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Philadelphia Union need to keep bridging gap to top teams with offseason moves

The Union enjoyed their best-ever season in 2019, but they still have ground to make up on MLS’ top teams.

Oct 24, 2019; Atlanta, GA, USA; Philadelphia Union players in the staring lineup pose prior to the match against the Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — For the first time in the Philadelphia Union’s 10-year history, there is a strong sense of optimism about what the offseason may bring.

Thanks to the signings executed by sporting director Ernst Tanner, the club is positioned to make another run at the No. 1 seed in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference and a second-ever postseason victory in 2020. 

Tanner and technical director Chris Albright hit on almost every player they acquired, and it showed on the field, with Jim Curtin’s side completing the most successful season in club history. 

“I told every guy to keep their head up [after Thursday’s loss to Atlanta United],” Curtin said. “A lot to be proud of for the season from a lot of individual standpoints, from the team standpoint, and I think the Philadelphia Union has shown it’s a club on the rise. Are we perfect? No, we’re not. We still have a lot to work on. But it’s good to be moving in the right direction.” 

Instead of searching for a handful of starters, the Union will be looking to improve their overall depth and quality in the offseason. 

“I think we played a real great season,” Tanner said. “We still know about our flaws and we just need to build on it. That’s what we are going to do.” 

They have three strong, young center backs in Jack Elliott, Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty, as well as a trio of forwards in Kacper Przybyłko, Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos. That attacking group could include a fourth player if Fafà Picault is brought back. 

Przybyłko led the team with 15 goals, but his injury absence at the end of the season left a major void. Santos has shown spurts of brilliance with his pace and finishing, while Wooten gets a much-needed full offseason to recover and enter next season fresh with the hopes of rediscovering the scoring form he had at Sandhausen in Germany. 

Kai Wagner has locked down left back, and even if a decision is made to sell him, Matt Real is ready to take the next step there. Homegrowns Brenden Aaronson and Anthony Fontana should feature in larger midfield roles alongside Alejandro Bedoya and Haris Medunjanin. 

But even with stability in the middle of the park, there is a question regarding the No. 8-No. 10 role with Jamiro Monteiro’s loan from Metz expiring. 

Tanner elaborated on Monteiro’s future after Thursday’s loss, and more clarity is expected in the coming weeks. 

“That’s what we already tried and it was unsuccessful,” Tanner said. “We’ve been focusing on other guys as well. I think we will get a real good team, if all the solutions work out that we are working on, then we will get a real competitive team. And we need to look out in the future what is possible for us.

Monteiro said Philadelphia has an option to buy, “but it’s quite a tricky thing because there are lots of parties that need to be committed, and that’s not easy.” 

In past seasons, losing an on-loan midfielder, such as Borek Dockal in 2018, would be viewed as a crucial blow to the team’s development, but that should not be the case this time around.

Monteiro is a dynamic player and should go on to have a fantastic career, but he is not the be-all, end-all to the Union’s success. 

If the 25-year-old with Dutch roots wants to find success in Europe, he should go after his ambitions, just like Dockal did when he returned home to the Czech Republic last offseason. 

Tanner’s scouting network is strong enough to identify and find a player with similar qualities who can be successful on either the side of the 4-4-2 diamond or at the No. 10. 

The same can be said about an attack-minded midfielder if Marco Fabián does not return. The Mexican midfielder was relegated to a bench role down the stretch, and if wants to start somewhere, it likely is not in Philadelphia because he is not a perfect fit in Curtain’s system. 

A tougher decision could be waiting at right back. Ray Gaddis deserves credit for improving his play throughout the season, but the Union should look for a fullback with more attacking intensity. 

That could come internally if Olivier Mbaizo is ready to take the next step, one year after he was supposed to become a significant contributor. Or the franchise could go out and find a Wagner-type in the transfer market. 

“It’s not a secret that we are giving up too many goals right now,” Tanner said. “And that’s what we need to work on. Without Kacper and in particular after the tough 120 minutes against Red Bull, we were not that decisive today. That can happen, and we have a good attack. But we need to do something to avoid goals in the future.” 

Another possibility is attempting to play Wagner at right back in order to break Real into the starting lineup, but previous attempts to play full backs opposite their preferred sides have not succeeded. 

Outside of those spots, the Union have to bolster their depth with either academy products, MLS veterans or low-budget transfer additions in each section of the depth chart. They got a head start by signing homegrowns Cole Turner and Jack De Vries to contracts for the 2020 season. 

If improvements are made in those areas, the Union could further close the gap between themselves and New York City FC and Atlanta United. 

They may not be able to outspend either of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, but they can challenge them in head-to-head matchups and compete for the top seed in the conference, which should be the minimum goal in 2020.

“I think we can beat them on a single day,” Tanner said. “Over the course of the season, it’s tough to compete with them like right now. But that’s our job for the future.” 

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