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Philadelphia Union’s diversity one of many strengths in arguably its strongest team ‘on paper’ yet

Jim Curtin’s opening day lineup could potentially feature 11 players from 11 different countries

The 2022 MLS ball reflects the 79 countries players in MLS hail from
Matt Ralph

With the addition of Mikael Uhre from Denmark this week, Philadelphia Union head coach could now very easily field a starting XI of players who all hail from a different country on opening day February 26.

That fact was brought up in a press conference Thursday when Philadelphia Inquirer writer Jonathan Tannenwald mentioned it in a question to head coach Jim Curtin.

“That’s the great thing about our club,” Curtin said after jokingly thanking Tannewald for making his starting lineup for him. “It’s the great thing about the game of soccer, it brings people from all over the world together and then the game tends to speak one language.”

Depending on how you look at it the Philadelphia Union have at least 12 countries represented in their locker room with multiple players being able to claim more than one.

A possible starting lineup for the first game of the season would include Andre Blake (Jamaica), Kai Wagner (Germany), Jack Elliott (Scotland/England), Jakob Glesnes (Norway), Olivier Mbaizo (Cameroon), Jose Martinez (Venezuela), Alejandro Bedoya (United States), Jamiro Monteiro (Cape Verde/Netherlands), Daniel Gazdag (Hungary), Julian Carranza (Argentina) and Mikael Uhre (Denmark).

Jamiro Monteiro was born and raised in the Netherlands by Cape Verde immigrants; Jack Elliott was born in London to Scottish parents; Leon Flach was born in Texas to German parents but grew up and started his career in Germany; Jack McGlynn was born in New York to Irish parents and new homegrown left back Anton Sorenson was born in Haiti but grew up in Michigan.

“I think you guys have heard enough Ernst and I talk about how we believe a cohesive group can beat any group of individual talent and that still will be the same,” Curtin said of his team. “It’s my job now and our coaching staff’s job to kind of mold this group, get them where we’re maximizing all their strengths.”

The diversity on the roster does also make for interesting international breaks as the Union experienced this week with a small group in training. Monteiro and Mbaizo were still away for Africa Cup of Nations, Andre Blake and Cory Burke are with Jamaica, Jose Martinez is with Venezuela and McGlynn Paxten Aaronson, Brandan Craig and Quinn Sullivan are at a United States U-20 camp in Florida.

“It’s a small number, but in some ways that’s a good thing,” Curtin said of the small training sessions with just “roughly 12 players” available. “It’s more hands-on for the coaching staff.”

The efforts to bring in so many talented players from different parts of the world is possibly the feature of Sporting Director Ernst Tanner’s time that has shifted the ambitions of the club the most.

While the Union has always focused on finding the best young domestic talent to bring into the academy and develop into first team players, the roster has been well stocked with players Tanner has brought in from around the globe at prices he’s made work within the team’s modest salary budget and the league’s many roster-building restrictions.

“We are pretty much on our way on the globe and try to get the best player possible for the Philadelphia Union,” Tanner said in the press conference.

In doing so, the talent bubbling up from the academy benefits from training alongside a diverse range of players from around the globe while fighting to earn minutes that aren’t always easy to come by. It means at times young talent having to settle for being a depth player and fully embracing the next man up mentality of seizing the moments when they come.

“Just from training this week you can see the depth of the roster,” Curtin said. “We have competition and healthy competition at all spots.”

The confidence in the younger players in the academy to serve as reserves and battle for starting minutes is part of what makes the Union such a dangerous squad. But it also means choosing a lineup won’t be any easier this season than it was last year with second-year pros like McGlynn, Sullivan, Aaronson and Nathan Harriel pushing even more for minutes.

“I think we have again on paper our deepest team, which is something that is special, but as you guys know, games aren’t won on on paper,” Curtin said. “I think we still have a lot of work to do in the preseason on the field.”

There’s also some more work to be done in the front office with four senior roster spots open and a second team roster to fill out for the inaugural season of MLS Next Pro, the league’s new third-division professional competition platform.