Analysis

Philadelphia Union now makes loans away

Photo published by CA Boston River’s official twitter account

This season Philadelphia Union organization’s sporting behavior has added a new dimension to its range of activities. It has begun to loan its own players away to other teams, as do major clubs in the larger leagues of Europe and South America.

Almost all previous Union loans had been only within the organization, up or down. Either professionals from the first team went down for games with the second, or amateurs came up for both practice and games from the Academy (In 2015 Zach MacMath was a actual loan away).

Only in 2023 has the Union loaned first team players outside the organization simultaneously.

Two reasons why

Perhaps the activity reflects the season’s now-completed accommodation of 2023’s extra in season tournaments. To illustrate compare the 2023 season’s game frequency with 2022’s.

  •  During the 2022 regular season Union  played 35 games in 31 weeks. Without correcting for  international breaks, that pace is slightly less than 1.1 games a week.
  •  Including all three extra in-season tournaments, when finished the Union’s 2023 regular season will have played 48 in 34. Again not adjusting for international windows, that pace is 1.4 games a week, two games a week slightly less than half the time. Adjusting for international breaks intensifies the pace even further to two games a week five-eights of the time (see below).

Since the extra regular season games are done, the roster is shrinking. Loans are possible because the quality on the bench has attracted other clubs. And as Ernst Tanner reportedly said on Friday, September 15, loans give Union roster assets — i.e., players — opportunities to earn game minutes that maintain their value. They also resolve completed position competitions and treat players’ futures fairly.

The second possible reason is that players have been evaluated and found wanting. Of the three acquisitions overtly identified with 2023’s greater workload, only Damion Lowe still gets minutes. Joaquin Torres no longer plays, and Andres Perea has been loaned out.

Loan intent

A critical question to ask about each loan is whether it includes a purchase option.  Is the player coming back, or is he perhaps moving on?

Listed below is data on the new loan away part of the club’s player development process. Game minutes elsewhere can be at a higher level than that of MLS NEXT Pro (see Riasco variously below). They can prepare a returning player to compete for starts, as Tanner discussed about Brandan Craig on September 15th. Or they can audition permanent moves to different organizations as may perhaps be the case with Richard Odada and Union II’s Brooks Thompson.

Date

Player Sources Country Div Club Purch Opt ?
5-Jul Brandan Craig both U S A 1st Austin

No

28-Jul

Andres Perea both U S A 1st NYC FC No
15-Aug Richard Odada both Denmark 2nd AaB

Yes

28-Jul

Brooks Thompson both U S A 3rd NC FC ??
17-Aug Jose Riasco both Uruguay 1st Boston River

??

Brandan Craig, Andreas Perea, and Richard Odada illustrate the two different purposes to being loaned away. Craig and Perea are intended to return. It seems as though Odada is not. Odada – and Perea – created the roster the competition that, in part, stimulated Jesus Bueno to raise his game from 2022’s division II excellence to 2023’s division I success.

That competition now seems over.

Brandan Craig

When asked about Craig earlier, Jim Curtin stated his loan had no purchase option. Curtin expects him to return.

Austin’s roster handling indicates head coach Josh Wolff  judges him is not quite ready for MLS minutes. For a period of time after Matt Hedges arrived, he did not even dress. More recently when Hedges did not dress, Craig did. But he has received no game minutes (see Appendix below). The Craig frustration that Tanner described must be continuing.

Andres Perea

NYC FC’s announcement of Perea’s loan states both that the Union “retains a portion of his salary budget charge” and that there is no purchase option. Perea subbed on for roughly half an hour at the end of NYC’s first match following the Leagues Cup. Since then he has started and played almost every game minute. Initially he had been next to the now re-injured Keaton Parks or the injury-rehabbing James Sands as a double six in a 4-2-3-1. More recently he played both flank mids in a 4-3-3. An NYC FC announcer recently complimented his energy and positive impact on the floundering side. This past Sunday he scored the opening goal against Toronto.

Richard Odada

Odada has joined Danish side AaB. AaB begins its new season having been relegated to division two. Its announcement of the Odada loan states overtly there is a purchase option. The option makes sense beyond the reasons already given because there are two teenage Union Academy midfielders playing heavy minutes down on the farm who need to be unblocked (David Vazquez and C.J. Olney). Logic and circumstance both suggest Odada is moving on from the Union.

Brooks Thompson

Union II goalkeeper Thompson’s loan has been announced by both clubs. Neither one mentioned the future beyond the 2023 season. It’s unclear if Thompson is out of contract at the end of this season and a free agent, but that seems to be the case. Because Andrew Rick has replaced him as the Union’s fourth goalkeeper for practice and has started every match for Union II since signing a professional contract, Thompson is almost certainly auditioning for the next step in his soccer career.

At last check he had made 12 consecutive starts for NC FC.

Jose Riasco

The mystery of the whereabouts of Union II striker Riasco has ended. He is in Uruguay.

Basic information has been confirmed by the Union, but most comes from his new club’s official Twitter account (see photo credit). He is on loan with Uruguayan first division side CA Boston River “for the remainder of the 2023 season,” says Philadelphia.

Uruguay’s first division began 2023’s clausera or closing tournament in late August. Through September 24th, referees are on strike protesting an attack on two officials during a U-19 match earlier this season, so matches have been postponed.

Boston River internet website’s roster does not yet include Riasco. But the club’s official tweets welcomed him on August 25, listed him as a substitute for the second clausera match on August 27, and listed him as a second half sub on September 2 against Penarol. Subsequent matches have been postponed. Against both Cerro and Penarol he received yellow cards and came on as a late second half sub. Transfermarkt totals his minutes at 21.

Riasco will be at Boston River until December when the clausera and the season both end. Uruguay’s seasonal rhythm matches Union II’s own. Presumably Riasco will rejoin the Union organization for 2024.  His being loaned away unblocked 17.2 year-old Sal Olivas who was recently signed to Union II.

Secondary circumstantial clues do not suggest Riasco is gone for good. He is being challenged to earn minutes at a mid-table club whose league is of higher quality than MLS NEXT Pro. The Uruguayan first division has many alumni in MLS itself. The challenge should better prepare him for an audition with the first team this coming winter.

Is MLS NEXT Pro insufficient?

Three of the loans away when combined with previously referenced press conference comments from Curtin and Tanner suggest that to the Union the quality of play in MLS NEXT Pro leaves a gap between what that league can develop and what MLS now demands.

Consider these three circumstances.

  • First, top striker prospect Riasco does not stay in Chester to contribute to Union II’s playoff chase. He instead goes to a league in Uruguay that often contributes young prospects to MLS for meaningful transfer fees.

A logical interpretation of the loan – others exist – is that to stimulate Jose Riasco’s further development a challenge greater than MLS NEXT Pro is necessary. Riasco did not dominate the second team’s league, but neither was league play causing him to improve.

  • In the next circumstance, Curtin and Tanner between them have said of that Craig did not want to play for the second team anymore and that he is desperate to get game minutes. The comments’ strong implication is that Craig does not think the second team has anything more to teach him. Whatever their public words, Union actions tend to support Craig’s probable conclusion.

Unfortunately, minutes in Austin have not been forthcoming, Austin’s actions suggest they have not found Craig ready for play in MLS either.

  • Finally, Tanner has apparently said that if Kai Wagner cannot be re-signed, significant money will have to be spent to replace him.

That suggests Matt Real is not as ready to step in for Wagner as Nathan Harriel is for Olivier Mbaizo – replacing the right back is a less monumental task than replacing the left one. But that does not mask Union hesitancy about Real.

In 2022 Real played a several times in MLS Next Pro and every time made impacts on both sides of the ball at both left back and left center back. He was a dominating player.  In 2023 Real needs a higher grade growth environment to develop him further towards first team trustworthiness.

Possible solutions

For Riasco the Union’s developmental gap filler is Uruguay’s first division, a venue made easier by the player’s fluency in Spanish. Perhaps on account of language, potential gap-filler candidates for Craig and Real are the lower leagues of Great Britain and Ireland. Others that are complicated by language might be found in Austria, given both Tanner’s connections and Cory Burke’s and Brendan Aaronson’s successes there. And other places to look might be leagues that regularly contribute successful young players to MLS.

Right now MLS Next Pro does not seem able to complete the job of readying the youthful for MLS. It is a long way from the Union Academy U17s to the Union itself. Union II furthers the process but does not seem able to finish it.

Appendix: Craig’s & Perea’s MLS game activity while loaned away
  • Craig
Day Date Opponent App Min Pos
Sa 8-Jul @ Minnesota sub 0
We 12-Jul @ Vancouver sub 0
Sa 15-Jul Kansas City sub 0
Fr 21-Jul Mazatlan sub 0
Sa 29-Jul Juarez sub 0
Su 20-Aug @ St. Louis
Sa 26-Aug @ Dallas
We 30-Aug Seattle
Sa 2-Sep @ New England
Su 17-Sep Portland sub 0
We 20-Sep @ New York Red Bull sub 0
Su 24-Sep LA Galaxy sub 0
Sa 30-Sep Colorado
We 4-Oct D. C. United
Sa 7-Oct LA FC
Sa 21-Oct @ San Jose

[please maintain the spacing for layout clarity]

  • Perea                                                                                    *double six
Day Date Opponent App Min Pos
Su 20-Aug Minnesota sub 29’ DM*
Sa 26-Aug @ Cincinnati Start full 90 DM*
We 30-Aug Montreal Start full 90 DM*
Sa 2-Sep Vancouver Start full 90 DM*
Sa 16-Sep Red Bull Start full 90 L/RM
We 20-Sep Orlando Start 90+2 both
Su 24-Sep Toronto Start 84 DM*
Sa 30-Sep @Miami
Sa 7-Oct @ D. C.
Sa 21-Oct Chicago

6 Comments

  1. I appreciate this post. It made me realize how difficult it is to find the right pieces sometimes. Also, it made me realize that we should prioritize rotation for 2024.

  2. Thanks, great read…

  3. Austin’s treatment of Craig is perplexing. In their last match they conceded twice in the last 7 minutes to blow a 3-1 lead. The team is bad defensively. It’s hard to imagine that they could be much worse with Craig on the field.

    • Matt Hedges represented a ‘better opportunity, and a MLS experienced defender”… a buddy of mine in Austin said. Wasn’t a statement about Craig being competent… just not as experienced… and Austin needed experience on their backline because like the Union, this year looked nothing like last.

      • Hedges has been injured on and off all year – and hasn’t been on the game roster for the last 3 matches.
        .
        It seems based upon the comments from Curtin and Tanner that BC pushed for the move. He may have learned that not all organizations in MLS function as well as Philly. It probably comes down to the question of “(this season) would you rather train and not get many minutes with Austin or Philly?” The answer’s clear to me.

  4. Fantastic stuff sir.
    .
    The Branden Craig story is an interesting one. I am surprised he was loaned to Austin in truth. If I am correct their entire philosophy of play is different then Union.
    .
    Either way he is still a young man with time but he is a young man with time that needs to be playing meaningful minutes too.
    .
    I am curious just how much leverage the player has… I tend to agree, going abroad or even to a USL side where he can earn first team minutes may be the best solution for him.

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