Next year’s first team

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union II Communications

Even as the Philadelphia Union focuses on its playoff series against New England, it is time for a first estimate of the roster for next year, including likely and unlikely signings from the academy and Union II.

Coming and going

Here are the internal candidates for promotion for next year.

Pos Player Current Status
AM David Vazquez Amateur, Homegrown eligible
LM C. J. Olney Amateur, Homegrown eligible
RB Francis Westfield Amateur, Homegrown eligible
DM Carlos Rojas Professional, on loan, with purchase option
GK Andrew Rick Professional, Homegrown eligible
RCB Neil Pierrre Professional, Homegrown eligible

It is likely these 2023 players will not return for 2024. Assuming these moves come to pass, the team will go from three starting-caliber outside backs to one.

LB Kai Wagner Better offer(s) elsewhere
S Julian Carranza Sold
RB Olivier Mbaizo Rejoining his family
RM Alejandro Bedoya Retired, or moving on
DM Richard Odada Moving on
AM Joaquin Torres Moving on

Brandan Craig and, probably, Andres Perea will likely return from their loans away.

Perhaps NYC FC might to try to buy Perea. He has done well for them as a double six during his loan. But any such decision would only happen after more basic ones about leadership and shape have been made, particularly since the Cityzens did not make the 2023 playoffs.

2024’s workload

Next season’s roster depth must accommodate Union participation in the extra 2024 competitions listed below.

  • The Union’s Concacaf Champions Cup will have one more home-and-away round of games than 2023’s equivalent did.
  • The Leagues Cup.
  • The Lamar Hunt U. S. Open Cup.

Excluding MLS Cup playoff matches, with its extra competitions this season totaled 48 games in 34 weeks. If the 2024 Union are reasonably successful, next season’s workload might be comparable, although we do not know its number of weeks.

For 2023 Ernst Tanner attempted to have 27 “present-use” players. We should expect the same — or perhaps one more — for next year.

The club’s salary budget will need to expand to help ensure that reinforcements will be more effective than this year’s, with only one of 2023’s three winter signings still getting Union minutes. Revenue from this year’s extra games might help support a salary budget expansion for next year.

Probably, Tanner’s shopping list includes an experienced striker, two proven two-way midfielders, and two good outside backs. Actually acquiring five new players seems unlikely, but two outside backs and a striker seem the bare minimum.

If the causes of Leon Flach’s and Jakob Glesnes’s current injuries possibly include overwork in season, emphasizing more numerous more effective squad depth seems worthwhile.

The chart

We distribute next season’s anticipated players on a depth chart in a 4-4-2 narrow diamond. Positions are bold-faced in black. Expected departures are omitted. Explanatory notes [x] for individual players are listed directly below the chart. The diagram may not show fully on a cell phone’s screen.

Left back, “????” below,” will telegraph Union ambitions for next season. A “win now” approach strongly suggests re-signing Kai Wagner, since it avoids both a transfer fee for a new player and the time needed for that player to become instantaneously instinctive playing within the Union’s difficult system.

Striker Striker
Uhre Baribo
Donovan[1] Rafanello[2]
Nelson Pierre TBD
Attacking Mid
Left Mid Right Mid
McGlynn[4] Bueno[5]
Flach[6] Sullivan[7]
Olney[8] Perea[9]
Defensive Mid
Left Back L Centr Back R Centr Back Right Back
????[11] Elliott Glesnes Harriel
Real[12] Lowe[13] Makhanya[14] TBD
Sorenson[16] Craig[17] Westfield[15]

[1] It seems probable that out-of-contract Donovan will be re-signed in spite of his age because he knows the system and is a proven two-way player.

[2] See Donovan note above,  and add that Rafanello shoots effectively from distance, serves free kicks, and plays attacking mid as well as striker.

[3] Vazquez will be a new Homegrown signing, almost certainly loaned to Union II for the 2024 season.

[4] Recent Ernst Tanner comments suggest McGlynn will not yet be sold because he is still growing physically. And a good performance at the 2024 Paris Olympics would increase his value.

[5] Bueno’s 2024 option will be exercised, and he then might perhaps be signed to a new contract, although there is an option for 2025 already in place.

[6] Flach may possibly need off-season sports hernia surgery and consequent recovery time.

[7] Recent Curtin and Tanner comments, and recent performances, suggest Sullivan will move back into the midfield.

[8] For Olney see Vazquez’s note (#3) above.

[9] Perea has done well on loan with NYC FC, but as a double six in a formation the Union rarely use any more (4-2-3-1).

[10] Rojas would have to prove he can play at the first team level before he would be bought outright, especially since his purchase option is probably expensive. An alternative would be to extend his loan to June of 2024 to acquire more evidence before  deciding to buy.

[11] If Wagner is not re-signed, a starting-caliber alternative would have to be bought and trained into the system. Since early July the technical staff has refused every opportunity to start Matt Real in Wagner’s place.

[12] Since MLS NEXT Pro cannot develop Real further, he needs a short-term off-season loan to a league that will stimulate further development, as is being done with Union II striker Jose Riasco (in Uruguay’s first division).

[13] Since Brandan Craig earned no minutes at all with Austin, Lowe will have his option exercised to provide three “present-use” center backs. Glesnes’ injury  further reinforces the probability of Lowe’s return.

[14] Short-term the priority was to make Makhanya eligible for MLS NEXT Pro playoffs, a valuable developmental crucible that he helped Union II achieve. He, Craig, and Neil Pierre seem the current successors to the top three center backs. There is no known evidence that young South African could convert to outside back.

[15] It is unlikely that Westfield would be promoted to the first team, given his proven vulnerability to elite MLS NEXT Pro pace and technical skill.  But if he is not, a right back must be signed to replace Mbaizo.

