2023’s Union roster build begins

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union Communications

It is mid-summer, and thus Ernst Tanner has begun migrating the rosters for the two local professional soccer teams. His mantra could easily be, “Constantly get younger; constantly get better.”

There have been four emigrations from the first-team.

Two young players leaving, Matej Oravec and Jack de Vries, were expected and anticipated. Two older ones were less so, Sergio Santos and Stuart Findlay.

Most recently a year-long sojourner has become a permanent immigrant, Julian Carranza, who is now 22.


Immediately below is an only partially confirmed mid-July snapshot of the first team’s roster for 2023. The list totals 23 players.

Out of contract (3) — Joe Bendik, Alejandro Bedoya, & Cole Turner.

Club option available (5) — Matt Freese, Kai Wagner, Leon Flach, Jose Martinez, & Cory Burke.

Under contract (7) — Andre Blake, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, Jesus Bueno, Daniel Gazdag, Mikael Uhre, & Julian Carranza.

Unofficial but assumed (6) — Brandan Craig, Nathan Harriel, Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan & Chris Donovan.

Unknown (2) – Olivier Mbaizo, & Matt Real.

The two professional rosters do not exist in isolation from each other. First-team moves reflect developmental pipeline expectations at the positions involved.

Often July has seen new first team homegrown promotions, and during July and August academy U17s from birth years 2005 and 2006 are auditioning for jobs on Union II.

Detailed discussion

The four-man exodus occurred in the first two days of the secondary transfer window. Aside from Carranza, further immigration will occur over time.

One or two new players might arrive from outside the organization at some point, and trialists are in camp with Union II seeking opportunity.

More probably, new first-team arrivals will be promoted from the academy. Every year since Derrick Jones made the move in 2016, at least one academy player has joined one of the two professional rosters.

To the list.

Out of Contract: The three out-of-contract situations each pose many questions.

Is 35-year-old Captain Alejandro Bedoya still effective every game? Does he want to keep playing? Can he remain captain without starting every match? How easy would it be for a new captain to co-exist with him, should a diminished role mean he no longer wears the armband?

Jim Curtin recently stated that Bedoya should retire with the Union and that he will be in the Ring of Honor. The MLS Players Association lists him as a free agent for 2023. The recent comeback against New England illustrates the continued importance of his leadership and play.

Is Joe Bendik content to be third on the depth chart? Does he want greater opportunity elsewhere? Union II’s Brooks Thompson and the Academy’s 16-year-old Andrew Rick are on the horizon behind him.

Does the club still need Cole Turner’s positional versatility for its practices? Right now he is their fourth center back, even though he is a defensive midfielder. Does it still need his game day contributions to Union II? Has he reached his ceiling?

Relevant to Turner’s return is the state of younger amateur defensive midfielders and center backs moving up. In terms of the first team itself, Jesus Bueno lies ahead of Turner at defensive mid but not at center back. Boubacar Diallo seems more of a versatile stopgap at DM than a serious candidate.

Club Option:  Sergio Santos’s departure makes Cory Burke’s much less likely since there are once again only four strikers for the two-striker system. Burke is listed by MLSPA as a free agent  for 2023.

At present, the professional strikers with Union II are neither MLS NEXT Pro stars nor first-team ready. Nelson Pierre, Stefan Stojanovic, and Jose Riasco will compete to change that by October.

A speculative digression

The remaining unknown in this discussion is academy amateur striker Marcos Zambrano, who is practicing with the first team. He has likely been doing so since the completion of MLS NEXT Cup and that he was with the full team in Florida during preseason. Whether the 17.5-year-old will jump to first-team homegrown status remains to be seen.

To his credit, he was just called into the USMYNT U-19 camp from July 25th to August 2nd, even though he joined the Academy from Ecuador.

A review of MLS’s Roster Rules and Regulations indicates Zambrano is eligible for homegrown status. It’s possible he could be signed one of two ways.

  • He could occupy a supplemental roster slot where his maximum 2022 salary under the homegrown player subsidy rule would be $ 209 K.
  • Or he could be signed to the senior roster as a U-22 initiative player where his salary cap charge would be $ 150 K and the balance would be the Union’s direct responsibility and set at the club’s discretion.

Other clubs in North America and beyond must be aware of Zambrano and must be  competing for his services. Using the open-ended U-22 initiative signing seems more likely: he would still have Homegrown status exempting him from the St. Louis CITY expansion draft after MLS Cup in November.

Back to Club Option: Kai Wagner and Jose Martinez could easily have their options exercised and then receive contract extensions, following the path laid out in 2021 by Andre Blake, Jakob Glesnes, and Jack Elliott. Rewarding and locking in the entire starting defense when all are at their peaks makes a great deal of sense.

Transfermarkt’s algorithm estimates that Leon Flach’s roster asset “value added” has already increased ten-fold. It would increase even more were he to develop more offensive punch before he tries to return to Europe – so keeping him and trying to enhance that punch makes good business sense.

Matt Freese is developing nicely under Director of Goalkeeping Phil Wheddon. Is he  content with several MLS NEXT Pro games as captain while continuing to back up Andre Blake? In the queue for raises and extensions he probably lies fourth behind starters Wagner, Martinez, and Flach.

Under Contract: Barring outside offers so attractive they cannot be refused, Andre Blake, Jesus Bueno, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, Daniel Gazdag, Mikael Uhre, and now Julian Carranza are guaranteed Union players for 2023.  Six start consistently on one of the leading sides in the Eastern conference, while Bueno fills roles as a versatile reserve midfielder and as a sometime MLS NEXT Pro starter.

