The most important Union development of 2024

Photo @PhilaUnionII

The most significant development of the 2024 season is not occurring on the Philadelphia Union’s game pitches but on Union II’s. It is not the departure of Julian Carranza but the development of Union II’s defense.

Union II leads the Eastern Conference and lies one point behind St Louis and North Texas in the West (currently tied for the overall league lead). Marlon LeBlanc’s side leads MLS Next Pro in goals scored (33) and goal difference (16) and lies third in goals allowed (17), tied with FC Cincinnati. As old coaches know, the defensive line starts the attack, in addition to suppressing that of its opponents.

The “king” is gone

Julian Carranza’s transfer to Feyenoord has been officially confirmed. He is the first Union player acquired from outside the organization and capable of dominating play in MLS who has been sold to a significantly better league. This transfer demonstrates the Union’s success in their business plan of selling players, both from their Academy and from outside. Despite the small fee, Carranza’s transfer marks a milestone for the organization, joining other successful player sales such as Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Tannenwald of The Inquirer explained that Carranza hopes to make the Argentinian national team for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Carranza thinks Argentina will need depth at striker behind its two aging big names, Lionel Messi and Angel di Maria. Carranza believes he would have a better chance to break into the group if he plays in a better-known European league for a team participating in UEFA’s Champions League. (For 2024-25, UEFA’s Champions League has a new format, and as the second-place finisher in Europe’s sixth-ranked league, Feyenoord qualifies directly to the tournament’s 36-team “league phase,” the equivalent of the old “group stage” that began the tournament proper. Click here.)

No immediate “like-for-like” striker signing to replace Carranza, whether in proven quality, experience, production, or money spent in acquisition, is anticipated. Fans are already frustrated as recent years of Union success have raised expectations dramatically.

The frustration ignores the club’s philosophy, business plan, and past behavior. Carranza and Uhre did not arrive until 2022. By that time, the current defense and midfield had already been assembled and tested, and Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie had already been sold to provide capital, which probably helped pay the new bills.

The steadily increasing number of secondary owner investors suggests that principal owner Jay Sugarman’s business style is expected to continue. Characteristic descriptors of that style are “disciplined,” “long-term,” and “plan-adherent.”

Roster assets depreciate

Sporting Director Ernst Tanner is not brash, flashy, or showy. However, if you listen consistently, he will quietly tell you the plan. When speaking publicly, he addresses not only fans, but also his technical staff and present and future players. Consequently, he is circumspect but truthful.

Last December, he mentioned that the Union is already transitioning into its next five-year roster cycle. This transition is inevitable because players age. To put it more bluntly, as players get older, the value of their roster assets decrease.

Although Alejandro Bedoya remains a skilled player, the former Captain exemplifies this issue. Earlier in the season, his presence on the field notably bolstered the team’s performance. However, he has visibly slowed down in his defensive recovery sprints, and he now seems more prone to soft-tissue fatigue injuries. Bedoya will never be called an ironman again, barring future creation of a ferroalloy statue.

And Bedoya only heads the Union’s aging queue. In descending order he is closely followed by Andre Blake, Jackob Glesnes, Jack Elliott, Jose Martinez, and Mikael Uhre. Daniel Gazdag and Kai Wagner will soon join the line.

Union II

Instead of Carranza leaving, the most important development of the 2024 season is that on the second team a new defense is taking shape. It consists in its central core of first-team deeper reserves “playing down.”

It’s important to note that MLS NEXT Pro is not yet at the same level as the old USL Championship, and MLS in 2024 is noticeably better than it was in 2018.Therefore, the jump from division three to division one in 2024 is much greater than the one Auston Trusty, Brendan Aaronson, and Mark McKenzie made from the Academy to the USL Championship’s Bethlehem Steel and then further to the Union itself. Another thing to consider is that Marlon LeBlanc’s Union II is younger than Brendan Burke’s Bethlehem was and it lacks a de facto player-coach with the same impact as James Chambers.

Having said that, single six defensive midfielder Sanders Ngabo and left center back Olwethu Makhanya look like the real deal to PSP’s eyes. They dominate in MLS NEXT Pro. Right center back Neil Pierre and goalkeeper Andrew Rick also excel, if allowances are made for Pierre not yet being 17 and Rick only recently turning 18. Rick will never have Andre Blake’s superbly quick reflexes, but he has the potential to develop into a player similar to Matt Freese (who incidentally is performing very well for NYC FC this season).

