The 2021 MLS season is just two weeks away and SBI Soccer is kicking off its MLS team preview series with the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners Philadelphia Union.
Be sure to check into SBI over the next two weeks as we preview all 27 MLS teams, and look at the upcoming 2021 season as a whole, breaking down the league’s top players, most promising youngsters, most exciting newcomers, and much more.
The Philadelphia Union are coming off a historic season in club history that included the team’s first trophy. As impressive a season as it was, the Union are determined to deliver an even better encore.
Jim Curtin’s side lifted the 2020 Supporters’ Shield after being one of the most consistent teams during the shortened MLS regular season, but suffered a first round playoff loss on home soil which ended their dreams of completing a domestic double.
Now the Union will aim to achieve even more this season, albeit without the services of Homegrown talents Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, who secured multi-million dollar transfers during the winter. With two of their key players from 2020 gone, the Union will rely on others to step up in 2021.
“It’s going to take a team effort if we want to get back to where we want to be in the league,” Curtin told SBI. “Over the past couple seasons we’ve been pretty consistent when it comes to earning points in this league, but now we know we can’t sneak up on teams anymore.”
“Every team is going to want to give us their best game and we will have to be ready for it. We still have plenty of returning starters which is good, but many young players may need to be ready to go if called upon. I am pleased with our roster moves so far and who knows we might even add a few more pieces.”
Returning to the fold in Chester is club captain and veteran midfielder Alejandro Bedoya and all-star goalkeeper Andre Blake. Both players have been key reasons for the Union’s push up the Eastern Conference table in recent seasons and will be relied on to lead by example once again in 2021.
Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott, and Jakob Glesnes all saw ample time in the Union’s backline last season, but Ray Gaddis retirement means a new right back will step into Curtin’s 4-4-2 diamond formation. Cameroon international Olivier Mbaizo is the likely candidate after watching from the sidelines while Nathan Harriel is one for the future.
“We have two good right backs,” Curtin said. “Olivier Mbaizo recent played with the Cameroon National Team which is a great honor and just shows how special of a talent he is. Now we have to get that talent out of him every game for the Union.”
“We also have Nathan Harriel who is kind of a younger understudy of a Ray Gaddis. I think he will eventually step in and become a good lock down defender.”
Scottish centerback Stuart Findlay arrived from Kilmarnock this offseason while Aurelien Collin and Matt Real also round out the defensive option for Curtin this season. Findlay is an experienced defender from the Scottish Premiership and fits the mold of what Curtin wants from his defenders in his system.
“He fit our profile where is aggressive enough to get forward with his speed and can also pass the ball really well,” Curtin said about Findlay. “We really like what he can bring to this team and obviously his past experiences in Scotland should help prepare him for what he will see in MLS.”
Offensively, the Union have struggled to see any of their top forwards find consistency during preseason camp. Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos, and Cory Burke have all missed time through respective injuries and haven’t had a chance to gel together this spring.
The trio combined for 21 league goals in 2020 and all bring something different to the Union’s attacking structure. Youngster Jack De Vries could see a role if all three are unable to go for the club’s season opener at Columbus on April 18th.
“We’re still missing Cory Burke and Sergio Santos,” Curtin said. “Cory has not featured yet in preseason due to a groin problem while Santos has missed time with a toe injury. Kacper Przybylko has also picked up a bit of soreness as well due to back spasms. We’re thin at forward right now and the injuries haven’t helped their partnerships together.”
A lot of responsibility could fall on the midfield corps headlined by Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro, and Jose Martinez. Bedoya and Martinez are box-to-box players in Curtin’s set-up, tracking down a lot of ground and being leaders on the defensive side of the field.
Monteiro’s role is likely to grow with Aaronson’s exit after contributing four goals and four assists in all competitions in 2021. Homegrown players Anthony Fontana and Paxten Aaronson are also up for a spot in the heart of the formation, continuing the youth movement in Chester. Leon Flach’s arrival from Germany also adds a youthful, versatile figure to the mix as well.
“We have a wide range of guys who can play in midfield and I just need to be ready for when the opportunity comes,” Fontana said. “After the postseason loss to New England, I was in the gym getting prepared for this season because I knew there would be an opening with Brenden [Aaronson] leaving. I just wanted to get better in all areas of the midfield to broaden my horizon at each role.”
