The start of a new year is supposed to signify a fresh start.
With sporting director Ernst Tanner scouring the globe in search of transfer targets, the Philadelphia Union are hoping for a new beginning in 2019, one that elevates them further in Major League Soccer.
January is a crucial month for the club. It needs to fill some voids on its roster before heading down to Clearwater, Fla., for the first of two preseason stints. Currently, the club has 21 players on its first-team roster, which means there’s still plenty of room for additions.
“I think we have a few options we can pull, especially when the transfer window opens here (in Europe),” Tanner said in December. “I think we are on our way, we are good in time and we’ll probably have some news at the beginning of January, in addition.”
Tanner said in one of his conference calls with reporters that he wants the Union’s transfer business to be done before the first excursion down to Clearwater.
Below is a look at the needs the Union still has to fill before preseason begins.
1. Sign a No. 10
The Union lack an experienced No. 10, and it’s looking more like a new face will occupy that position in 2019.
Borek Dockal, who led MLS in assists during 2018 on loan from Henan Jianye in China, reportedly is considering a return to the Czech Republic with Sparta Prague. He hopes to remain a consistent figure in the Czech national team.
At the start of the January window, Sparta Prague signed a pair of attacking players, so if you’re looking for a glimmer of hope the Union can get a deal done to keep Dockal, there it is Union fans.
On a more realistic level, the Union need to be smart in where they pluck their new No. 10 from.
Former sporting director Earnie Stewart used his connections in Holland to bring Roland Alberg in as his first impact attacking midfielder, but the Dutchman left following a disastrous 2017 and he’s now on his second club since leaving MLS.
Since Tanner carries an academy background from Hoffenheim and Red Bull Salzburg, it’s likely the first No. 10 he signs is an up-and-coming player capable of earning a hefty transfer fee in a few years, a strategy that worked to perfection for Tanner in Germany with Roberto Firmino.
It’s a bit unrealistic to believe someone of Firmino’s potential would come to MLS, but as we’ve seen in recent years, the South American pipeline is wide open for players to make the next step in their careers.
Regardless of who the player is, the Union need an impact No. 10 to complete the attacking puzzle like Dockal did a year ago. And the new signing needs to be integrated with enough time to be ready for the season opener, unlike Dockal a year ago.
2. Reinforcements at left back
Tanner told reporters before the holidays the club would sign another left back to add to Homegrown Matthew Real and veteran Fabinho, who was one of three players re-signed in December.
“We need a left back without any question,” Tanner said. “We have to take into consideration Matt Real won’t be available during the U20 World Cup. It’s absolutely necessary to have somebody in place there.”
Adding a third left back serves a few purposes for the club as it embarks on the 2019 campaign.
First and foremost, the job is Real’s to lose, but it’s expected he’ll be part of the United States U-20 roster for the U-20 World Cup in May.
With Real gone for up to six weeks, the Union need depth at the position whether they choose to start Fabinho or keep him in a reserve role behind the new signing.
In past years, the Union would solve this problem by sliding Ray Gaddis over to the left, but the depth chart at right back is clear with Gaddis and Olivier Mbaizo fighting for the starting spot — as long as Gaddis re-signs with the club.
Adding a third left back also allows for more competition at the position as Fabinho begins to shift to the next stage of his career, which will likely land him a spot somewhere in the Union’s academy, where a few former club members already work.
3. Another attacking player
You can never have too many attacking players on your roster in a league where depth becomes more important heading into a regular season condensed by a few weeks.
With David Accam on the mend from sports hernia surgery and Ilsinho more of an injury risk than most players at his position, it would be wise of the Union to add another impact attacker to the squad before the end of January.
— Philadelphia Union (@PhilaUnion) January 2, 2019
Reinforcing the wing positions would allow some tactical flexibility with Fafa Picault and C.J. Sapong, who can both play up top next to new signing Sergio Santos or shift out to the wing to add another dimension to the attack.
While it would be nice to see the Union add an impact player in the final third, it can’t happen until the No. 10 is locked up.
Once the No. 10 is secured, the Union can go out and ink an attacker that complements the playing style of the central attacking midfielder.
The Union learned the hard way that a lack of depth at spots 15-25 on the roster can hurt them, and with Marcus Epps and Fabian Herbers off to the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire, respectively, they might have to pay a bit more than they hoped for depth players, but that’s not a bad thing given the increased quality of MLS.
4. Sign A Backup Goalkeeper
The Union don’t lack goalkeeping talent, which is why signing a backup to Andre Blake isn’t a massive concern.
Matt Freese became the latest Homegrown signing in December. He very well could be Blake’s backup, but there’s also a chance he jumps into the mix with United Soccer League side Bethlehem Steel, similar to John McCarthy and Jake McGuire in past years.
Adding a third goalkeeper is a smart move to bolster the ranks just in case Blake gets hurt or has to miss out on a regular-season game or two on international duty with Jamaica.