In front of these four central channel defenders, three young midfielders are emerging. A highlight during the second half of Union II’s season might be watching David Vazquez, CJ Olney, and Cavan Sullivan play together. Vazquez and Sullivan are already first-team Homegrowns, and we predict Olney to join them as soon as there is room on the roster, for example, if Jack McGlynn were to leave following the Olympics.

Sometime in the next 18 months, when both Andre Blake and Daniel Gazdag are with Jamaica and Hungary, a Union starting lineup as follows might appear (ages are from mid-June ’24).

Pos Age Player
GK 18.4 Andrew Rick
LB 27.3 Kai Wagner (C)
LCB 20.1 Olwethu Makhanya
RCB 16.7 Neil Pierre
RB 23.1 Nathan Harriel
DM 19.9 Sanders Ngabo
LM 17.5 CJ Olney
RM 18.3 David Vazquez
AM 14.7 Cavan Sullivan
S 20.2 Quinn Sullivan
S 20.5 Markus Anderson

We doubt the side above would win all its matches immediately. But it would grow and become ready for the Sporting Director to complete it with two imported strikers, as he did during the off-season preceding 2022.

Pipeline postscript

While it’s easy to assume that future first-team strikers may be imported, that does not mean the Union aren’t trying to develop their own. It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on Eddy Davis III, who is a 2024 graduate of the Academy. When he finished school, it was uncertain whether he would choose to pursue soccer at the college level or turn professional.

Below is the current pool of young strikers at the older end of the Union’s developmental pipeline. Other teams have the option to sign Academy players by moderately compensating the Union. This happened previously with Marcos Zambrano. Additionally, new signings to the Academy, such as the U16 FC Delco striker who dominated in the recent MLS NEXT Cup U16 semifinal, cannot be predicted.

There are some uncertainties surrounding the situations of Jose Riasco and Nelson Pierre. Riasco has been on loan with Boston River in Uruguay’s top division since mid-summer 2023. Although in December Tanner said he wanted to sign Riasco to the first team, it’s unclear whether the Union intends to sign him or increase his transfer value. Similarly, Pierre has been on loan in Sweden’s second division with Skovde AIK, and his future is also unclear as his contract is guaranteed through the 2026 season.

Chris Donovan’s contract has been confirmed as guaranteed through 2025, while Quinn Sullivan’s deal has been officially described by MLS as having a club option for 2025.

The future striker pipeline. (’24 Pro minutes as of July 2, 2024)

Pos Age Player 2nd country Team ’24 Professional Minutes
S/M 20.2 Quinn Sullivan Germany 1st 1,540
S 23.9 Chris Donovan 1st & 2nd 232 + 261
S 20.5 Markus Anderson 1st & 2nd 92 + 131
S 18.0 Sal Olivas Mexico 2nd 768
S 19.7 Leandro Soria 2nd 381
S 18.0 Eddy Davis III 2nd 1,004
S 16.8 Diego Rocio Mexico U17s 19
S 16.0 Jamir Johnson Jamaica U17s 36
S 16.0 Anisse Saidi Tunisia U17s 17
W 2008 Gabriel Wesseh U16s 0
W 16.0 Nehan Hassan Bangladesh U16s 0
S 20.4 Jose Riasco Venezuela 2nd 135 (on loan)
S 19.3 Nelson Pierre Haiti 1st 111 (on loan)

Logic suggests that Wesseh and Hassan will be the main offensive players for the U17s in the upcoming Academy season. Wesseh was born in 2008. Game minutes for Riasco and Nelson Pierre are unofficial and sourced from the internet.


  1. Brady Newsome says:

    Thanks for writing this – Interesting read. I’m unsure if this article was gear to be focused on players currently under contract.

    However, I did see the future pipeline and still I find it hard to believe there is no mention of Frankie Westfield. When I look at the 1st team there is a glaring void in the wing back position. Nate has solidified the right side; like wise for Kai on the left. However, where is depth?

