Right out of the gate let’s acknowledge that the transfer window is far from closed. It is entirely possible the Philadelphia Union add some major pieces to the roster and this whole article becomes pointless. But my gut tells me this is probably close to the roster we’re going to see on opening day. If it is…
Did the Union Do Enough?
I think this is an interesting question, and I think there are many ways to look at it. The goal of any off-season is obvious, right? Get better. Even champions will want to improve to keep the competition at bay. Did the Union get better? Maybe. Let’s examine this idea from a few different perspectives.
Did the team add more talent to the roster?
Perhaps the simplest way to analyze an off-season is to ask this question. Did the roster get more talented? Did we drop bad players for better players? Well, let’s look.
Out: Haris Medunjanin, Marco Fabian, Fafa Picault, Auston Trusty
In: Jack de Vries, Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, Matej Oravec, Cole Turner, Jakob Glesnes
At first blush it’s very difficult to view this as anything but disastrous. The four players shipped off combined for 8,141 minutes of play last season. They added 14 goals and 15 assists. These were major contributors to the team. Major contributors to a good team at that. The 2019 Union were a playoff team and the best team in franchise history. Medunjanin orchestrated the offense. Fafa’s speed stretched the field and kept opposition fullbacks pinned back. Marco may have not played up to his contract, but he provided goals in big moments (the playoffs). Trusty was a cemented starter on the back line for a significant portion of the season. We did not simply dump guys at the bottom of the depth chart here.
Meanwhile, the additions are two very young homegrown players, a CDM from the Slovakian league, a CDM from the Venezuelan league that Tanner called a “project,” and a CB from the Norwegian league. These are decidedly not big-name players. These aren’t even unknown players from big leagues. These are players we’ve never heard of from leagues we’ve barely heard of. Not what you would hope for from the resume of the players replacing the contributions from the players we shipped out.
However, it has to be said that Medunjanin came from the Israeli Premier League before joining the Union in 2017. Trusty was himself a homegrown player. Picault came from 2. Bundesliga. The players the Union shipped out, the major contributors, were also anything but “big name” guys. For other examples Kai Wagner came from the third tier in Germany and was arguably the best left back in the league last season. Kacper Przybylko came from the third tier in Germany and was sixth in the league for goals. It’s certainly not fair to suggest that players can’t be major contributors unless they’re big names from big leagues. Ernst Tanner has shown an aptitude for finding diamonds in the rough.
Still, it’s hard to argue that the team added more talent to the roster than what was shipped out. Is it possible? Absolutely. But we have no hard evidence to say any of these new guys will cut it in MLS competition. Meanwhile, we know we shipped out major contributors. All in all, I’d say it seems more likely that in terms of players in and out, the Union’s off-season has been a net negative for the team.
But the addition and subtraction of players is not the only way teams get player.
Are the players already on the team poised to get better?
That first section was pessimistic. Let’s be more hopeful.
The thing most fans get excited about in the offseason is new signings. And why not? Shiny new things are always exciting to talk about. We get to watch blurry highlight videos on YouTube set to amazing music. It’s great!
But as we discussed before, new doesn’t always mean better, and old doesn’t always mean worse. It is possible to get better as a team without adding a single new player to the roster. You simply have to create an environment for the players already on the team to develop and grow.
Obviously, this is not a hard rule, but generally speaking younger players develop skills up to a certain point. Then they reach their “prime,” which lasts for a few years, then they decline, slowly or quickly, until they retire. For the sake of argument, let’s pick some arbitrary ages for that development period, the prime years, and the decline years. Just for kicks let’s say 16-24 is “developing,” 25-30 is “prime,” and 30+ is declining.
Again, let me say that I fully understand this is a gross generalization. Growth can happen late in a career. Decline can happen early due to injury or off the pitch problems. Moreover, player development is something that relies on many things including coaching and the individual player’s drive to improve. Neither growth nor decline are guaranteed for anyone. I am only doing this just for the sake of getting a rough idea about how the team’s returning players might develop or decline next season.
With that lengthy disclaimer in mind, let’s take a look at where most of the Union players are in their career.
