In the second edition of The State of the Union, I looked at the defenders, and how the Philadelphia Union may fare without 2020 Best XI Mark McKenzie, who left this past offseason - take a look if you haven’t read already!
Next up are the midfielders, a position which is critical to Jim Curtain’s style of play and is arguably the most important positional group for the Union’s success in 2021.
Last season, Brenden Aaronson had a remarkable breakout season, exploding from a promising youth player, to MLS Best XI attacking midfielder. With the third best expected goal contributions (xG + xA) of any attacking midfielder, the teenage homegrown was everything you would expect from a creative midfielder. Aaronson’s impressive 2020 campaign resulted in a multi-million-dollar transfer to RB Salzburg, in what was the largest transfer fee paid for an MLS homegrown player in MLS history.
Despite arriving to the Union before the most extraordinary year in modern history, Jose Martinez, aka El Brujo, made his mark in the midfield immediately. El Brujo single-handedly transformed the team with his disruptive style of play. Coming from the previous era of deep playmakers in recent Union past, it was a breath of fresh air to have a reliable midfielder to cause absolute chaos for the opposition.
Often overshadowed by the play of Aaronson and Martinez, veterans Ale Bedoya and Jamiro Monteiro quietly had remarkable seasons. Ale Bedoya had one of his best seasons in recent memory, with the second-best goals added (G+) amongst central midfielders (according to American Soccer Analysis) highlighting the importance of his passing on the Union’s goal scoring efforts. Additionally, per American Soccer Analysis, Bedoya had the third highest goal contributions (xG + xA) amongst all central midfielders, with Monteiro coming in a close fifth.
Offseason Roster Moves
CM Leon Flach, signed from FC St. Pauli
CM Jack McGlynn, signed from Union II
CAM Paxten Aaronson, signed from Union II
CAM Quinn Sullivan, signed from Union II
DM Cole Turner, signed from Union II
2021 Projected Depth Chart
Left-Sided No. 8
Right-Sided No. 8
Jim Curtin is expected to play his preferred diamond midfield throughout the season; however, the depth chart is very fluid- and dependent on the health (and performance) of the front two strikers.
In the first two games of the season, Anthony Fontana played as a second striker, while primarily due to injury to Sergio Santos, it is not unfathomable that Fontana could develop into an excellent second striker given his goal scoring ability. In situations where Fontana plays up top, Monteiro would be second choice #10 (as we saw in the two selections against Saprissa). In the event that Fontana misses time, the Union have a variety of options, due to the depth, and more importantly, the versatility of the midfield. Curtin could opt for Monteiro at the #10 and Leon Flach at LM. However, if Aaronson continues to impress in training, we could see a midfield diamond with Aaronson up top, with Monteiro sticking to LM. The midfield rotation, and integration of the homegrown talents is one of the major stories with the Union this season.
2021 Season will be a success if…
Anthony Fontana continues his incredible goal contribution rate of 2020. One of the many heroes of the 2020 season was Anthony Fontana, who provided some incredibly clutch goals in-route to the Union winning the shield. If Fontana can provide the consistent goal threat from midfield, combined with Bedoya and Monteiro’s aforementioned goal contributions, then the Union will no doubt have one of the most prolific attacks in MLS.
2021 Season will be a failure if…
Jose Martinez cannot stay healthy and misses time. It is difficult to overstate how important El Brujo is to the Union, not simply due to his defensive ability to disrupt the opposition consistently, but due to his often-overlooked ability on ball. While Jack Elliot can certainly fill in at the 6 when needed, there is no other player on the Union’s roster quite like El Brujo. Like it or not, I think the Union win or lose with El Brujo.
2021 Season Expectations & Predictions
Although the departure of Brenden Aaronson in the offseason leaves a huge hole in the Union’s midfield, it is easy to see the formula to how the Union replace his contributions: Rebound Year from Kacper + Anthony Fontana = Goals!
While it may be difficult to predict the specific goal output from any one midfielder — due to the positional fluidity, it would not be unrealistic to expect 10 goals from the midfield this season. Although Paxten Aaronson is an exciting prospect, I think 2021 may be a year too soon for his breakout, and he may struggle to get significant minutes, especially as the Union look to take the next step in the Champions League and MLS Cup.
Jim Curtin has already shown he trusts Leon Flach immediately, given he started both legs of the Champions League contest with Saprissa. Upon his arrival, it was assumed he was bought to provide midfield (and left back) depth, given the condensed league schedule he will have every opportunity to impress and earn minutes. Between Monteiro, Flach, and Fontana there will be some interesting competition for playing time as someone will miss out when both strikers are healthy and available.
The midfield this season is constructed in a way that should excite fans — combining every element you want to see from a squad. Ernst Tanner has brought in players both from abroad and from the academy to fill in specific holes in the team, and while it is clear what the Union’s style of play will be, the creative elements will no doubt provide plenty of unexpected sparks throughout the season.