Analysis / Union / Union II

Last weekend the organization made an exception to a major rule

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union II Communications

Sometime last Thursday the Philadelphia Union’s technical staff did NOT place the needs of the first team ahead of those of the second.

Instead, it carefully balanced both by deliberately violating a core principle of the organization’s professional player development philosophy. In consequence, the first team won 3-1 over Portland in Portland early Sunday morning, and Union II beat New England Revolution II 2-1 three thousand miles away later that same day.

The exception

The first team travelled to Oregon with only four substitute field players. It could have done so with six.

The decision-makers left two first team bench players, Nick Pariano (M) and Jamir Berdecio (RB), in Chester to start 14 ½ hours later the next afternoon for the second team. Both young men need development minutes and were not likely to get them in Portland. This move meant the second team had more substitutes on its bench for New England (6) than the first team did for Portland (5).

From day one of the second team’s existence under Earnie Stewart and Brendan Burke, explanation of the relationship between the two squads has always been that the needs of the first team fulfilled its label. They came first.

This past weekend the needs of the two sides were carefully balanced rather than pre-empted by the first team. And both sides won. Short-handed Union II followed big brother’s footsteps  by beating Revs II for the first time since 2022.


It is an over-simplified sportswriter’s convention that head coaches choose game day rosters and starting lineups.

That has not been true with the Philadelphia Union ever since Earnie Stewart became Sporting Director. Those choices have resulted from collective discussions in which Stewart, as Sporting Director, had the final say. Three of the voices in those discussions are certain: the Sporting Director, and the two Head Coaches. Other suspected speakers include the Academy Director, the Director of Scouting, and the Player Performance Analyst.

Marlon LeBlanc was already discussing Sunday’s Union II roster with Ernst Tanner less than an hour after the Toronto win’s final whistle. It’s reasonable to suspect that Jim Curtin may have advocated challenging his team with a truly thin bench for Portland to shock them into re-learning how to make an extraordinary effort in order to succeed.

The success they achieved will go a long way towards counterbalancing their memory of the Pachuca debacle.

Jeremy Rafanello

The technical staff made two key judgments.

The first-team one concerned the deployment and endurance of Jeremy Rafanello. They prioritized the cohesion of in-house age over youthful position experience gained elsewhere when they chose Rafanello over Sanders Ngabo.

Rafanello has always been an attacker. In the Union’s Academy, during his cameos with Bethlehem, at Penn State, in Denmark with FC Helsingor, at Indy Eleven, with New York Red Bull II, and most recently for Union II, he has always played as either a striker or an attacking midfielder, partly because he has a thunderous long-distance shot.

We have no idea how the technical staff first thought of the Delran NJ man as a defensive midfielder. He never played there last year for Union II. We speculate that as a first-team “benchie” he may have been called on to do so in practice exercises. We have overheard him vigorously counsel younger Union II players to always be prepared to do anything necessary in every practice and presumably he practices what he preaches.

For at least the Portland game his playing as a defensive mid proved excellent. Playing next to Alejandro Bedoya’s leadership, experience, and intelligence had to help. But on the night Rafanello himself had to do his job.

Self-interest requires seizing every opportunity. His contract for this year was a club-exercised option, not a guarantee. It is the same for 2025. The Portland match is a positive thought-provoking datum.

Gavin Wetzel and Randy Meneses

The second key decision was how to populate the second team at center back.

The top three candidates were unavailable. Olwethu Makhanya was in Portland as the single backup to Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. Neil Pierre was in Morocco with the US U19s preparing to defeat England Sunday morning 3-2. Carlos Rojas was still unable to practice as he  worked through an injury requiring time, patience, and a long-term view.

Union Academy player Gavin Wetzel helped anchor the 2022 U17s capture of MLS NEXT Cup, but he had never seen the field for Union II, only the bench, beginning last August. Ecuadorian loanee Randy Meneses has so far seemed a jack of all trades in practice as a midfielder, an outside back, and a center back.

The chosen two unknowns anchored the defense well. Shots were blocked. Charging goalkeeper Mike Sheridan was backstopped with at least one full-blown save credited among the pair. Most impressively, positioning and anticipation became effective after the Revs ninth minute surprise.

A seemingly potent attack from a side that had defeated Philly II four consecutive times last year was held scoreless for the final 81 minutes (plus 14 minutes from both stoppages) of the match. Defense is a collective effort, as Director Goalkeeping Phil Wheddon would almost certainly say, but it does not happen without strong center back play.

Full marks to Wetzel and Meneses. Their success keystoned meaning into Kyle Tucker’s own goal-forcing free kick and Sal Olivas’ game-winning conversion of Cavan Sullivan’s debut assist.

Both professional teams rose to the challenge of the organization having ten professional players away for the weekend’s internationals. The technical staff mapped the path, the first team cleared it, and the second team followed on.


  1. John P. O'Donnell says:

    Good article Tim. I watched both games and of course I gave them little chance of winning in Portland. It was good to see our two DP players lead the way and the young players making an impact in the game.
    Everyone thinks the Union will sell Carranza this summer but I don’t see it. He wants to go to certain teams and with his contract running out he might as well wait and he a free agent.
    Would love to see the Union make him the highest paid player and at least tempt him to stay, with the promise they’ll sell if there is an offer that he wants. At some point you would like to see the Union rewarded for their biggest assets.

    • pragmatist says:

      I think this is the biggest point with Carranza. He doesn’t want to move just for the sake of moving. He wants to go to specific places, wherever they may be. If those teams aren’t interested in paying the transfer fee, that leads to two questions:
      Will he try to move to one of those clubs as a free agent?
      If they aren’t winning to pay $6M (not a big sum in Euro transfer dollars), does that mean they don’t value him enough to play much?
      His future is fascinating from a few perspectives. I would love to have him here long-term, but if he leaves, I really hope we get some return for him.

  2. Thank you, Tim. Very interesting read.

  3. Excellent article! Appreciate the full coverage and insight!

  4. paulcontinuum22 says:

    At least Philly sports teams aren’t the only ones who run into trap games. This was Portland’s. The U may have saved their season. Well done, Sons of Ben.
    Roster news: Olivier Giroud to LAFC after Euro 2024 ends.

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