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Breaking down the Philadelphia Union’s offseason plan

The Philadelphia Union officially set its offseason wheels in motion on Monday, welcoming back Jim Curtin as head coach and announcing a set of roster moves. 

After Monday’s transactions, the Union are down to 17 players on their active roster for 2019, which means there will be some significant turnover to the team’s depth in the coming months. 

Below is a position-by-position breakdown of where the club stands and what needs to be done to improve ahead of the upcoming season. 

Goalkeeper 

Players on roster: Andre Blake

 Andre Blake is the unquestioned No. 1 goalkeeper on the Union roster, and at the moment, he is the only shot stopper signed up for 2019. 

Beneath the Jamaican, who is coming off a career season, there are some concerns about who fills the depth — and as we found out Monday, who coaches them moving forward. 

Sporting director Ernst Tanner confirmed goalkeeping coach Tim Hanley is no longer with the club and he expects a new hire by next week.

As for Blake’s backup, John McCarthy had a detailed conversation with Tanner and Curtin and talked about trying to find more playing time elsewhere. 

“Regarding John, we had a detailed discussion with him because he’s been here for such a long time,” Tanner said. “He wants to play and I think we should respect that.” 

At 26, it’s fair for McCarthy to go out and find an opportunity elsewhere if he can receive more playing time, but if he’s unable to find the right situation, he could still return as the backup to Blake. 

If McCarthy leaves, the Union will have to find a backup goalkeeper on the open market, as the prospects they have in the academy aren’t ready to make the jump to the first team yet. 

Defenders

Players on roster: Jack Elliott; Olivier Mbaizo; Mark McKenzie; Matthew Real; Keegan Rosenberry; and Auston Trusty

Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie will be the starters at center back once again in 2019 and Jack Elliott will be a trusty third center back to rely on, and there’s even a chance the Union could throw a three-at-the-back look on the field on occasion if the situation calls for it. 

Keegan Rosenberry has right back locked down after a bounce-back campaign, but there’s still room to improve for the Georgetown product, who is now the only member of the team’s heralded 2016 draft class on the roster after Joshua Yaro and Fabian Herbers didn’t have their options picked up. 

Oct 21, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Keegan Rosenberry (12) passes the ball against the New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest defensive question for the Union comes at left back, where Matthew Real needs to take the next step in his development. 

Although he struggled in his first-team starts back in March, Real put together a strong season at United Soccer League affiliate Bethlehem Steel and ended up captaining the United States under-20 side at the Concacaf Under-20 Championship. 

“Matthew’s had a really good season,” Curtin said. “If you watch the way he grew with the Steel and now you watch the leadership he has with the U-20s, captaining that team that is doing big things. The future for Matthew is very bright.

“We’re very happy we have him in our system where we see him getting better each and every day. The ceiling for him is incredibly high. The preseason for him will be critical.” 

If Real makes the necessary gains in the offseason to earn a permanent starting spot, the Union need to round out their depth at full back, which could come in the form of new contracts for Fabinho and Ray Gaddis, Olivier Mbaizo or an outside signing. 

While it’s hard to find consistent full backs out on the open market, bringing in an extra veteran wouldn’t hurt the Union just in case Real struggles to find his way. 

Midfielders

Players on roster: Brenden Aaronson; David Accam; Alejandro Bedoya; Ilsinho; Anthony Fontana; Derrick Jones; Haris Medunjanin; and Fafa Picault

The Union need to do the most work in the offseason on their midfield, specifically in the attacking edges of the game. 

Haris Medunjanin, Alejandro Bedoya and Derrick Jones will be able to hold down the defensive midfield positions, and a fourth defensive-minded midfielder might be needed just to round out depth, but it likely won’t be Warren Creavalle, who already has an offer from elsewhere. 

Oct 28, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin (6) looks to make a pass defended by New York City midfielder Yangel Herrera (30) during the second half at Yankee Stadium. (Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports)

On the wing, the Union need to bolster the depth behind David Accam, who will be coming off sports hernia surgery, an aging and often banged-up Ilsinho and the improving Fafa Picault, who Tanner hinted could move up to forward based off preliminary offseason conversations between the two parties.

Moving Picault up top in a system with more emphasis on using two forwards could benefit all sides, as it adds to the club’s forward depth and allows it to focus on bringing in an impact winger or two. 

Where Tanner and Curtin find the impact wingers remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting the sporting director has a full slate of scouting trips lined up across the globe before Christmas in order to get a look at the best possible talent. 

There’s always the potential of making a deal inside MLS as well, as the Union did a year ago to obtain Accam.

Then there’s the No. 10 situation, and although it wasn’t said directly on Monday, it’s becoming clearer that Borek Dockal won’t return to MLS after leading the league in assists in 2018. 

The first complicated part of bringing Dockal back on a permanent deal is the complexities of the Chinese Super League transfer market, and Tanner revealed during his press conference that Dockal has intentions of playing in Europe again, and it might be the best move for the midfielder, as he continues to star for the Czech Republic. 

“We had a discussion for Borek. The update is that we don’t have it in our hands,” Tanner said. “There will be a possibility to bring him back, but once again it is not in our hands.

“Borek also told us about his situation and his wish to return to Europe. That’s also something we need to take into account and respect.” 

Anthony Fontana and Brenden Aaronson are options to consider in a forward role, but Fontana might be best suited dropping back as a No. 8 to fill in depth behind Bedoya, while Aaronson can’t be trusted to be the team’s top playmaker in his rookie season. 

As we’ve seen in past seasons with Dockal and Cristian Maidana, the Union are capable of finding a No. 10 that delivers some of the best attacking production in MLS. 

Tanner’s time in Philadelphia will be judged immediately by the transaction he makes to bring in a No. 10 if Dockal is set on a return to Europe. 

Forwards

Players on roster: Cory Burke; C.J. Sapong 

A possible three-man rotation of Cory Burke, C.J. Sapong and Picault at forward would work for the Union if they’re committed to playing Picault up top. 

In that case, the Union can get by without signing a big-name forward and put all of their focus in signing players in the midfield that are capable of linking up with the three players with unique skill sets. 

In the last two seasons, Burke, Picault and Sapong combined for 47 goals and 17 assists, with each player bagging a double-digit goal campaign.

“We want competition at every spot,” Curtin said. “It will be an instance now where you could see somebody running with (Burke) or off of him and Cory is a guy who’s skill set matches what we want to do.” 

While the fan base isn’t happy with the lack of a big-time striker on the roster, all three have shown in spurts they can get the job done, and they’ve earned the trust of the technical staff. 

If you’re looking for a Homegrown name to keep an eye on, Issa Rayyan, who is currently at Duke, could be an option to round out the depth from a cost-effective internal perspective in order to keep funds open for wingers. 

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