Analysis / Philadelphia Union II / Union

Union II midseason roster analysis: The first team reserves

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Last Saturday, the first team played the 16th of MLS’s 34 regular-season games. Last Sunday Philadelphia Union II played the 12th of MLS NEXT Pro’s 28. YSC Academy will graduate the class of 2023 this Friday. And MLS NEXT Cup begins the following Saturday on June 17.

Midseason is arriving. It is time to assess Keystone Sports and Entertainment’s professional youth development roster.

This week we discuss the seven first team players who have played 2023 Union II developmental minutes. Next Wednesday we will consider six academy players who remain possible candidates for future professional contracts. The following Wednesday we will evaluate the eleven that populate Union II’s professional roster.


Judicious older additions to Union II’s professional roster suggest there may have been tweaks to underlying development philosophy in order to compete with greater independence from first-team assistance in MLS NEXT Pro. The number of Union reserves is unlikely increase barring unanticipated circumstances.

Greater second-team self-reliance means fewer first-teamers will consume Union II’s finite supply of development minutes. Preserving those minutes creates more opportunities to evaluate and develop younger players, as exemplified by the high concentration of U17 eligible midfielders in recent Union II starting lineups.

Those seven first-teamers distribute as follows. Two are “permanently” assigned to the professional youth development side. Four others appear “periodically,” each at their own frequency. The seventh was a fixture early in the season but is probably done appearing.

Touching wood to avoid jinxes, no first-teamer has needed to use Union II minutes to rehabilitate injury. And, re-touching that same wood, there have been no game-day roster emergencies requiring other first-teamers to rescue the side against unfortunate developments.

Permanent: Periodic: Done: Emergency:
Nelson Pierre Holden Trent Richard Odada None so far
Anton Sorenson Jeremy Rafanello
Chris Donovan
Brandan Craig

Nelson Pierre is 18.2 years old and signed a first-team homegrown contract February 21, 2023. He stands 6’1”, weighs 181 lbs., and has good pace for a striker. He has nine appearances in the season’s 12 games, six being starts. Five of the starts lasted 90 or 89 minutes. He has three goals and two assists from 16 shots, five of the shots having been on target.

He displayed noticeable improvement at the start of the season compared to last year, both in energy and endurance and in tactical interchange with others. More recently he has had less impact on his games, relying less and less on improved technical skill and sophisticated tactical interplay to achieve results. He seems to be tiring.

He is not yet ready to integrate with Uhre, Carranza, and Gazdag in their eruptions of one-touch cooperative brilliance in the final third’s central channel. He has become a more effective complement to Chris Donovan or Jeremy Rafanello. He does not yet seem ready to replace either as the dominant creative force generating frequent goal-scoring opportunities.

In February Ernst Tanner’s described him as capable of scoring goals in Major League Soccer, implying that he may not become a candidate for sale overseas as a striker. He is still engaged in basics like engine building. He does displays a Union soccer player’s fundamental mentality, doggedly determined persistence, but it is not yet second nature.  He has plenty of time to experience the truth of the Russian proverb, “Repetition is the mother of learning.” He has four and five years to catch Donovan and Rafanello.

The second first team homegrown loaned down to Union II is right back Anton Sorenson. It is an open question whether he will continue with the Union beyond this season.

He is 20.4 years old. He has dressed for all 12 Union II matches but started only seven, appearing in four others as a substitute and once not at all. He has improved his physical strength but remains vulnerable to attackers of greater physical stature.

Of deeper concern is the mental side of his game.Too often he remains taken by surprise  by opponents’ offensive moves in his defensive third, as examples, overlapping runs behind him or securing “goal-side” positions. He continues not to read quickly enough consistently enough what the attackers are going to do, and he has been trying to improve the skill for two and a half seasons.

The organization indicates its uncertainty about his future by both his bench time and its acquisition of Juan Castillo. Castillo closely approximates Sorenson’s age and has displaced him as Union II’s starting left back.

Sorenson sitting Union II’s bench as a first-team homegrown is a usage without precedent since 2016. Upon recent occasions Sorenson has been observed practicing with the second team. PSP had understood that he had begun practicing with the first team in mid-summer last season. We cannot confirm that what we saw represents a demotion.


In March just before Andre Blake hurt his groin Jim Curtin said that goalkeeper Holden Trent would get his game minutes with Union II.

Curtin’s 6’2” 165 lb. 23.9-year-old third goalkeeper has done so five times, all starts. As the Gold Cup now looms on the horizon, he may get as many as three more before the first team’s match away to Orlando Wednesday, June 21, when Blake may be away with Jamaica in Austria preparing for the Gold Cup and Trent will be needed to backstop Joe Bendik.

While Blake was hurt, Trent backed up Bendik in both MLS and CCL. He would do so again if Blake were to lead Jamaica against the United States in the Gold Cup opener in Chicago, June 24, and in subsequent Reggae Boyz matches in the tournament. (While Blake was hurt, Union Academy alumnus and current Pittsburgh Riverhounds starter Jahmali Waite kept goal during Jamaica’s March 26th 2-2 draw at Estadio Azteca against Mexico.)

Trent is a strong shot-stopper at the MLS NEXT Pro level. He collects crosses well. First match nerves aside, he has integrated into Union II’s defense. He has been learning penalty kick shootouts,  growing from tentative to decisive when conducting them although he is not yet Matt Freese.

