Analysis / Philadelphia Union II

How we talk about player development

Photo: Ben Ross

Editor’s note: As many longtime readers know, Adam Cann was one of the Philly Soccer Page’s original writers — and, more importantly, one of the site’s most iconic voices. In 2018, Adam left PSP to take a job with the Philadelphia Union. After nearly five years, today is Adam’s last day with the Union, as he is leaving Philadelphia and soccer to take a job with a sports organization in a different city. While we’re very sad to see him go, we wish him all the best in his new endeavor.

To honor Adam, Tim Jones offers the following thoughts.

I began reading reading Philly Soccer Page because it taught me things.

I especially looked forward to Adam Cann’s tactical analyses. He explained what I had seen. I would read his analysis, replay the tape, and sometimes see his points for myself. He became my teacher.

His gift as a tactical analyst is to see a developing situation and anticipate what the players should do. At first he was over my head, but over time he taught me enough to understand his basic points.

Then the Union hired him, first as a writer doing what he had done at PSP, then expanding his role away from print into social media, and other front office concerns. To me who knows nothing of a business organization’s structure he was working his way up the “depth charts.”

As Adam is now leaving the Union, the piece that follows honors my teacher by trying to analyze a problem as he might have done. I cannot write with his voice, and I do not see through his eyes. But Adam believed the general public could understand the subtleties of soccer’s play on the pitch.

With the same faith I suggest that MLS NEXT Pro’s editors believe the general public can understand the principles and mechanics of developing young, professional soccer players.

Let’s begin

A recent preview of Philadelphia Union’s 2023 season written under the aegis of MLS NEXT Pro’s (MLSNP) editors called the side’s performance in the earlier part of last season “inconsistent.”

It was. It is also not the point.

What MLSNP’s sports writers label inconsistent is not actually bad. The criticized behavior reflects a player development strategy that fulfills a goal that is not winning the next immediate match. Modern soccer replaces the hyper-specialization of other sports – to illustrate that specialization, nearly twenty-five separate coaches cover at least twenty-two different positions for the Philadelphia Eagles – with the flexible interchangeability of the 1972 Dutch national team’s “total football.”

The topic under scrutiny is roster variation. Variation is anathema to winning the next game. But developing young players requires it.

MLS NEXT Pro’s 2022 season did not fit the conventions of North American top-of-the-pyramid sports leagues, either professional or NCAA. MLSNP permits and uses roster variability. The only continuity an MLSNP side must display from one game to the next is its uniforms.

Last year, the league’s writers reported its season as though it were a conventional top-of-the-pyramid sports league. They looked for and emphasized conventional roster continuity. Probably, that is what young sports journalists are trained to do.

They did not analyze who actually played and why. Their eyes were not looking for player development, but for stars, wins, losses, and making the playoffs. They may not have understood the roster variations they saw. Their editors may not have permitted them to use such understanding.

Philly Soccer Page has been continuously acquiring such understanding since June of 2016.

Player development is “the only thing”

“Inconsistent” implies the Philadelphia Union II’s purpose should only be to win the next game immediately in front of it. The idea was articulated by deceased NFL Hall of Fame coach Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, who famously once said, “Winning is not everything. It is the only thing.”

For Philadelphia Union II winning is not the only thing. It is not even the primary thing.

Union II head coach Marlon LeBlanc once explained last year that winning is not the technical staff’s fundamental emphasis. Improving is. Getting better is. Growing is. He said his staff does not overtly emphasize victories, the boys already do that themselves.

“Inconsistent” focuses on the wrong goal. The right one is to have each player learn and grow to his maximum competitive potential.

To achieve that game-day rosters vary considerably and deliberately. In the long-term roster variation creates strength. Roster variability is the defining characteristic of any sports league whose purpose is player development (e. g., PeeWee League baseball).

MLS NEXT Pro describes itself as a professional-level player-development league. Its journalists need to explain the point every week in their narratives.

Three creations of strength

LeBlanc frequently has a player play a series of games not in his own primary position but in an adjacent one. The purpose is to improve the player’s anticipation of what an adjacent teammate is likely to do, to learn to read the game with another position’s eyes.

And so a left back sees minutes at left center back, or at left attacking mid. A center back sees minutes at defensive mid. An attacking mid sees minutes at defensive mid. Even strikers drop back a line to attacking mid. Only goalkeepers specialize exclusively.

In the long term LeBlanc’s device improves the interchangeability of his team’s various parts. What seems inconsistent from a single day’s short-term perspective creates needed and useful growth a month or two later.

