“There’s more to come,” Philadelphia Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner said when addressing the media in his first press conference since the Union’s 2021 roster moves were announced last week.
Tanner gave a positive assessment of the 2020 season, one that included winning the club’s first major trophy in the Supporters’ Shield and earning a future appearance in the Concacaf Champions League. But Tanner also stressed that there is still work to be done.
“It is harder to stay at the top than reach the top.”
The Union finished with a league-best twenty goals against and a goals against average of 0.87, more than half a goal less than in 2019. The team also tied for third in goals scored with a 1.9 goals per game average, and ten of those goals came from homegrowns. The Union sold its first homegrown in Brenden Aaronson, and more players could follow, but it appears the club will head into 2021 with its core intact after renewing options on several key players and offloading others who made minor contributions or saw limited to no action.
But the early exit in the MLS Playoffs cannot be overlooked, and despite another season of growth, Tanner stated, “We will do something with almost every part of the roster.”
Here’s a look at the team’s offseason needs.
The two biggest midfield concerns heading into the offseason are replacing Aaronson and managing captain Alejandro Bedoya’s playing load. Aaronson shouldered a difficult burden of leading the Union attack, which produced mostly positive results. The MLS Best XI winner and soon-to-be Red Bull Salzburg player showed tremendous potential as he set up some of the team’s best goals of the season and scored his own share of dazzlers. But the Union also learned that they can’t rely on inexperience in crucial games as evidence by the team’s play late in the season during tighter, more physical contests.
There’s a reason why Columbus, New England, Seattle, and Minnesota reached the final four of the MLS playoffs: Lucas Zelarayán, Carles Gil, Nicolás Lodeiro, and Emanuel Reynoso. The value of an elite playmaker makes all the difference when opponents bunker down, which happens a lot in MLS and will likely continue in 2021. Caleb Porter made a career of that style in Portland and now Columbus, and Bruce Arena is no stranger to compact defenses. Both coaches exposed the Union’s inability to combine and break down organized back lines, and that weakness will be magnified without a creative veteran.
When asked about the Union’s need of a playmaker, Tanner said, “We might not forget that Paxten is one year younger than Brenden when he stepped in so we’re probably going to bring in a number 10. At the same time Anthony (Fontana) can do various jobs as well. We used him as a number 8, a number 10, and he can play as a second striker. He really stepped up and he will get his chance.”
Fontana showed his inexperience in the 10 role this season. He had trouble finding the ball and appeared lost at times but made a bigger impact higher up the field, stretching the back line. He made major contributions during the mid-season congestion when results were hard to come by. His double against the Revs in September and goals against D.C. and New England in back-to-back starts proved his growing confidence and emergence as an attacking threat. Fontana finished with six goals in just over 500 minutes.
As the Union’s philosophy of building from within begins to materialize, their patience in youth will continue. Curtin told Pablo Mauer of The Athletic. “It used to be something that we had discussions about all the time. ‘If we just add one of these types of guys, or if we just add two more pieces’. But I don’t think like that anymore. It’s been a hard process to get to that mindset, but now we almost kind of embrace not having that guy.” But the Union have also never been on the cusp of an MLS Cup, with that one piece potentially being the difference.
It’s unlikely that Cole Turner or Jack de Vries are the answer as they continue to develop, but the two could see increased playing time as Curtin will be forced to manage Alejandro Bedoya’s minutes in a full 2021 season. Bedoya’s experience proved invaluable in 2020, and he was the Union’s most important player behind Andre Blake. All that Bedoya does for the Union—his movement off the ball, his ability to control the pace of the game, his tackling, and his leadership qualities—will be crucial as the Union try to maintain a high level of play with a bigger target on their backs. Bedoya will turn 34 early in 2021.
Jamiro Monteiro was the Union’s best player on the field for large stretches of the season and proved his versatility playing multiple positions in the midfield, but the team will likely lose him at various times for World Cup qualifying next season. Ilsinho proved that he’s still a force off the bench and should continue to be the first player up when the team needs a spark. With the departure of Warren Creavalle, many fans will wonder if we’ll see Matej Oravec in 2021, one of the Union’s more puzzling long-term projects.
