Analysis / Breaking News

Wagner returns to the Union

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

At 10 AM Thursday, January 11, 2024 the Philadelphia Union officially announced that the best left back in Major League Soccer was returning. Both Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tom Bogert of The Athletic had broken the story late Wednesday afternoon.

The full text of the Union announcement is available here.

It includes an extensive statement by Wagner that emphasizes his bond to the club, and to greater Philadelphia.  He created several choices for himself, and worked through them carefully to choose to remain. “Mutual appreciation” is a key term he uses to describe his interactions with the club.

Philadelphia is thrifty. But within those limits it also treats its employees well. The strategy has paid off in this instance.

It is worthwhile to recall Ernst Tanner’s gentle criticism of MLS’s suspension decision after the Bobby Wood incident last fall, that nowhere else in the world of soccer would the instigator have gotten off without sanction of any kind. No one denies that Wagner crossed a bright line, … badly. But only a very few humans behave so heinously that they forfeit all chance for redemption.

A Union win

From the perspective of the pitch itself  the decision is a clear win for Philadelphia. No one new needs integrating. From a 2024 fan’s seat in Subaru Park it is the best possible outcome.

  • A strong defensive unit remains intact.
  • No training time will be lost integrating a new player during a short off-season.
  • No extra expense will occur acquiring someone else.

All indications are that Wagner is willingly fulfilling the various terms of his suspension. He will miss the league opener against Chicago. But within the usual caveats about the unforeseen he will be available to start in Costa Rica in the Concacaf Champions Cup (CCCup) February 20.

Other dominoes remain to be played in 2024’s roster-build game.

  • Blake’s backup in goal.
  • The captain.
  • Is Andres Perea staying or going?
  • Ditto Joaquin Torres.
  • Has David Vazquez signed?
  • Ditto Jose Riasco.
  • What about Julian Carranza?

But double six has just been slapped down onto the center of the table.

Key details

We will not know the financials of the contract until the players’ union salary guide is announced in mid-May. But we do know the length. And it guarantees a strong defensive spine through 2025.

Wagner is virtually 27-years-old and guaranteed for 2024, 2025, and 2026. The club holds an option for his 2027 season when he will turn 31.

If it chooses, the club can maintain its current back “seven” — Mbaizo and Harriel are interchangeable when judged by Curtin’s 2023 lineup card behaviors — through the 2025 season by exercising Andre Blake’s and Jack Elliott’s 2025 options. Mbaizo in 2025 would be the only uncertainty.

That creates plenty of time to assess the next generation of center backs (Brandan Craig, Olwethu Makhanya, Neil Pierre), goalkeepers (Andrew Rick, ???), and defensive midfielders (Jesus Bueno, possibly Carlos Rojas).

The only remaining question would be who will join Harriel as an outside back on the left after Wagner. But now there are three or four years to find him.


  1. Do the Union really need to sign a backup to Blake? For the few games he misses (likely in Portland due to MLS scheduling stupidity) and a few games during COPA America (assuming Martinez doesn’t injure him when Venezuela and Jamaica meet), how many games would a backup likely be playing? Why not let one or two of the Union 2 keepers have a shot for those few games so they can start to see what they have?

    • Yes they do. Bendik left. And he was already a definite downgrade. We don’t need to fall back to whoever was below him.

    • Their personal character strength would need to be sufficient that if they got shelled they would not be ruined as prospects.
      WE all know basic training drill sergeants have fearsome reputations. But a destroyed recruit is no use to anybody. The judgment has to be sound how far to push, how much the grunt can take.
      I don’t know that any of the teenagers are ready, and Trent seems to me o have been treated as a squad player.
      If Tanner thought he had a backup in house, I doubt he would have said what he said at the end-of-year presser.
      And given they way they run practices, most days they want four with the first team. Rick is already one of them, has been since the middle of last summer. He’s been under Coach Wheddon’s full scrutiny for a while now.
      In the unlikely event that Jamaica made the Copa America final, and the Union advanced to the Open cup quarterfinals, Blake and Lowe would miss 6 MLS games and the OC quarterfinal. Seven games is unlikely as the worst case, but is not an insignificant number.
      Blake missing seven games due to injury would be considered a major issue.

    • We absolutely dropped points when Bendik filled in for Blake last season. Those points can be valuable. 1 more in 2022 and the Union would have won its second Supporters Shield and hosted the MLS Cup Final. Might have grabbed that trophy, too, if the match had been held in Chester.

      I’d support getting a solid backup who can fill in for international duty, injury Open Cup matches, etc.

  2. I thought we saw that Torres had his option picked up? That implies he’s staying, right?

    • Means the club still controls him, that he cannot walk as a free agent for nothing.
      You may be correct, but lineup card behaviors last year strongly suggest otherwise.
      Curtin being positive at the end of the year could have been protecting his roster value. Running him down then would decrease his value as a tradeable asset.

  3. I’m glad in the end that Wagner is staying and will get a second chance to earn back the trust and respect of the fans. It would have been tough for him to have left the team given how important he has been to this club’s success since he joined. I’m very much willing to grant him that chance. Just don’t let it happen again.

    • I’m still burning a bit that the instigator, Wood, got off with no sanction at all. Not agreeing with Wagner’s reaction but Wood verbally attacked Wagner’s family, then went and cried to the officials about Wagner’s comment. This was not handled well at all by MLS from my perspective. Welcome back Kai Wagner, no need to earn my trust, you already did!!!

      • Hear Hear. From all the drama you’d think Wagner murdered someone. One wonders how much Wagner’s nationality factors into the sanctimonious reactions.

        He admitted it, apologized and paid a penalty in a number of ways. Time to move on and cheer his contributions to the team.

  4. And while Wagner stays, Nelson Pierre is heading to Europe (Sweden) on a 1 year loan.

    • Makes sense, he won’t get first team playing time here.

    • With 100% certainty Nelson Pierre would score more gols than Chris Donovan will.
      I can’t figure it. Someone help me understand.

      • Donovan scored a couple of really big goals last season which is more than can be said for some of the other forwards on the team. That being said, Pierre probably has more potential so the Union are probably hoping he’ll get more playing time and some experience that he wouldn’t get in Chester.

      • This is an advertising roll out. Give him exposure out in the market. Expecting to drum up interest and sell.

      • +1 El Pachy… Donovan is nice, but that is it. I’d rather take a chance with Pierre. Let’s hope he plays a lot and comes back a Union player (as opposed to U II).

      • With deep respect, Mighty Elephant, … I have to disagree.
        The evidence of production on the pitch last season in MLS NEXT Pro directly contradicts the idea that Nelson Pierre will score more goals than Chris Donovan.
        Last year for Union II Donovan scored 6 goals in 11 appearances,all starts, in 757 minutes. Pierre scored 4 in 27 appearances, 15 of them starts, and 1,422 minutes. Donovan scored 50% more goals in fractionally more than half the minutes (53%). Their shots on target are equal – 12 each.
        When Union II had to win the game and Donovan was available he played. By the end of the season Pierre rarely started. He was first striker sub off the bench.
        We have to agree to disagree on this one in the present day.
        The future is yet to unfold. I join you in hoping that Pierre has high potential for MLS success as a striker.

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