Development Period: Brenden Aaronson (19), Jack de Vries (17), Jack Elliott (24), Anthony Fontana (20), Matt Freese (21), Olivier Mbaizo (22), Mark McKenzie (20), Michee Ngalina (19), Matt Real (20), Cole Turner (18), Kai Wagner (22), Matej Oravec (21)
Prime Period: Joe Bendik (30), Andre Blake (29), Cory Burke (28), Warren Creavalle (29), Raymon Gaddis (30), Jamiro Monteiro (26), Kacper Przybylko (26), Sergio Santos (25), Jakob Glesnes (25), Jose Andres Martinez (25), Andrew Wooten (30)
Decline Period: Alejandro Bedoya (32), Aurelien Collin (33), Ilsinho (34).
Notice anything about that roster breakdown? Whole lot more names in those “development” ages than in the “declining” ages. Twelve players who are 24 or younger. Eleven in their prime. Only three who are 30+.
We could argue about how long that development stage really should be. We could argue about whether 30 is when players start to decline. I understand these parameters are arbitrary. However, I think we can avoid nit-picking and agree on the general point I am making here. This is a young team. A lot of the major contributors are young players. Most namely Brenden Aaronson, Jack Elliott, Mark McKenzie and Kai Wagner. Based on this current roster, all four of those players are likely starters. All four are young enough that it is more than reasonable to expect them to continue to get better as players and to contribute even more to the team than they did last year. Is that a guarantee? Absolutely not. But if the previous section was pessimistic, I said I wanted to be optimistic with this one. I think it is fair to say that we can expect to see some growth from these players. Can Aaronson do more with a full season’s experience under his belt? Can Elliott and McKenzie step up and solidify a rather porous Union defense from last year? Can Kai more consistently deliver those devastating crosses from the left side of the pitch? I don’t know about you, but I am excited to find out.
Moreover, there are more young players that could step up and become solid bench contributors. Fontana, de Vries, Mbaizo, Ngalina, Turner. Aaronson surprised many of us last year coming from nowhere and being regularly featured in the starting lineup. Will one of these other names surprise us this year? It is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Development age players are certainly not the only players capable of having a better season than last year. Injuries hampered Sergio Santos’s season, but he showed us glimpses of the kind of player he can be. Kacper wasn’t even a regular starter in the beginning of the year and could be poised to have an even bigger impact this season. Wooten came in during the summer, and never seemed to get his feet under him. With more time to acclimate to the team, could he prove to be the prolific goal-scorer we all hoped for last summer? Blake had a down year, but we all know he’s capable of jaw-dropping saves. He has single-handedly kept the Union in a lot of games. Will he regress positively to the mean? Cory Burke literally couldn’t play last season. Can he return from his loan in May and have an impact?
Maybe these positive developments happen. Maybe they don’t. Who’s to say? If we try to look objectively, I think we can say there are a lot of players on this team in a position to do better than they did last season and not many in a position to do worse. That’s really all you can ask for from a team building perspective. The rest is up to the coaches and the players.
Is the team a better fit for the system?
Soccer is, first and foremost, a team sport. Individual talent is only going to take you so far. Simply having the more talented team is going to win you a lot of games, but the best teams have talent combined with a system that gets the most out of that talent.
Up until this point, we’ve only talked about players as individuals, and not about how they all fit together.
Much has been made of the Union’s tactical flexibility last season, and I think that’s a good thing. The team frequently switched back and forth between the new 4-4-2 narrow diamond high pressing system and the more possession based 4-2-3-1 from 2018. But I kind of think this had a lot more to do with the personnel the team had and the injuries they struggled with than it did with Jim Curtin being a tactical genius. Haris Medunjanin is not your typical defensive midfielder. Ilsinho and Fafa are wingers, not forwards. Plan A at the No. 10 spot missed a lot of games due to injury and didn’t play particularly well when he was available. I honestly couldn’t tell you what the breakdown was, but it felt like the Union played that 4-2-3-1 almost as much as they played the 4-4-2. I get the very distinct impression that Tanner wants the 4-4-2 to be the main formation, with a few other options sprinkled in for specific situations and occasions.
