Commentary

Union II end-of-season roster review: First-teamers

Photo: Ben Ross

This is the second part of our examination of the Philadelphia Union II roster at the end of the 2022 season, focusing in on the first-team players who appeared in MLS NEXT Pro this year.

Ages are as of early September. Data below do not include the playoff match.

First-teamers (11)
Chris Donovan S 22.1 1,553
Paxten Aaronson ACM 19.0 739
Quinn Sullivan CM 18.4 891
Jesus Bueno DM 23.4 1,161
Cole Turner DM 21.4 1,753
Anton Sorenson LB 19.6 1,863
Matt Real LCB 23.1 900
Brandan Craig RCB 18.4 1,612
Nathan Harriel RB 21.3 450
Matt Freese GK 24.0 1,329
Jeremy Rafanello AM 22.4 (1,505)+132
Richard Odada DM 21.8 131

Chris Donovan, a striker from Conestoga HS and Drexel, is the leader in the clubhouse of 2022’s professional player development success. He was signed by the first team in mid-season after starting the year on a Union II contract. As the organization’s fundamental principles demand, he plays effectively on both sides of the ball. He has good pace and a strong soccer IQ, but not so much pace that he creates consistent separation from his mark at the first team level. His discipline, effort, and intelligence are clear assets. He has 21 appearances including 18 starts with eight goals (leads Union II), three assists, and 48% of his shots on target. The implications for Donovan’s future of the recent signing of Jeremy Rafanello to the first team are not clear. We think neither Donovan nor Cory Burke will be protected in the upcoming expansion draft, and that Rafanello is insurance against the loss of either. But neither Burke nor Donovan are highly attractive acquisition targets, although only time will tell. The 22-year-olds partnered well as strikers against Orlando City B.

Paxten Aaronson is a positionally versatile first-team attacking reserve whose presence pushes first-team leading scorer and MLS Best XI candidate Daniel Gazdag from below. Upon occasion Aaronson has gotten fitness remediation with the second team, since the Hungarian has been a first-team iron man. Aaronson has five goals and three assists in his ten appearances for Union II (nine starts) with 33% of his shots on target. At least three of his five have equalized or won matches. When dribbling, Aaronson is the most consistently successful ball-advancing Union II attacker. The coming off-season’s developments involving Gazdag and Aaronson bear watching. (MLS lists him as the 12th best under 22 player in its league for 2022. Matt Doyle says what he needs to improve is removing the roster blockage that is Daniel Gazdag.)

As the above data indicate, Quinn Sullivan is more than half a year younger than fellow homegrown midfielders Jack McGlynn and Aaronson. He not only won but apparently destroyed the first-team’s first day conditioning contest, the infamous beep test. He has three goals and three assists in his eleven appearances, all starts, with Union II. Although he can play as a striker, his ball winning and pressing seem especially suited to playing in the midfield. He does not have McGlynn’s passing eye or Aaronson’s magic feet. But his sheer determination has won Union II at least one game when his late-game high pressure defending won balls from exhausted opponents and created attacking opportunities some of which were realized. Alejandro Bedoya’s new one-year contract will influence Sullivan’s first-team role next season.

Jesus Bueno is a Venezuelan defensive midfielder who scores for Union II, six times. Additionally, he has two assists in his 13 appearances, all of which are starts. The combination of Bueno and fellow first-teamer Cole Turner in coach LeBlanc’s double-pivot “empty bucket” formation has contributed greatly to Union II’s late-season push towards playoff qualification. The goals tell us that Bueno is good at the “I-beam” variation of the double pivot empty bucket. Defensive midfield will be a position to watch in the organization this offseason. The August signing of Richard Odada gives the first-team five, if Leon Flach is included. It would be six were Jack McGlynn added, but his lack of experience playing there alone mitigates against inclusion. Bueno has had strong success with Union II at the other midfield positions in the empty bucket this season. But Bueno does not seem to be trusted as an MLS-level single six.

This season is the first during which Cole Turner has consistently shown that he is a fully-developed defensive midfielder. Ball-winning has been his characteristic since his first days with Bethlehem, and there have been occasional offensive flashes with this or that excellent pass. But this season those offensive attributes have been instinctive and consistent. And that instinctiveness has freed his brain to read the game during the game to decide how his role needs to change. The latest example came at St. John’s University’s Belson Stadium in the away win over NYC FC II. After going ahead by a goal early in the second half, NYC’s coach took off his number six … and Turner took over the game. He repeatedly drove the ball forward, often by dribbling it, leading to both Frank Westfield assists. (The first was to Jose Riasco’s head and the next was to Nelson Pierre’s foot). Turner got no boxscore stats from the NYC FC II match, but without Turner there would have been no comeback win. He has a goal and three assists in his 19 appearances, all starts. And while only three of his 17 shots have been on target, his excellent technique from long range generates Jakob Glesnes-like power. That power has been manifest every time Turner has taken a penalty kick in either a shootout or regulation. Turner has not been the speediest developer among the Homegrowns. But once the development is in place its realisation, both technical and mental, is superb. Pending the arrival of Abasa Aremeyaw he is the fourth center back for the first team.  The organization exercised his option for 2022, so he may be out of contract for 2023.

When Anton Sorenson’s long-known signing as a homegrown was officially announced months later, Sporting Director Ernst Tanner detailed what the diminutive left back had to add to his laudably aggressive offensive instincts. Those additions were two. Reading when to go into the attack and when not to. And more effectively resisting opposing attackers’ arm-wrestling and shoulder-charging. The called for changes now occur. Recent opponents have focused more on the outside channel not defending by Sorenson. His improvement is also reflected in a change in practice status. He no longer practices full-time with Union II but is usually with the first team. Sorenson has been pushed by the development of Maike Villero as a left-back. Sorenson has neither scored nor assisted in his 21 U II appearances, all starts. Eight of his 12 shots have been on target.

