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MLS 2021 Preview: Philadelphia Union aiming higher after winning first trophy

The Union proved last year it’s possible to compete while also relying heavily on young players. Can they do it again after selling two Best XI players to Europe?

Key additions

Stuart Findlay (25-year-old Scottish Center Back signed from Kilmarnock FC)
Leon Flach (20-year-old dual German and US Midfielder signed from FC St. Pauli)
Paxten Aaronson (signed to Homegrown Player Contract)
Brandan Craig (signed to Homegrown Player Contract)
Quinn Sullivan (signed to Homegrown Player Contract)
Jack McGlynn (signed to Homegrown Player Contract)
Nathan Harriel (signed to Homegrown Player Contract)

Key losses

Brenden Aaronson (sold to RB Salzburg for reported $6 million plus $3 million in add-ons)
Mark McKenzie (sold to KRC Genk for reportedly around $6 million)
Ray Gaddis (retired)
Warren Creavalle (team option declined)

Projected Best XI

(4-4-2 Diamond): Blake; Wagner; Elliot; Glesnes; Mbaizo; Martinez; Monteiro; Bedoya; Fontana; Santos; Przybylko

Best offseason move

Rather than choosing one of the Union’s offseason signings, my choice for best offseason move was the sale of Brenden Aaronson, breaking the American homegrown record for an MLS transfer.

As we watched Brenden have a breakout 2020 season, his sale to Europe was highly expected. What was not expected; however, was the significant fee and the 10-20% sell on clause retained by the Union. This is significant for the Union, since if Aaronson plays well for RB Salzburg, and moves to a bigger European club, the Union will receive 10-20% of that sales price. As MLS continues to grow in stature in world soccer, the required transfer fees for impact players into the league will only increase, so this move has put the Union in great position for a significant source of revenue down the line.

Reasons to be worried about the Union

The Union have invested heavily in their academy, which is the reason why they were able to develop players to sell abroad in the first place. With the Union breaking MLS, and Union records for player sales, it would be assumed that they would use this revenue to bring in big name singings, in the form of Designated Player, to replace the players lost. That, unfortunately, has not been the case with the team instead doubling down on youth. The offseason signings have included five academy products signed to homegrown player’s contracts, a 20-year-old midfielder from the 2. Bundesliga and a center back from the Scottish Premier League- none of which are of the superstar variety. There is a well-known mantra amongst Philly fans to #TrustErnst as he has routinely pulled players from the lower leagues in Europe (think Kai Wagner and Kacper Przybylko) however that was before the club seemingly had a significant influx in cash and desperately needed to replace high impact players. While the academy players and summer signings may work out just fine, there is a serious risk of the team taking a significant step back coming off the best season in team history.

Why the Union are worth watching

2020 was the best season in Philadelphia Union history, as the team won the regular season championship, the Supporters’ Shield, and capped the season off with the record sale of two highly sought-after homegrown academy products. It has often been the case that teams must decide between competing regularly for trophies (ex. Atlanta/Seattle etc.) and investing heavily in the academy and youth development (ex. FC Dallas). However, the Union broke that mold last year, demonstrating to the league that it is possible to both compete seriously, while also relying heavily on young players.

What is not yet determined, is how the Union will fare replacing these players with new academy products. While these academy players (especially Brenden Aaronson’s younger brother Paxten) are extremely promising, they are extremely in-experienced. If all goes well, the Union could be on the verge of altering the way the entire league operates. If it goes poorly, then the Union will be just another example of a one-hit wonder in this league. Regardless, the Union will be exciting to watch and will certainly produce some incredibly entertaining games all year long.