Take a longer term view from a second example. In August 2019 a 16-year-old midfielder named Jack McGlynn joined the Union’s Academy.

He was a No. 10 with an educated left foot who acknowledged he needed to improve his play on the defensive side of the ball. Observation makes it clear that he is extremely intelligent on the pitch.

In 2020 over the course of the few months when then-coach Sven Gartung was desperate to reduce the frequency with which opponents were scoring, McGlynn shifted from attacking mid to defensive mid and became a starter as a double six. The move was not roster inconsistency but player development. It  laid the foundation for McGlynn playing with the positional flexibility demanded by Ernst Tanner’s ever-fluid narrow diamond.

Today, McGlynn is essential to the attacking creativity of the United States’ U-20 side.  He is also essential to the Union’s first team when it must replace defensive mid Jose Martinez’s offensive distribution. A recent performance without McGlynn and Martinez suggests McGlynn is also essential to the narrow diamond’s defensive success.

The inconsistency of McGlynn’s 2020 peregrinations has created a first-team — and a youth national team — asset for 2023.

Finally, roster variation changes not only players.

When Bethlehem Steel FC’s first head coach, Brendan Burke, first encountered sporting director Earnie Stewart’s ideas in the 2016, Stewart’s roster varying frustrated Burke tremendously. He had to reconstruct his coaching philosophy. That philosophy had succeeded, strongly, at Reading United and then at Boston University. Burke had wanted to find his best eleven players and start them every time, and the idea worked well over a short schedule.

But Burke carried out Stewart’s intellectual reconstructing. The next year Bethlehem began to contend for the USL Championship playoffs while playing 30 games or more from March to October. During literally one hundred games over the next three seasons only once did Burke start exactly the same lineup in two different games. He replaced the idea of an exclusively specialized player with a deliberately flexible more interchangeable one.

Stewart’s principles brought success to both Burke’s Bethlehem and Jim Curtin’s Philadelphia Union.

Ernst Tanner has deepened and sharpened the change. “Next man up” is no longer a rigid mantra. If a player’s profile indicates probable success at an adjacent position, when there is a need the interchange may happen. Sometimes it works, and sometimes not. Both opponent and player have to be judged accurately.

What conventional American sports analysis sees as inconsistency actually underlies the Philadelphia Union organization’s recent sporting success.

How MLSNP roster variation works

Teams draw their game-day roster’s players from three sources. Two are professional and one is amateur. They are the first-team’s reserves, the second teams themselves, and the affiliated amateur academies. Proportions among these sources vary from team to team and game to game.

To anticipate those proportions correctly, three topics must have answers.

  1. Sequence. (Is the side in question playing after, overlapping with, or playing before both its first team and its top-level academy side?)
  2. Proximity. (If matches do not overlap, is the side playing within traveling distance of its corresponding first team’s or academy team’s match?)
  3. Recovery. (Is there time sufficient for adequate recovery between the match itself and the next matches of the other two teams?)

An additional factor is the specific player development philosophy of each organization.

Especially at the level of detailed nuance, with 27 professional player development sides in 2023’s MLSNP, there are 27 different philosophies at work. But for all sequence, proximity, and recovery define what is possible. Whether the possible occurs is decided 27 different ways by 27 different technical staffs.


Calling deliberate roster variation inconsistency obscures both truth itself and a reader’s ability to understand it.

Other sports report professional player development.  Baseball writers constantly evaluate and enumerate prospects down on the farm. Football has a year-long cottage industry to discuss both the professional draft and NCAA Division One recruiting. Sports fans in North America understand the details and nuances of professional player development in baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey.

MLS NEXT Pro’s writers and editors need to show Adam Cann’s faith that fans who care enough to read about what they have watched have the intelligence and desire to follow cogent explanations. The fans can, and will, figure it out.


  1. Thanks for the read, Tim. I always appreciate your insights on PU2 and the academy players.
    Best of luck to Adam in his new job. I miss reading his work here, and I will miss reading his work with the Union – I could often guess when Adam had contributed to a piece based on its higher level thought and, as Tim points out, for its respect for the reader to not provide basic taking points but to go beyond. In his analysis and writing, Adam always felt like he was thinking 3 levels beyond the obvious.

  2. Thanks, Tim, for the great article.
    Thanks to Adam for all he did for soccer in Philly. We were lucky to have you at PSP and at the Union. Good luck in the future!

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