Trent’s contract has only options for 2024 and 2025, so he must prove himself this year. He has already has made it clear that he is an effective MLS NEXT Pro level goalie.

His future with the Union will be influenced by Andrew Rick’s development and Joe Bendik’s decisions. He is old for an Ernst Tanner developmental player, but as a goalkeeper his future is subject to the judgments of Director of Goalkeeping Phil Wheddon, who must had persuaded Tanner to draft him in the first place.

The next first teamer who periodically appears for Union II is Jeremy Rafanello who has done so seven times, all starts. His most spectacular match came May 28 against Columbus Crew 2 when he scored the hat trick that secured a 3-2 win against the defending champs. He earned MLS NEXT Pro Player of the Matchday for that performance.

Rafanello graduated from YSC Academy in 2018 appearing twice that summer for Bethlehem Steel FC, and then spent a season at Penn State. He then turned professional: first with FC Helsingor in Denmark, second with Indy Eleven of USL Championship, then with New York Red Bull II also of USLC, and now with the Philadelphia Union of MLS as a Homegrown.

The 6’0” 165-pound Delran, NJ native is 23.1 years old. For Union II he has played as both a striker and an attacking midfielder in coach LeBlanc’s offensively fluid 4-2-2-2 “empty bucket” formation. He has four goals and three assists on 23 shots, 10 of which were on target.

When Rafanello has paired with Chris Donovan, the combination has been productive whether side by side as strikers or stacked together as striker and attacking mid. As far as we can tell absent a discoverable current MLSNP compilation, Rafanello probably leads Union II in shots taken despite playing in only 56% of their games. He is willing to shoot from long range as the Columbus hat trick demonstrates.

As a Union Academy graduate his familiarity with organizational systems of play, patterns of migration between the professional teams, and underlying cultural values helps newcomers assimilate to the Union’s way of being professional soccer players.

Chris Donovan has made fewer appearances with Union II than Rafanello with only three, all starts. He scored a brace against New England with an assist in the comeback attempt that suffered a countervailing come back.

The improvement in his performance over last season’s is clear. His conditioning has improved to the point that on an MLS NEXT Pro pitch he is relentless. His technical skill with his head, particularly in combination with others, is much better.

Last season he used the professional development team to earn the chance to practice at the first team’s level, and the improvement engendered by competing in the new milieu means that except for getting remedial running in games, he has moved beyond MLS NEXT Pro.

Whether he can someday replace Cory Burke remains a question for a first-team roster analyst.

At this writing it is unclear whether the first team’s fourth center back Brandan Craig will appear much more for Union II.

Pointing towards more Union II time, Craig has only three and a half years of experience playing as a center back. He has only appeared once for the first team in an MLS regular season match, three minutes against D. C. United last July 8 at the end of the head coach-removing 7-0 blowout. Pointing away from it, Union II now have four professional center backs of their own with a fifth from the academy competently playing meaningful minutes.

Jim Curtin is famous for his caution while learning to trust new, young defenders. But he should also become famous for correctly judging when academy boys are ready. None of Austin Trusty, Mark McKenzie, Nathan Harriel, or Matt Real has flamed out. There have been plenty of youthful mistakes. But there have been no unsalvageable career-destroying disasters.

Craig needs to accumulate game experience, wherever it may become available to him, perhaps as early as this Friday when Union II play Atlanta 2. He will learn from every opportunity, as he did most recently from Sunday’s first goal of the U. S. U20s 2-0 loss to Uruguay.

Were Curtin to stay with three center backs while Damion Lowe is away with Jamaica, he would choose among Kai Wagner, Matt Real, perhaps Nathan Harriel, and Craig.


After returning from Kenya’s March 3 international friendly against Iran, defensive central midfielder Richard Odada started six consecutive Union II matches, five of them being unsubstituted full 90s. But since then he has been on the first-team’s bench seven consecutive times.

Those roster decisions suggest perhaps his conditioning was being brought up to speed, that the process has succeeded, and that now he will be unlikely to play for Union II.

Odada’s likelihood of no further Union II minutes is reinforced by the new emergence of defensive center midfield pair of Francis Westfield (17.5-year-old) and Alex Perez (17.1-year-old) that has played the first 60 minutes of every recent Union II match. Evaluating and developing 17-year-olds lies at the heart of Ernst Tanner’s articulated Union player development philosophy.

The 22.5-year-old Kenyan is now part of the midfield reserve being developed against the retirement of Alejandro Bedoya and other possible midfield departures. In addition to Odada that reserve includes Jesus Bueno and Andres Perea. 


  1. Andy Muenz says:

    The major difference between last year and this year for Union 2 is the number of first team reserves playing in Union 2 games. Last year it wasn’t unusual for 6 or 7 players to play 60+ minutes on Sunday after either sitting on the bench or getting a brief cameo on Saturday night for the Union. This year it is 1 or 2 at most (excluding Pierre/Sorenson). That shows in the record, but it also means that the long term academy prospects are getting more playing time which should ultimately be a good thing.

  2. Good stuff, Tim.

  3. Tim – do you have any read on how close Rafanello is/isn’t to having a first team impact? I’m guessing if he’s behind Donovan, the answer is a while away…

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