The Union return three-fifths of their strike group from 2020 with the club deciding not to renew Andrew Wooten’s and Michee Ngalina’s contracts. Kacper Przybylko led the team in minutes played and finished the season as the team’s top scorer with 8 goals and 6 assists, but he also failed to score in the run of play during the last twelve games and was noticeably uninvolved in a majority of those late games. Cory Burke’s delayed return from an eighteen-month layoff due to visa complications and Covid and Andrew Wooten’s subpar play forced Curtin to keep Przybylko on the field during his struggles, a move that proved costly when the striker lost confidence. Burke finished the season playing five games, scoring in two of them but never had the time to make an impact, something the Union hope will change with a full preseason next year.
Sergio Santos also finished with eight goals, a majority of them coming in the second half of the season, including his hat-trick against Toronto in the Union’s decisive 5-0 win. Santos’ performances were jumbled, flashes of brilliance followed by moments of average play. His relationship with Przybylko never materialized as the partnership one would imagine from a top-scoring offense, a little bit like oil and water. Perhaps we will see more of Burke and Santos together, as they play similar styles and will force defenses to play the Union differently. Przybylko is a prototypical target and Santos and Burke offer versatility and a change of pace, so the Union will likely be looking for another linking forward, similar to the role Wooten played but with a higher caliber and more efficient strike rate.
Their final decision may come down to the acquisition of a new number 10. If the Union can’t find that elusive 10, look for them to make a medium-sized splash at striker with an experienced player from Europe or South America. Don’t expect Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann or Flamengo’s Bruno Henrique. The Union will likely re-allocate that new Aaronson money in other areas of the club before overspending on one player.
The biggest concerns are still in the “what if” stage but major concerns nonetheless. What if Mark McKenzie and Kai Wagner are no longer here at the start of the 2021 season? McKenzie has been rumored to be on Celtic’s radar for months and Wagner’s name has been linked in recent weeks with a potential move back to his native Germany. “At this moment, there is nothing on the table,” Tanner said of his two defenders. “But we are not blind and will wait until something comes.”
If McKenzie and Wagner are still on the roster, then the Union return an MLS-best backline that conceded the fewest goals in the 2020 regular season. If McKenzie goes, then Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes will be the center back pairing, which means the Union will need an upgrade.
Union II captain Brandan Craig played center back for most of the season but will likely serve more in an apprenticeship role in 2021, and Nathan Harriel is too new to the club to see important minutes. Another Glesnes-like pickup would be ideal as he proved to be an excellent acquisition once he settled in.
If Wagner goes, the next choice becomes a little less clear. Matt Real is the natural left-footed defender who filled in for a short period of the season when Wagner was out, but Olivier Mbaizo appeared to be the preferred replacement after playing well in place of Ray Gaddis, switching over to the left side for a number of games. Mbaizo’s recent call up to the Cameroon national team likely solidifies his place as the next man up, but this will be one situation to watch for in the coming months.
The Union return the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake and have a viable replacement in Matt Freese, so they are well covered between the pipes. But Joe Bendik’s potential departure (he’s out of contract) opens the door for an experienced back-up who could see more time if either Blake or Freese are taken away due to international duty or overseas interest respectively.
The Union are still built back to front, and with a large majority of their core returning, they’re well prepared for another promising season in multiple competitions. It’s likely we’ll see the 4-3-1-2 formation with the diamond midfield, sparing Bedoya’s legs and allowing for more fluidity throughout a dominant midfield. We may also see more switches to the 4-3-3 or an overloaded 4-2-3-1 when Ilsinho comes on, but a lot will depend on future offseason acquisitions and how the new pieces fit into an already functional system. And with a number of good young players needing playing time, the Union will likely integrate those fresh legs throughout the season as they balance an increase in games and travel and potential disruptions.