A three-center back rotation has been one of the key features of the Philadelphia Union back line over the past three seasons, something the signing of Scottish international Stuart Findlay appears to be continuing in 2021.
The 25-year-old left-footed center back joins a center back corps that includes Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. While he’s not a like-for-like replacement for Mark McKenzie, he will be wearing the same No. 4 jersey and given the resources to get him (reportedly as much as $300k for a player whose contract is expiring in June) and his international tag, it’s a good bet that he’ll slot in as the starting left center back.
That would leave Jakob Glesnes, who was acquired last offseason from Norway for a reported $385,000 transfer fee, to battle it out with Jack Elliott for the starting right center back spot, which is essentially what the two did in 2020. Glesnes made 17 starts and Elliott 10 starts but Elliott subbed into 7 other matches and deputized as a No. 6 late in the season when Jose Martinez was out.
Reading the tea leaves about whether a new acquisition will start has been a common practice for Union fans since Ernst Tanner took over as sporting director.
When Kai Wagner was signed as a left back in 2019, the assumption was that he would be a backup and similar things were said of Glesnes in 2020. Yet with the odd exception of Matej Oravec, who did not make an appearance in 2020, the formula of international spot plus transfer fee has led to significant minutes being allocated.
International players Tanner has signed (Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos, Jamiro Monteiro, Jakob Glesnes, Kai Wagner, Jose Martinez) accounted for 31 percent of the minutes last season. Przybylko and Monteiro were second and third in minutes (behind McKenzie) among field players last season while Glesnes was sixth.
Barring injuries, Findlay, Glesnes and Elliott should get a majority of the minutes. Question marks remain in terms of depth beyond that.
Head coach Jim Curtin got away with using only three central defenders last season (Aurelien Collin made six starts as the fourth string center back in 2019) but there will be at least one additional competition in Concacaf Champions League and hopefully a U.S. Open Cup berth as well to add to the work load. Homegrowns Cole Turner and Brandan Craig have both played center back for Union II and Oravec has played there for his youth national team.
Collin may or may not be back — he’s still listed on the roster but he’s out of contract and a new deal hasn’t been announced — but he’d provide a solid stop gap between the proven veterans and the midfielders who can also play center back in the depth chart now. If Norway comes calling for Glesnes and Scotland for Findlay and/or Elliott (he’s eligible but hasn’t received a call as of yet), that depth will be challenged.
Still, however the starting lineup shakes out from week to week, the healthy competition Curtin has leaned on in transforming the Union into one of the league’s best defensive teams will continue to be key in maintaining the high bar that was set in 2020.