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The State of the Union Part 2: Defenders

The transfer of Mark McKenzie and shock retirement of Ray Gaddis haven’t left the cupboard bare at the back for the Philadelphia Union

Photo by Heather Barry

In the first edition of The State of the Union, I focused on the Goalkeepers, in which (spoiler-alert) I reviewed Andre Blake’s Goalkeeper of the Year Winning season and made my predictions for 2021. Each part of this series will focus on a new positional group, moving up the pitch with defenders next up.

2020 Recap

Last season, Mark McKenzie made the impressive jump from a promising young central defender to Best XI quality defender and arguably the best defender in the league. Overall McKenzie showed quality in defense, but it was his on-ball quality which separated him from the rest. American Soccer Analysis’ Goals Added (G+) model, which measures a player’s total on-ball contribution to change their team’s chances of scoring and conceding, has McKenzie with the highest G+ of any central defender in MLS. Specifically, McKenzie was second in MLS in interrupting touches (such as tackles, interceptions, blocks, clearances, etc.) leading to positive G+. Overall, McKenzie’s impressive 2020 campaign resulted in his multi-million-dollar transfer to KRC Genk this offseason.

The rest of the central defenders played well alongside McKenzie. Jakob Glesnes performed reasonably well in his first season in MLS and was absolutely robbed of MLS Goal of the Year for his stunning goal against LAFC in the last game before lockdown but was in and out of the lineup throughout the season. Jack Elliott, while performing slightly above his 2019 level, showed once again he is an extremely dependent defender rarely making costly mistakes to hurt the team.

Coming off a Best XI worthy year in 2019, expectations were high for Kai Wagner in 2020. Unfortunately for the Union, Wagner missed some time due to injury and was not at the same level as 2019. Not to say Wagner was bad last season, just not Best XI worthy.

Offseason Roster Moves:
CB Mark McKenzie, sold to KRB Genk
Ray Gaddis, Retired
Stuart Findlay, signed from Kilmarnock FC

2021 Projected Depth Chart

Kai Wagner Jack Elliott Jakob Glesnes Olivier Mbaizo
Matt Real Stuart Findlay Aurelien Collin Nathan Harriel

2021 Season will be a success if…

Olivier Mbaizo consistently joins the attack overlapping from the right side and provide crosses like he did last week against Deportivo Saprissa. Mbaizo provides a very different style of play at right back than Ray Gaddis and has the potential to unlock another attacking output for the Union. If the Union can be truly dangerous in attack from all three areas, their offensive output could easily take another leap forward.

2021 will be a failure if…

The attempts to fill in the gaps left by McKenzie and Gaddis do not gel quickly. More so than in defense, McKenzie left a gaping hole in how the club progresses the ball up the pitch. If one of Findlay or Glesnes are unable to provide the progressing passing, then the Union may have to alter their style of play in attack. Potentially inserting two new players into the starting back line could be disastrous if they do not gel quickly or have to alter their build-up style.

2021 Season Predictions & Expectations

Although Stuart Findlay is listed as the backup LCB currently, given the condensed schedule and additional Concacaf Champions League games, I expect Findlay to start a significant number of games, with the three first choice CBs: Findlay, Glesnes and Elliott to rotate significantly as Curtin works out the optimal pairing. Sporting Director Ernst Tanner has spoken repeatedly about wanting a left-footed center back, so it is a reasonable expectation that Findlay will be starting consistently by summer.

Ray Gaddis shocked the Union fan when he announced his retirement this winter. Gaddis was the epitome of a solid professional. He was always reliable, rarely made mistakes, and was never a talking point (whether that is a good or bad thing is up to your interpretation). With his retirement, Olivier Mbaizo gets his chance to impress in the starting lineup. Mbaizo offers a significant upgrade offensively on Gaddis, highlighted by his beautiful cross last week in the Champions League against Saprissa. Mbaizo’s threat of a dangerous cross not only adds the direct threat of a goal but opens up Kai Wagner and the left sided overload as teams aren’t able to focus entirely on the Wagner crosses. I am excited to see a season’s worth of Mbaizo crossing from the overlap and expect 4-7 assists from Mbaizo this season.