muenz says:

    People probably aren’t going to be happy, but I think Mbaizo is the likely left back if Wagner leaves.
    .
    Or, ideally, they’ll include a clause keeping Kai for the rest of the season before heading to Europe.

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