The Philadelphia Union organization didn’t see a ton of changes on the player personnel side throughout the 2018 campaign, but signs are pointing to plenty of changes in the offseason, particularly at Bethlehem Steel.
In regards to the first team, Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has said that he’d like to see changes to the team’s style and identity, which will necessitate changes to the personnel there. The next couple months will be Tanner’s first chance to remake the roster. His only signing to date was for reserve striker Kacper Przybylko, who filled the international slot vacated when Eric Ayuk was transferred to Turkey, but the target forward, who has an option for 2019, did not feature for his new team down the stretch.
Whether Borek Dočkal and head coach Jim Curtin will return are the two biggest question marks entering the offseason. Dockal is likely a no given the large transfer fee his Chinese Super League club will probably demand and Curtin is a maybe at this point. Beyond that, it’s a bit of guesswork.
Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke said an announcement will be made this week about returning players for 2019 and that there will be significant changes. This is in part because of a stated goal from Tanner to get even younger with the second-division squad.
Here’s a look at the organization depth chart.
While there is always the possibility of a sale, Andre Blake should be back leading the team from the back in 2019. John McCarthy and Jake McGuire have both done well as his backups and earning minutes at Steel but McCarthy may have options to play more elsewhere if another team in the league wants to give him a chance to battle for a starting job. Tomas Romero (Georgetown) and Kris Shakes (Penn State) are both committed to college programs next fall but either or both could just as likely stay on with the organization depending on what happens with McCarthy and McGuire.
Ray Gaddis got the bulk of the minutes at left back this season and struggled mightily in the most important games. Fabinho’s best days are likely behind him and while showing promise (and currently wearing the captain’s armband for the U.S. U20s) Matthew Real wasn’t convincing in his limited first team appearances this season. Prosper Chiluya, who will be 21 in April, made 16 appearances for Bethlehem Steel FC while on loan from his native Zambia but is likely not returning. At the academy level, U17 left back Zephyn Brockert-Kress and U19 left back A.J. Cousins will be aiming to impress the Steel staff. U15 left back Ryan Lau is also waiting in the wings.
Keegan Rosenberry had a solid season after a forgettable 2017, but didn’t quite achieve his lofty personal goal of making it back onto the USMNT radar. Olivier Mbaizo showed a lot of promise at the Steel level and made one appearance for the first team but will need to prove his value next season since he is taking up an all-important international roster spot. Brandan Craig is the most promising prospect at the position in the academy but he’s still competing at the U15 and U16 level. Given his leadership, work ethic and versatility it would be great to see Matt Mahoney back with Steel next season.
Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie are good bets to be the opening day starters. Jack Elliott could be back but the 2017 Rookie of the Year finalist also has some trade value. Josh Yaro needs to try to resurrect his career elsewhere at this point and while Richie Marquez would be a serviceable backup to have available it wouldn’t be surprising if he is playing elsewhere next season. Ben Ofeimu is committed to Penn State for 2019 but will likely be following Trusty’s lead as opposed to McKenzie’s (one season at Wake Forest). Sekou Soumah may be the most promising center back prospect not named Ben in the academy right now and U17 midfielder/defender Dante Huckaby is intriguing both as a center back and No. 6.
Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin will both likely be back in 2019, leaving Derrick Jones as the odd man out under the current formation. Jones needs to be earning regular minutes and be afforded the chance to play through inconsistency at the highest level since he has nothing left to prove in USL. Anthony Fontana is in a similar position though he has yet to dominate USL the way Jones has. Warren Creavalle spent most of the season above Jones in the depth chart but may be in need of a change of scenery at this point in his career.
At the Steel level, James Chambers should get a farewell season like Fred got as a transition from playing to coaching (Chambers is currently coaching a U11 team in the Pre-Academy) and Drew Skundrich impressed when he played but it’s hard to say whether he’ll return. Omar Holness and 18-year-old Antonio Lokwa, who didn't feature for Steel after being loaned to the team from the Czech Republic, are question marks to return.
At the academy level, U19 midfielder Cole Turner is committed to the Naval Academy for 2019 while U17 midfielder Danny Luis Flores and midfielder/defender Dante Huckaby will look to impress the Steel staff.
Fafa Picault tied for the team lead in goals this season with 10 so it would be a surprise if he isn’t back, but the rest of the depth chart is full of question marks. How much does Ilsinho have left in the tank? Does David Accam get a bounce back year? Where will Fabian Herbers and Marcus Epps be next season (probably not on the Union)?
Michee Ngalina had a solid rookie season with Steel FC and has been a regular in training with the first team so he could be back in a first team roster spot next season. Santi Moar had another strong season with Steel FC but it’s questionable whether he showed enough to impress the new boss, especially since he’s 25. Chris Nanco will likely be elsewhere next season. Selmir Miscic, who signed a pro USL deal in September, will be back looking to make an impact in USL (which will be known as the USL Championship 2019). Among the academy prospects, Shaynder Borgelin made some strides training with Steel and Tonny Temple will have a few more months to impress before camp opens at NC State for the fall season.
If Borek Dockal, who led the league in assists with 18, returns to Chester next season it would be a surprise. It would also save Tanner the trouble of finding a new No. 10. That’s a big unknown right now but one thing that is known is that Brenden Aaronson will officially join the first team roster for 2019. Zach Zandi is a candidate to be signed out of Villanova, but he’d likely only fill Adam Najem’s role as Steel FC regular (Najem is almost certainly going elsewhere). Aaronson’s younger brother Paxten Aaronson at the U16 level is another promising future prospect at the no. 10 position.
Cory Burke had a great season — and was certainly a surprise — but that doesn’t rule out Tanner making a big splash by signing a higher profile No. 9. CJ Sapong should be a bench option along with the aforementioned Pryzbylko while Jay Simpson’s likely departure will free up some cash.
Faris showed a ton of potential during his first season with Steel and looked the part training with the first team, but is still very raw (and young at 18). Patrick Bohui continues to impress with the U17s and at the U.S. youth international level and Nelson Pierre is growing in stature with the U15s.
With the way the 2018 season ended, the Union are going to need to solidify their front line, figure out the No. 10 position and who the head coach is going to be while figuring out what the best mix of experienced versus young players is so the first team can compete and Steel FC can provide meaningful minutes to developing players in a competitive environment. With the pathway to the first team now well-established, the academy needs to continue doing what it’s been doing to prepare the next player to step up and take advantage of the opportunities as they come.