    Every time I watch him the kids stands out. Westfield is a player that has been in the system for a number of years. Versatile, proven leader who has played every position behind the 10 at a very high level since I’ve started following the club when he was still a youth. I certain he leads the team in minutes, games played and is near the top in goals & assists all while playing out of his natural right back position.

    From the rumors that continue to surface on social media he’s the next homegrown signing, but yet still no mention to his relevance in the pipeline which I find hard to believe.

    • Tim Jones says:

      The only quibble I have with what Brady says is that Westfield has played more effectively on the left side this season than he did on the right side last year..
      The decision to turn pro is a complex, serious one. When Devin DeCorte turned pro with Anderlecht he left a few hundred thousand dollars of tuition money from Stanford on the table.
      That dimension aside, when I spoke with him earlier in the season, it was clear that a professional contract was an option firmly n his mind.
      Under the old roster rules, there may be no place to put him on the first team right now. There is no reliable information currently available about whatever new roster rules there may happen to be. I was interested to see David Vazquez — who has been announced as a first team and Homegrown player — was announced as a Home grown off roster player in need of a short-term contract agreement to sit the first team’s bench for a game several days ago. But I can only speculate what that means about new roster rules.
      Money has sometimes been an issue in past negotiations for first pro contracts, e.g., Tomas Romero many years ago if those rumors were true, but I have no reliable idea about Westfield’s circumstance in the present day. I share your curiosity.

  2. It’s interesting to imagine how the current players in the pipeline might hit their potential. But, just looking at the hypothetical lineup for next summer, we should keep in mind that the Union’s most successful teams were not primarily Homegrowns. Of the 14 players who played over 1,000 minutes in MLS for the Union in 2022, only two were Homegrowns, and only three were under the age of 22. And, as Tim notes in the article, it remains a very big jump from Next PRO to MLS. It seems very unlikely to me that the hypothetical XI could be competitive in MLS in 2024 — they’d need at least six or seven players on the field over 23, not two.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Always a privilege to hear from an emeritus managing Editor.
      I would point out that two of the central core defensive six I present above are imports not homegrowns, namely Ngabo and Makhanya.
      I would further point out in support of Peter’s point that the only names known to me are academy players. I have no way to anticipate what overseas players may be under consideration by Tanner’s scouts and technical staff. To illustrate, in May of 2023 Carlos Rojas was totally unknown to me. This May so was Leandro Soria. This past February so was Markus Anderson.
      The academy is not the only source known to the Union. But it is the only source known to me, which is a serious flaw in any analysis I produce.

  3. Thinking back on my favorite Union players and those that had a major impact on our wins there
    are very few from the accademy system who stayed here long enough to have a major impact on increasing wins for the first team. Aaronson Sr. Is the only one who comes to mind . Mc kenzie and Trusty were here for too short of a period. This team is at its best when it has a core of skilled vets with a smattering of talented younger players coming in late or starting in specific matches for tactical reasons. I am not employed by the Union so I am looking at this from a fans point of view . Its hard to sit back and watch this team lose and get any satisfaction that the Union management team are following there business plan.

  4. paulcontinuum22 says:

    At this point, ennui has set in. 2024 is done; this is MLS’ version of The Walking Dead.

  5. OneManWolfpack says:

    You must add proven players to the youth you cultivate to be successful in MLS… unless you basically just buy everyone, like LAFC, which the Union will never do. To add no one and just rely on youth is just unacceptable. Add players this winter (at worst – any summer adds would be more impactful next season anyway) or expect the same results as this season.

  6. Tim Jones says:

    After the piece went to press, two Union teenagers were announced as participants in the MLS NEXT All-star game that will be part of the events of the MLS All-Star game, striker Diego Rocia and attacking midfielder Cavan Sullivan.

    • Food for thought … does one consider, with the mental softness displayed by our current national team and the at times insolated unreal and pampered environment some of these kids come up in within the academy setting where they are clearly the chosen few to progress on a professional pathway and all other players are basically there to serve that development, an All Star Game for a bunch of 15 and 16 years old IS one part of the problem.
      That would be a yes from an elephant with a kid who as of yet remains gum stuck on the bottom of the shoe— of US Soccer locally.
      We’re coming —and it will not be with handshakes and mental softness.

  7. Congrats! To the Sullivan Family
    … making history!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *