The Philadelphia Union II season came to a close Saturday night in Pittsburgh with a 2-1 loss to the playoff-bound Riverhounds. They finished with a W-L-T record of 2-11-3 but had plenty of bright and entertaining moments to give a glimpse into what the future might hold for the next players to follow the pipeline from academy to the first team.
Beyond that, there’s a lot we don’t know. Here are some questions facing the organization with the end of the USL Championship campaign.
Will Union II Play in the USL Championship in 2021?
It’s no secret the USL leadership is looking for ways to grow out the footprint of League One. MLS reserve sides is one way they’ve built that third division pro league and there has been pressure on MLS teams to field their development squads at the lower level, where they can better compete on the field. Travel costs are a big concern for teams looking at competing at that level though. A move of the Union II and other MLS 2 teams in the region could help solidify that league and enable other independent teams (Harrisburg, Rochester?) to come on board.
The possibility also exists that the Union II and other MLS 2 teams jump ship altogether and start their own league. MLS now has their own youth league with MLS Next so a U23-type league could be the next logical step if they want to essentially build their own development path and sever ties with USL.
Who Will Be the Coach?
The decision to replace Brendan Burke after the 2019 season was surprising given his history with the organization but it was also part of an overall shift that included the rebrand from Bethlehem Steel to Union II. There’s no question now that this is strictly a development team and it takes a coach fully on board with that approach to make it work. Sven Gartung proved to not be a good fit with the organization but Marlon LeBlanc showed he was more than up to the task taking over as the interim coach in August. This was no surprise given his success at West Virginia and his embrace of the system as a father of a promising academy player. Lifting the interim tag and having him as the head coach going into 2021 would make a ton of sense.
Who Will Be Back?
We know that Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn and Nathan Harriel will likely be back in some capacity with the second team next season on loan from the first team but there are plenty of questions beyond that in terms of what players will be under contract in 2021. Zach Zandi, Issa Rayyan, Jamoi Topey, Yomi Scintu, Ben Ofeimu, Shanyder Borgelin, Saed Diaz, Selmir Miscic and Steve Kingue were among the holdovers of USL contracted players from 2019 while David Rabadan joined on loan from Spain.
Expect to see a number of departures among this group and perhaps a signing or two if any to the first team for 2021. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a player like Zandi, who was out with an injury for much of the season, starring for another USL side next year along with any number of players who aren’t in the plans to find other opportunities.
Axel Picazo isn’t on the aforementioned list because he was not on a pro contract, but look for him to be playing professionally somewhere in 2021. Danny Flores returned to the squad as an amateur after graduating from YSC Academy so he could either be back with Union II or leave to seek other opportunities.
Other academy players you’d expect to see return in 2021 include Ben Martino and Mitch Budler, defenders Anton Sorenson and Dante Huckaby, defender/midfielder Brandan Craig, defender/midfielder Jack Jasinski, midfielders Quinn Sullivan and Sean Bettenhausen and forwards Patrick Bohui and Caden Stafford. Stafford (Maryland), Huckaby (Louisville), Martino (Virginia Tech) and Bettenhausen (Penn State) are all high school seniors and have committed to college programs for next fall.
What Academy Players Will We See Next Season?
With a new season will come opportunities for players on the U17 team to push their way into Union II. Covid-19 has limited those opportunities for training, but there are a number of players who will get a chance to be part of the Union II group in 2021. That will likely include players like Gael Medrano, new recruit Bajung Darboe, Sam Jones, Marcello Mazzola, Dylan Lacey, Jackson Gilman, Caden Grabfelder, Logan Oliver, Dominic Dubon and others.
Where there were more questions in the past about what players would move up the pipeline when, under Sporting Director Ernst Tanner there’s been a more concerted effort to move players up to expose them to new challenges and get them on the path to becoming pros by 17 and first team contributors by 19. Look for that to continue in 2021 as players who impress at the younger age groups get a chance to prove themselves in training and in games with Union II.
Who Are the Next Homegrown Players from Union II?
The 2021 homegrown trio of McGlynn, Aaronson and Harriel are all good candidates to be the next in line to not only star with the first team but get interest and offers from abroad. In terms of players who are pushing for pro contracts, Brandan Craig and Quinn Sullivan are both obvious candidates and Anton Sorenson has been mighty impressive at left back. Bajung Darboe only turns 14 in November but he was highly sought after by just about every MLS team so he’ll be one to watch along with Gael Medrano and Marcello Mazzola, who are the U17s two go-to goal scorers right now. Huckaby has been a rock and Stafford has come on strong of late so both could be in position to pass on their scholarship offers for college to stay on through the rest of the 2021 season. There’s a lot that can happen between now and then though so we will see.
There is talk of the Union II playing some friendlies against top local amateur teams to stay sharp through the fall since there is no longer a U19 team for many of academy age players to get minutes playing in MLS Next.
The team’s season ended in 2019 on October 19 and it wasn’t until November 27 that roster decisions were announced so things could be pretty quiet on the Union II front otherwise for the next several weeks. Or they could always announce a decision about their head coach and players for 2021 earlier. We’ll just have to wait and see.