Matt Real was Union II’s go-to fix for defensive emergencies early in the season, and that role has continued. He has played every defensive field position save right center back. He has been called upon ten times for ten starts as the 900 minutes above indicate. He has four goals, mostly from corner kicks, and no assists. Six of his eleven shots have been on target. Union II provided him with the game fitness that allowed him to start for the first team at Red Bull and play the first 58 minutes in the midfield. The 2022 season has converted him from a reserve left back with defensive holes in his game to an effective reserve at three positions, left back, left center back, and left midfield. He played the full 90 at left back next to Kai Wagner at center back in the friendly against Pachuca. His contract status for this season is made clear by the fact of his presence. What it is for next season is unknown.

When available to the club and not away with the national U20s, center back Brandan Craig has been a Union II fixture. He missed three matches when away in June as well as the playoff game in Toronto. He has served almost every Union II restart, both corners and free kicks. The first match home to NYC FC II illustrated the point. He had a free kick goal, a corner kick assist and saved a New York shot on target off the goal line late in the match to preserve the win. He has only three years’ experience as a center back but is an intelligent, quick learner. He is now experiencing the physical maturation that will make him capable of withstanding the physicality of MLS’s fully adult attackers. It is however indicative that when facing the bull that is Inter Miami II’s Shanyder Borgelin, Craig has left bull wrestling to Nathan Nkanji. At 2021’s open practice he witnessed the 11 v 11 restricted space scrimmage from the sidelines.  This year there is no need for him to sit out. He is now primary back-up to both Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes, at roughly a decade younger than both. He has the afore-mentioned free kick goal and a total of three assists, probably all from restarts.  Six of his 20 shots have been on target.

Five times this season Nathan Harriel has come down to Union II to restore and maintain match fitness. He has a goal, two assists, and four of his eight shots have been on target. The importance of Union II’s match fitness restoration and maintenance role was illustrated recently at Red Bull Arena in the Union’s 2-0 win there when Harriel replaced the injured Olivier Mbaizo. The same also happened against Pachuca.

First team number two keeper Matt Freese ranks third in Union II regular season minutes. That datum illustrates Union II’s role in providing the first team whatever it needs, acutely so. Union II maintains the varsity number two goalkeeper’s game sharpness. Freese has won three penalty kick shootouts for the side and is therefore directly responsible for three extra points that determined the club’s place in the Eastern conference table. He serves as captain whenever he plays. He has 21 goals against and his expected goals against calculation is 20.8 for a difference of zero. In other words, he makes all the saves he is expected to make. He saved a penalty kick in the run of play against New England that kept the final minutes of the match from being anxious when Revs II scored in the 79th.

Late additions

Jeremey Rafanello has three appearances, two starts, with Union II. He has played as a striker not the midfielder that was advertised by his signing announcement. (Rafanello did play attacking mid for 90 minutes against Pachuca for the first team.) He fits into the organization’s playing style as excellently as should be expected of a YSC Academy graduate. Only time will explain what his role within the organization may be. For the first time there are three teenager strikers in the ranks. Two are already professionals, Nelson Pierre and Jose Riasco, while one is perhaps soon to become so, Marcos Zambrano. Increasing the competitive intensity for the teenagers seems at least part of the reason for the 22.4-year-old’s return. And he serves as insurance against Cory Burke or Chris Donovan being selected by St. Louis in its upcoming expansion draft since he can play striker and is exempt from selection. In the playoff clincher against New England Rafanello had a goal, an assist, and replaced the absent Craig as the team’s free-kick server.

Richard Odada has two  appearances with Union II, both starts. One was for 45 minutes at Subaru Park against Orlando City B. It reinforced Jim Curtin’s comment that he is already part of things and likely to be a contributor. The 21.8-year-old Kenyan international would be a dominating defensive midfielder in a double pivot in MLS NEXT Pro., as one would expect of a veteran of Serbia’s topflight. His second start was for 86 minutes at Gillette Stadium in the playoff clincher when his role changed to protector of the inexperienced center back duo of Turner and Real. He also knew he had to try to last as long as possible on the pitch even though he has not had game minutes since May.

At first glance Odada seems a leading candidate to step in for Jose Martinez as a single six for the first team should age and contract negotiations move the 28.1-year-old Venezuelan wizard elsewhere in the future. He played the full 90 against Pachuca in a double pivot next to Bueno, effectively so. Jamiro Monteiro’s, Kacper Przybylko’s, and Sergio Santos’s 2022 examples demonstrate that the Philadelphia Union collects roster assets whose values continue to  appreciate. (See Gazdag, Daniel this year, and probably Uhre, Mikael after the 2023 season.) They do not collect long-term plugs to the flow of their developmental pipeline. So if Odada proves himself and Martinez wants a long-term deal after his options are exercised, the Venezuelan may move elsewhere in the next year or two.

Not yet arrived

Abasa Aremeyaw, center back and 19.1-years old. We expect the Ghanaian to get his first game minutes in Union II post-season friendlies once he finally arrives.

4 Comments

  1. Great article and great detail/research. Love these kinds of updates, nice work!

  2. Missing Jack McGlynn?

  3. Not missing McGlynn.
    .
    Judgement made that he has graduated from a major role with Union II.
    .
    Was not the case in March, but is the case in October, IMO. Just one appearance since mid-May.

  4. Matt Real & Quinn Sullivan’s numbers suffered this year.
    .
    Paxton too but he was getting minutes in most MLS games.
    .
    The “I-beam” – I love it! I can’t wait for a batch of homegrowns to start dominating the front six spots so we can start calling it this for the Union.

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