[16] Sorenson’s most recent starts show noticeable defensive improvement, but not to a “shut-down” first-team level. Those improvements together with the Wagner uncertainty suggest he may possibly return.

[17] For Craig, see the Real note (#12) above.

[18] Once again Bendik will have his salary negotiated down but be re-signed.

[19] Rick will not be signed to the first team to preserve space for other roster needs, but he ranks third and will start every match possible for Union II in 2024.

[20] Trent’s option will be exercised to provide the first team with a fourth goalkeeper for practice because the Academy depth behind Rick is young. Leading candidate Jonathan Evans is recovering from losing a large part of the 2023 season to injury.

No expansion team is scheduled to  join Major League Soccer in 2024 so there will be no expansion draft. Bedoya, Joe Bendik, and Wagner are out-of-contract MLS free agents for 2024.


  1. I think (hope) you have Champions Cup wrong. There should be 3 more games than in 2023, one pair at the start for the expansion to 32 teams and one game at the end when they make the finals rather than losing in the semis.
    That and a few more Open Cup games…

    • You think they are going to be as good in 2024 as they have been this year and last. I refer you to the starting-caliber players they will have to replace, and the mechanics of integrating the replacements into the line-up.

      • No, that’s why I included “hope”. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible that Elliott and Glesnes revert to 2022 form which would go a long way towards remaining at the same level.

      • Attomic Spartan says:

        Projected 2024 Workload is frightening. 2023 workload and lack of reasonable priorities put us on the wrong side of the ledger. Curtin’s overdependence on his iron men and lack of trust in anyone else foreshadows a repeat of the U’s 2023 “nice try” season next year.
        I repeat what I’ve said before:
        Keep your first team fresher and prevent all the problems that come with so many additional games and competitions by setting better priorities for the club. Focus on MLS Playoffs and a credible run at the Open, then focus on that and de-prioritize the rest. Make a run at the US Open Cup because that’s a win or go home without the additional home & away or group games the other tourneys require.

        Play only your reserves in all the other competitions the U might qualify for, because as secondary priorities all the other tourneys are distractions. Win the MLS Cup or Eastern Conference and you get entered in the other tournaments anyway with all the benefits thereof. With this approach, maybe Jim also gets to see the true value of all the secondary players he doesn’t trust enough to get off the bench.

        If you’re one of Garber’s most favored clubs, you can use your dark money and pursue multiple priorities or build and rebuild a roster that can make multiple credible runs at the MLS Cup and US Open. The DIY Union intentionally do not fit the profile of MLS’s Most Favored Clubs. So stay focused and keep your top line players fresh enough to win the Conference and go deep in the playoffs, maybe stealing a Cup or Shield along the way. All the other competitions don’t matter if your priorities are in the right place.

  2. I don’t understand why, if we’re REPLACING those 5 needs, we STILL don’t have the money to get 5 new guys. Honestly that should be the ABSOLUTE MINIMUM the team does. Realistically it should be 7-8 players including other upgrades.
    It’s really embarrassing that the union stay as far behind as they do in the current league setup.

    • While much in Major League Soccer’s rules is in fact negotiable and flexible, so far, total roster size has not been, the active roster specifically.
      They do not have the active roster slots to add the total numbers you are advocating, Great One.
      They have 15 guaranteed contracts for next year, assuming Sullivan and Craig are included. They have eight other players on club options.
      At the absolute maximum (30), that leaves seven slots, and the club’s business model requires at least some slots be preserved for candidates for future sale elsewhere at a profit.
      The factor that may force change is the number of injuries they suffered this year, especially if those injuries are the result of the overwork required by the schedule. That is a determination about which we outsiders can only speculate.

    • Don’t forget that just bringing in high priced bodies doesn’t automatically translate to success. Anyone playing in Europe will be in the middle of their season which means they’ll be in good shape but learning the system when they first arrive but potentially exhausted after playing for over 15 months straight by the middle of the playoffs.

  3. Much depends on whether or not Carranza is sold on. I wouldn’t bet on it. I feel like the rumors of Union transfer targets are always more rich than reality. I’m not sure anyone other than im and McGlynn have the sort of value that will allow the team to buy any big $$ players. I think that’s fine if Tanner is able to continue finding the sort of talent he has so far at bargain prices.

    The priority if Mbaizo goes along with Wagner is going to be fullbacks, particularly if we’re going to stick to this system. You have to have quality attacking talent in your fullback squad and none of the replacements on offer address that at all. If we reorganized to a 4-2-3-1 or more conventional 4-3-3 with attacking wingers, I think you could live with Harriel and Real. Otherwise, I don’t think so. (Disclosure: I never liked this system and after two years, despite the successes, dislike it even more.)

    Hopefully, Tanner does what he can to turn this team over. It could use an overhaul. Glesnes, Elliott, Blake, Martinez, McGlynn and Gazdag are your building blocks. Everyone else in my mind is sell-able, trade-able, or subject to whatever other strange MLS transfer systems there are.

  4. I think some guys with flexibility will get a boost in value, and potentially change how the Union approach the transfer window:

    Sullivan – can play winger, ST, mid field
    Rafanello – can play ST, AM
    Bueno – can play DM, RM, LM… maybe even try him at LB?
    Flach – can play LM, DM… maybe even try him at LB?
    Harriel – can play LB/RB
    Makhanya – complete ? to me, but perhaps LB/RB possibility?
    – cut bendik… I’d rather the new crop of young keepers get the backup minutes
    – sink or swim year for Sorenson?
    – has to be another loan on deck for Craig…I’d imagine they’ll showcase some minutes for him early on with a 3 CB look when possible, then mid-season loan.
    – who the hell knows what will happen with Carranza, Mcglynn, and even Kai

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