Over the past few weeks, the best place to watch Philadelphia Union players do exciting things on a soccer pitch wasn’t in MLS.
On Sunday, the U20 U.S. Men’s National Team won the Concacaf U20 Championship with a 6-0 over the Dominican Republic, capping off an effort that also saw them qualify for the 2023 U20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
The U.S. squad contained four Union first-teamers—Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Brandan Craig—who all played critical roles in the championship run. Union players scored 15 of the U20s’ 31 goals for the tournament, and the U.S. defense only allowed two goals in seven games. As these four now return to MLS, Jim Curtin and the Union staff will have plenty of new tactical information to sift through about these talented youngsters after their successful showing in Mikey Varas’s 4-3-3 system.
Paxten as a False Nine
With a roster short on strikers, head coach Mikey Varas deployed Paxten Aaronson as a false nine to great success. Aaronson had seven goals and an assist in the tournament, winning both the Golden Boot (most goals) and Golden Ball (best player of the tournament) awards. Arriving from slightly deeper positions than a typical number nine, he was able to consistently get into dangerous positions, combine with his teammates, and demonstrate strong finishing skills.
Sullivan on the Wing
What Quinn Sullivan’s best position is has always been an open question. Should the Union use him as one of the eights, in Bedoya’s spot? Should he be a second striker? A ten? With the U20s, Sullivan has almost always played on the wing in a 4-3-3, and he has performed impressively. With six goals and three assists, Sullivan just barely lost the Golden Boot to Aaronson and was named to the tournament best XI. He has a knack for showing up in the right position at the right time, coupled with the willingness to take a shot the moment opportunity strikes.
McGlynn on the Right
Jim Curtin has almost exclusively deployed Jack McGlynn on the left side of the diamond, taking advantage of his incredible left foot. Varas, on the other hand, played McGlynn as a right-sided eight, and McGlynn took the opportunity to showcase his creativity from that position, using his ability to disguise passes to create chance after chance for his teammates. He also scored two goals, connecting on a highlight-worthy rocket from outside the box with his left foot and a crafty shot from the top of the penalty area with his right.
Craig Breaking Lines
Brandan Craig anchored the back line for the tournament, leading a defense that only gave up two goals over seven matches. But where he really impressed was his distribution. He regularly broke lines with his build up play, sparking attacking opportunities for the United States, and he was a constant danger with his dead ball delivery. He had two assists to Aaronson off set pieces and was denied a free kick goal of his own by the woodwork.
From the U20s back to the Union
One of the Union’s best weapons used to be grinding for 60 minutes in the 4-4-2 diamond, then bringing in Ilsinho, switching to a 4-2-3-1, and letting him boggle tired defenders on the right wing. But since his retirement, the Union haven’t had an effective plan B for when they require a shift in tactics.
Concacaf U20 isn’t nearly the same level of competition as MLS, but the homegrowns can offer a different look from the usual 4-4-2. They tend to play better when they’re together, whether that’s for the Union or the United States—their passes are quicker, they anticipate each other’s movements, and they play more instinctively. If we’re going to build a plan B for the Union around them, bringing them all on together feels most effective.
Based on what we’ve learned in the Concacaf U20 Championship, here are three formation options that take a different look at what they have to offer. (Brandan Craig hasn’t made his first-team debut yet, so we’re leaving him on the bench for now.)
When you have two DP strikers, playing Paxten Aaronson as a false nine doesn’t really seem like a natural fit. But when you consider how often Union strikers tend to be unavailable (injury, card accumulation, visa issues, more visa issues, visa issues that force a loan to Austria, etc.), having the Paxten false nine in your pocket doesn’t sound quite so unreasonable. This setup would also let Sullivan come in from the wing (rather than just having him as a second striker in the 4-4-2), and allow Flach and Martinez to focus on the ball-winning in midfield so McGlynn can work his passing magic as a right-sided eight.
This is the 60th minute, all-out attack option. Sullivan can’t take out defenders on the right wing like Ilsinho could, but he can get into good positions and be goal dangerous. I’m assuming that Aaronson can be effective on the left wing (he and the wingers would switch pretty freely for the U20s), and with Gazdag at the 10 and Uhre playing direct as a striker—that’s a significant amount of firepower. Plus, the double pivot lets McGlynn focus on playmaking from a deeper role while Martinez destroys everything around him.
This is the wildcard. I thought of this while watching Sullivan track back almost to the right back position to defend while he was playing winger with the U20s. If that were anyone but Sullivan, I would have worried about them covering so much ground. But, based on what we know about Sullivan’s fitness, running seven miles is light work for him. So if you want to keep the dual DP strikers, but still want extra attacking presence on the right, playing Sullivan as a right wingback is one way to do it. The third center back gives Sullivan the license to get forward while still retaining defensive stability. (Harriel could also slot in as that extra center back.)
The Champions Return to Chester
Aaronson, Sullivan, McGlynn and Craig will be returning to a squad very much in need of the depth they provide. Gazdag, Flach, and Bedoya have played almost every minute of the last four games, while the returning homegrowns were managed well by Mikey Varas’s lineup rotations. So when the kids return to Chester, Jim Curtin should give them all a well-deserved pat on the back—then get them onto the field.