Unofficial but Assumed: While there is no direct, official information on these six players’ contracts for next season, indirect comments, unofficial reports, and above all underlying logic suggest they also will return. In the organization’s business plan they are the roster assets that can realize the highest profits in percentage terms because their initial signing costs were low.

Reports in the press cite Tanner himself as saying the Union are not listening to offers for any of the five 2020 Homegrowns in 2022. These are Brandan Craig, Nathan Harriel, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, and Paxten Aaronson. The link to Tom Bogert’s July 1st discussion encapsulates each well, and our photo illustrates Ernst Tanner’s point about Jack McGlynn.

Regarding 2023, recall that Tanner did not sell Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie until they had played a full season as starters. The sporting director can ask for more money if he argues his case from actual performance data.

It would make no sense to have signed the sixth assumed returnee, Chris Donovan, at midseason and not included an exercisable club option to control him for the following year if he did well. Without such protection he could walk out the door in December, possibly a proven MLS reserve striker, without the Union receiving a dime. Tanner will have protected the club’s interests by not allowing this to happen.

While we do not know whether it will be on guarantees or options, all six are returning for 2023.

Unknown: We do not know the 2023 contract status of these two players, but here is what we do know.

Olivier Mbaizo turns 25 in mid-August. He has been an MLS starter and is clearly trusted to relieve Harriel at right back as needed. His August 17, 2021 contract announcement describes his new deal as “multi-year,” and does not mention options. If that language is interpreted minimally, only the rest of 2021 and all of 2022 were guaranteed and there is no option for 2023. If maximally, there could be a guarantee for 2023 with further option(s) beyond it.

There has never been a formal announcement that 23-year-old Matt Real has signed a new contract for 2022. On January 20 reporter Matt DeGeorge tweeted that Jim Curtin said two days before that Real had accepted the club’s bona fide offer extended after his 2021 season contract expired. His salary for 2022 has increased by $15 K and he is now listed on the senior roster. Only Tanner knows the rest. (Ilsinho’s last “qualifying offer” had a club option, so Real’s might, especially since at that time of the offer first team-quality left-back help was  more than a full season away.)

The next certain opportunity to answer the questions about Mbaizo, Real, and 2023 will come after playoff elimination and before St. Louis’s expansion draft. During that window the club is required to announce what options have been exercised and declined and who is out of contract.


The best way to find roster holes is to make a depth chart. Quantities and placements of question marks reflect the levels of uncertainty discussed above.







Attacking Mid


Left Mid


Right Mid





Defensive Mid




Left Back Left Center Back

Right Center Back

Right Back

Wagner? Elliott



??Real?? H O L E







Left central defender is the roster hole. This summer no first team-ready ones are in the pipeline.

The only internal possibility, Gino Portella, is still in post-op rehab with Union II. To a layman’s eye on Bastille Day, he looks two or three weeks away from full contact practice. He seems unlikely for second team game minutes until mid-August, and only then will he starting climbing towards 90-minute game fitness.

A crystal ball for 2023

Priority rankings reflect the currently known availability of suitable replacements from within the organization.

Urgent priorities (ages are given in parentheses and reflect Bastille Day ‘22)

  1. Sign Marcos Zambrano (17.5).
  2. Exercise Kai Wagner’s option (25.3) and extend his contract similarly to the deals given Blake, Glesnes, and Elliott last season or off-season.
  3. Exercise Jose Martinez’s option (27.9) and extend his contract similarly to Wagner’s.

Re-signing and option-exercising probabilities 

  1. Project captain Alejandro Bedoya’s continued effectiveness (35.1). Discover his intentions. Discern his willingness to accept one-year deals at reduced pay. Decide whether team dynamics allow him to execute the role of retired captain while passing the armband to Andre Blake, as Brian Carroll did so well for him.
  2. Exercise Leon Flach’s option (21.3) and negotiate to extend his contract.
  3. Exercise Cory Burke’s option (30.5).
  4. If as expected Chris Donovan (21.9) has a club option, exercise it.
  5. If as suspected Matt Real (22.9) has a club option, exercise it unless he wants to leave.
  6. If Olivier Mbaizo (24.8) has a club option, exercise it unless he wants to leave.


  1. Is there a realistic path toward player-coach that Bedoya could take, and if so, would something like that soften the potential blow of giving up the armband? I want to see Bedoya retire in blue & gold – he is the face of the Union’s resurgence as the team we now have today.

    • Bedoya was interviewed just this past week by Jonathan Tannenwald, and Bedoya emphatically stated that he did not want to go into coaching after his playing career was done, so I don’t think player-coach is something that would appeal to him.

      To my mind, Bedoya is still playing at an extremely high level. Even though he is 35, I think it is premature to start putting him out to pasture. Sign him for what he would accept, and let him play.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    I don’t see why Bedoya would have to give up the armband even if he is only playing part time. To me, the captain’s role as a leader is just as important during practice and in the locker room and he should be able to handle those duties even with reduced playing time.

  3. SilverRey says:

    To add to this we have a DP spot open, 4 international spots, 4 roster spots and some spending cash from Brenden
    That seems like an open playground for Tanner to get something done in this window

  4. Tim Jones says:

    He may need the cash to sign Zambrano.

  5. Have to admit my surprise that Bedoya isn’t interested in coaching. Maybe front office? Either way he’s been very important to where this team has gone since his arrival. Would he take any role that was less than playing full time? He has proven to be a true team players I think he may.

    Great read! Love all the answers and questions!

Leave a Reply

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


%d bloggers like this: