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Philadelphia Union roster under construction after best season ever

12 players are under contract for the 2020 campaign, 11 have options yet to be determined and 5 are out of contract. 

Oct 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner (27) walks off the field after win against the New York Red Bulls at Talen Energy Stadium. (Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The Philadelphia Union still have a laundry list of decisions to make before the framework for their 2020 roster is settled. 

The club released the roster status for each member of the 2019 squad Thursday, but sporting director Ernst Tanner did not reveal anything additional about players’ futures. 

“I can’t talk about players out of contract, even if we are already under negotiations. It can influence that. That is not the best idea,” Tanner said. “We have talked to every player about performance, about situations and about what we probably intend to do. We have an owners’ meeting outstanding and a decision day, which in most cases is Nov. 30, that we are bound to. Within that period of time, we will make our decisions.”

Twelve players are under contract for the 2020 campaign, 11 have options yet to be determined and five are out of contract. 

“It always helps when you have time to analyze things,” Tanner said. “There is a lot going on in terms of new players, as we’re always improving our roster and that has an influence on what we are going to do with the players here. That’s a reason why we can’t talk about it in detail.” 

While the club continues negotiations, below is a look at who could be back and who may leave during the offseason. 

Goalkeepers

Guaranteed Contract: Andre Blake, Matt Freese

Option Available: Joe Bendik

Oct 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA; Philadelphia Union forward Sergio Santos (17) and goalkeeper Andre Blake (18) celebrate after defeating the New York Red Bulls in a first-round playoff match at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite committing a slew of mistakes at the back end of the 2019 campaign, Andre Blake is still the unquestioned No. 1 goalkeeper.

Players go through bad spells on occasion, and that happened with the Jamaican No. 1 at the worst possible time. An extended offseason combined with the motivation to return to full strength, should put the 2019 MLS All-Star back on track. 

Matt Freese’s progression to the United States under-23 national team is a positive development. He should be Blake’s backup as long as he is healthy. The Homegrown goalkeeper experienced a few injury absences that forced the Union to trade for Joe Bendik.

If Blake and Freese are the one-two punch, there is no need for Bendik. A third goalkeeper would likely spend time with USL Championship affiliate Bethlehem Steel, which means a younger netminder or academy product would be ideal in that spot. 

Defenders

Guaranteed Contract: Jack Elliott, Ray Gaddis, Kai Wagner

Option Available: Mark McKenzie, Fabinho, Olivier Mbaizo, Auston Trusty, Matt Real, RJ Allen 

Out of Contract: Aurelien Collin 

September 25, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Philadelphia Union defender Jack Elliott (3) during the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Three of the four defensive starters are guaranteed to be back. The fourth, Mark McKenzie, should have his option picked up.

Jack Elliott was the team’s most improved defender by leaps and bounds. His play led to a contract extension through 2021 with a club option for 2022.

“Jack has massively improved,” Tanner said. “We needed to reward him with what he’s done. He turned out to be our best defender over the course of the season. With his distribution and his build, he’s a very important piece to our squad.” 

After dealing with a string of injuries, McKenzie bounced back with a handful of impressive outings next to Elliott. He should enter preseason as the favorite to start next to the Englishman. 

Auston Trusty, who started 22 games at centerback, is still a key piece for the club and the U.S. under-23s. If he plays at his full potential, which he has for long stretches, the Union will be fine at center back.

If Aurelien Collin does not return, the Union need to go out on the domestic or international market for a cheap fourth centerback, or they could put trust in their academy system and add Ben Ofeimu from Bethlehem Steel. 

Kai Wagner has a firm grip on left back. Even though the Union could sell him back to Europe, that does not appear to be the strategy within the club right now. 

“There’s a clear route for that process. But if you want to sell, you have to develop, and that takes a couple of years,” Tanner said. “I don’t see us really in that position right now.”

That clogs the path for Matt Real getting to the starting XI. When he got on the field in 2019, the Homegrown left back thrived moving forward. He could end up as the backup left back and a possible attacking option off the bench if he continues to improve his attacking capabilities. 

At right back, Ray Gaddis was a sturdy defender during the second half of the year. He is a good defensive piece to have, but a right back in the 4-4-2 system is required to provide a punch in attack, like Wagner did on the left. 

The decision-making at right back will likely come down to the readiness of Olivier Mbaizo, who was supposed to challenge Gaddis for the starting gig in March, but he never did due to injuries and form. 

If Mbaizo is not the answer, it would not be a surprise for the Union to go shopping for a right back, but it will not be the most pressing need on the offseason wish list. 

Midfielders

Guaranteed Contract: Brenden Aaronson, Alejandro Bedoya, Cole Turner

Option Available: Warren Creavalle, Marco Fabian, Anthony Fontana

Out of Contract: Haris Medunjanin, Ilsinho, Jamiro Monteiro

Jul 20, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson (22) in action against the Chicago Fire at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

All eyes will be on how Tanner, technical director Chris Albright and coach Jim Curtin configure the midfield. 

Brenden Aaronson and Alejandro Bedoya will be back in starting roles. Aaronson, 19, is exciting because of the progress he made in his first MLS season. 

“If I look back to the same point of time last year, Brenden was regarded to be an interesting piece in our roster because we saw there is some potential,” Tanner said. “When he came back in preseason, it turned out he adapted best to how we want to play.

“He has the right soccer IQ, and that is part of his game and also the reason why there is quite a good prospectivity in his career, because he understands the game. He understands, in particular, how to play quick. His touches when he gets the ball are great. We are on our way to improving his scoring ability. If you look at his running data and the physical performance, that’s outstanding for an 18-year-old, now 19-year-old. If you look at his technical abilities, that’s outstanding and what we need to build on.” 

That’s the good news for Union fans. Now, the bad. Two midfield spots likely have to be filled. 

Haris Medunjanin’s contract will be the first major issue to watch. At 34, he still carries veteran experience and distribution few others have, but there are concerns about his defensive abilities at the No. 6 role.

“Holding midfielder is a very demanding position in a professional environment,” Tanner said. “In particular, if you play with one. We will bring him in and give him a chance, but he needs to work hard.

“Haris played probably his best season. He has his qualities with the ball. He has some flaws without the ball. That’s what we know. This is a process going on right now and we will see. A No. 6 needs, in a modern system, the quality to do both. He needs to have the quality to protect the back four, to distribute and win balls. That’s a profile, but at the same time, it’s not that easy to find.” 

Medunjanin would still be a valuable piece, but if he returns, the Union likely need to bring in a younger No. 6. 

Then there is the hole at the No. 10, a spot that seems like it has to be filled every offseason. 

Accepting the reality that Jamiro Monteiro is gone is the best thing to do here. Yes, the 25-year-old was a game-changing player, but you can’t blame a player with Dutch roots and experience in Europe for wanting to prove himself overseas.

Marco Fabian’s tenure in Chester, Pa. is likely going to be short lived as well. A player on a $2 million base salary sitting on the bench because he is not a great tactical fit is not ideal.

The Mexican international made his impact in the club’s first-ever playoff win, but he was not consistent enough in front of goal to warrant a second year. 

Philadelphia could still pick up Fabian’s option to allow some profit off a sale, but do not be shocked if he is not around in 2020. 

Tanner proved last offseason he can find gems, such as Wagner, Monteiro, Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko, through his scouting network. You could argue Fabian was his biggest miss of the offseason, and he still produced seven goals and an assist. 

The wheels are already in motion for identifying prospects, so it should not be difficult to find a box-to-box midfielder and a No. 10 that fits the 4-4-2 diamond. 

The major hang-up this offseason might be the expiring collective bargaining agreement that could throw a wrench into how clubs go about the transfer process. 

“We don’t know yet,” Tanner said. “There are different scenarios. What we can do is everything right now on the current status, because we think it will not be worse. It’s a totally new situation for me not knowing what is going on from Jan. 1. I presume we might not even know it later on.” 

Forwards 

Guaranteed Contract: Jack De Vries, Kacper Przybyłko, Sergio Santos, Andrew Wooten 

Option Available: Michee Ngalina, Cory Burke 

Out of Contract: Fafa Picault 

September 25, 2019; San Jose, CA, USA; Philadelphia Union forward Kacper Przybylko (23) during the second half against the San Jose Earthquakes at Avaya Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Kacper Przybylko did not play in the final three contests of 2019, but he should be healthy for the preseason. 

“Kacper played a great season,” Curtin said. “I’m really proud of him. It’s not common for a No. 9 to put in the work he did. He’s unique in that regard. You can never predict what the games would have been, but I like our odds better with him on the field to score goals. 

“He’s recovering now. Everything is in place and going along smoothly for him to be ready to attack the offseason and next year.” 

The hope is for Andrew Wooten to produce a similar season after getting a full offseason under his belt. The German-American forward followed the trend of midseason signings struggling in MLS. 

Wooten only had one month of rest in between the start of the 2018-19 2.Bundesliga season and the Eastern Conference semifinal exit. 

“I think Andrew’s trajectory, the hope is that it’s similar to Kacper,” Curtin said. “His goal record in Germany speaks for itself. He scores goals. We see that in training. I think it clicks for him next year.” 

In a few stints, Santos proved how dangerous he can be with his pace and finishing ability. Can he show that throughout a full season?

“We saw the best Sergio a couple times this year,” Curtin said. “Our challenge is to have him look like that for 34 games and managing his load. To get him playing at his maximum, you see the strength, the power, the speed that he brings.”

With three forwards in tow, the question becomes which players back them up? Jack De Vries inked a pre-contract for 2020, so he could make an impact at points. 

Then there is Cory Burke’s visa issues, which have kept him out of the United States since May. 

“He proved his record now, which is the precondition that he can come back,” Tanner said. “I can’t say more in this moment because the situation is still a little bit weird, but we want to have him back for the preseason.” 

Burke’s return would leave Fafa Picault as the odd man out. He is one of six players in Union history with double-digit goals and assists, but he may be better suited in another tactical approach in which he can be more of a pure winger than an out-and-out forward.

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