The 21-year-old Fontana scored six goals in 2021, excelling off the bench and giving Curtin an option late in matches. Aaronson, 17, got his first crack of competitive action with Union II in the USL last season, and shows similar traits to his brother Brenden in the attacking third.
“Guys like Paxten Aaronson, Jack De Vries, Cole Turner, they’ve done a good job of preparing for this opportunity,” Fontana said about the young Homegrown players. “They were with me even before preseason getting ready for camp and it’s good to see because I was in their shoes before and trying to do anything I could to be ready.
Here’s a closer look at D.C. United heading into 2021:
2021 Philadelphia Union Season Preview
2020 FINISH: 1st place in East (14-4-5, 47 points)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: Stuart Findlay, Leon Flach.
KEY LOSSES: Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Ray Gaddis.
Newcomer to Watch
The Union needed centerback depth with Mark McKenzie heading to Belgium and Stuart Findlay was the right choice this offseason. Findlay has made over 100 appearances in Scotland and is a tall and versatile defender who can work the ball upfield.
Pressure is On
Kacper Przybyłko saw his production take a slight hit in 2020 and will need to get back on track if the Union want to contend for trophies. The Polish striker netted seven league goals, alongside Sergio Santos in the top of the Union’s 4-4-2. However, some matches saw him go missing for long period of time, a trend that cannot continue if he wants to stay in the starting lineup.
After a first-place finish in 2020, the Union may find it tough to replicate that success this season.
Jim Curtin will have to find a way to replace the impacts of both Aaronson and McKenzie. In addition, the club really doesn’t have a flashy name in the attacking third, despite the ever-lively Ilsinho, who normally sparks the Subaru Park faithful off the bench.
Przybyłko and Santos arę scrappy forwards though and have delivered some bright moments over the past few seasons in Philadelphia. Both dealt with injuries during preseason camp, but they will hope to play a key role in the coming weeks in the Union attack.
Monteiro and Fontana will both see time at the No. 10 this season while Bedoya and Martinez do a lot of the dirty work in midfield. If all four can stay consistent and be impactful in their roles, the Union could contend for a top spot in the East once again.
“I don’t think the losses of Brenden and Mark have put pressure on anyone to be honest,” Fontana said. “We have a lot of professional guys here who are always ready for the opportunities. Losing those two definitely hurt, but now it’s up to us as a team to be ready and to make the most of our chances, starting in the Concacaf Champions League.”
A strong defensive foundation will be key for the Union if they want to replicate last season’s successes. Elliott, Glesnes, and Findlay are all physical defenders who can work the ball around the field, a key in how the Union work out of the back. Wagner remains a top left back option on both ends of the field, but Mbaizo could be the one challenged by many opponents due to his lack of MLS experience.
With Sporting Director Ernst Tanner not making many major moves this offseason, the youth in the squad could be called into action well earlier than expected.
An early-season challenge showdown with Deportivo Saprissa should provide the best test for the Union before opening regular season play at Columbus on April 18th.
“We will need every player to be ready to go,” Curtin said. “We have the Concacaf Champions League in Costa Rica which won’t be easy and we also start the season against the defending MLS champions in Columbus. We have a lot of things that we are excited about, but still things we’d like to improve on from 2020. It will be another test for this group.”
“Its all about taking one match at a time,” Fontana said. “Saprissa has been on our minds since we started camp and it will be the first challenge of many in this new season. We can’t get caught up thinking too far down the road or else we will be in trouble. After last season’s Supporters Shield success, this group should be fighting for trophies once again.”
Philadelphia Union Roster
Goalkeepers: Joe Bendik, Andre Blake, Matt Freese, Greg Ranjitsingh.
Defenders: Aurelien Collin, Jack Elliott, Stuart Findlay, Jakob Glesnes, Nathan Harriel, Olivier Mbaizo, Matt Real, Kai Wagner.
Midfielders: Paxton Aaronson, Alejandro Bedoya, Brandan Craig, Jack de Vries, Ilsinho, Anthony Fontana, Jose Martinez, Jack McGlynn, Jamiro Monteiro, Matej Oravec, Quinn Sullivan, Cole Turner,
Forward: Cory Burke, Kacper Przybyłko, Sergio Santos.