You can see this from the fact that wing players like Accam and Fafa were sold. You can see that Medunjanin wasn’t resigned despite him having his best season ever in a Union Jersey. In a purely talent-based analysis like in the previous sections, they completely left out these players fit and roles in the team’s system. Moving on from players that don’t fit into the team’s system can allow that system to function better even if the replacement parts aren’t as high-quality.
The 4-4-2 Tanner wants to play is focused on pressing and overloading the middle of the field. I’m not tactical genius, so please feel free to correct me in the comments, but that’s my basic understanding. It’s hard to do that with players who are best on the wings, and a defensive midfielder who’s not actually that good at defense. The Union gave up 50 goals last season. Not great for a team with championship aspirations. This new system, with players better suited to it, should help solve that problem.
Is the team’s overall plan/philosophy a good one?
So far, all our analysis has been focused on the team’s improvement for this season. Which is fair, I think. No one thinks of this season as a rebuilding year. The Union made the playoffs last season and won a playoff game for the first time in franchise history. No one went into the offseason saying, “blow it up and start from scratch.”
At the same time I don’t think anyone expects the Union to completely abandon ideas of future growth and development for a “win now” mentality. We’re not looking at a narrow window for the team’s core players. We saw above this is not an old team. When analyzing how the team is built, we have to look past immediate returns. We have to look at the team’s long term goals and their overall plan and philosophy.
We know that Tanner has said he wants the Union to be a “selling” team. That means bringing in young players on the cheap, developing them and turning around to sell them at a profit. This will allow them to work with a much larger budget and hopefully be able to compete in the ever-expanding upper class of MLS. Whether we like it or not, Jay Sugarman isn’t suddenly going to become the kind of owner who drops millions and millions on superstar DPs like Carlos Vela, Josef Martinez and Chicharito. The man has no incentive to sell at this point, given the exponential increase in value of MLS franchises. We’re stuck with him.
If we want the Union to compete with the big money teams, we have to hope they do it smart. I think that being a selling team is a great way to do that.
When we analyze this offseason from a selling perspective it starts to look more positive. The Union got rid of older players and replaced them with much younger ones. They sold players to other teams for high returns. They signed more players from the academy. The new players brought in are from obscure leagues so they didn’t cost a ton in transfer fees, but if they pan out, it will be possible to sell them to European clubs for a profit.
Being a young and hungry club with talented players that are hoping to make it to bigger European teams is a perfectly fine team philosophy. Maybe someday the Union and MLS can be a destination league, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re already there.
The Union are making the right moves to be a selling club without throwing away their ability to compete now in MLS. I don’t know what more you could ask for from them.
What does it all mean?
I don’t know!
At this point, I think it’s just as likely the Union wins the MLS Cup as it is that they are to be the worst team in the league. Probably somewhere in the middle! I have no idea where. These new players could all play at a Kai Wagner level. Kacper could continue his goal scoring streak, Ilsinho could continue his magic, Monteiro, Bedoya, and Matej could be the most devastating midfield press in the league. Blake could be goalkeeper of the year. Aaronson could take the next step and be the No. 10 we all hoped for. Ray could score a goal! Anything is possible!
Or it could all come crashing down. The new guys could suck, the old guys could suck. Everything could suck. Anything is possible!
I know this is a bit of a cop out, but I think the uncertainty is part of what makes MLS so much fun. The league’s parity makes it so that any team could have a breakout year.
However, in spite of my insistence that I don’t know what will happen, I will say this:
I am happy with this offseason. Tanner made the kind of moves I want to see the team make. He brought in young players that are low-risk and high-reward. He brought in players that are right for the system the team wants to play without relinquishing the ability to be flexible. They’re trusting in academy players. They’re not hoping for unlikely revivals from MLS journeymen. They’re building a core that should be exciting to watch.
Whether or not the results turn out to be good, the process is good, and I think that matters more.
So did the team do enough? Maybe not to win the MLS Cup. But they did enough to get me excited for the future. That’s something none of us should take for granted.
Have the Philadelphia Union done enough this offseason?
This poll is closed