1102 Roster Construction Cup

The thinnest of margins have separated LAFC and the Philadelphia Union this year.

Two dominant teams on either coast, they finished 2022 level on points (67). LAFC took home the Supporters’ Shield thanks to the wins tiebreaker (21 vs. 19), while Philly had the superior goal difference (+46 to +28).

The paths each club traversed to arrive at the final destination of MLS Cup 2022, held Saturday afternoon at Banc of California Stadium (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada), were fascinatingly different.

One club represents the glamor of the Hollywood sign they play under – with the stars, sleek kits, new stadium and celebrities in the suites. Then the other manifests the blue-collar, brash nature of their city – with a physical, nonstop high-pressing system, one of the lowest budgets in the league and team-is-the-star ethos.

Let’s explore the core tenets behind the roster builds for Philly (East No. 1) and LAFC (West No. 1).

1
Building around incumbents

The Philadelphia Union underwent a roster transformation over the last half-decade, but some core pieces have evolved with the group.

Jim Curtin has been their longtime head coach, taking over in 2014 and standing as one of MLS’s longest-running managers. The new front office retained him as they changed playing styles, and Curtin has grown to be recognized as one of the very best coaches in MLS, with two Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year awards (2020, 2022) in his cabinet.

Club captain Alejandro Bedoya was already here. Three-time Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake was, too. So was fourth-round SuperDraft pick (!) Jack Elliott. All three players have been integral to the club’s growth. Starting right back Olivier Mbaizo has been at the club since 2018, and super-sub forward Cory Burke too.

Kai Wagner was among the first signings under sporting director Ernst Tanner in 2019 and quickly became the best left back in the league. D-mid Jose Martinez and center back Jakob Glesnes both arrived in 2020. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but three full seasons with seven starters and a head coach is legit stability in this sport and league.

For all the headlines about homegrowns coming and going, the Union have done really well at retaining continuity and stability at their center. That gives the homegrowns (and new signings) the best platform to fit in and succeed.

2
Value signings that fit the system, plus homegrowns

The Union have been better than anyone else in MLS at finding value relative to their budget. First, some players acquired externally:

  • Martinez from Zulia FC in Venezuela, $325k transfer fee
  • Wagner from Wurzburger Kickers in Germany, around $200k transfer fee
  • Glesnes from Stromsgodset in Norway, $375k transfer fee
  • Leon Flach from FC St. Pauli in Germany, $200k transfer fee
  • Julian Carranza from Inter Miami CF, $500k GAM (trade then permanent)

As covered above, Blake (No. 1 overall 2014) and Elliott (No. 77 overall 2017) were SuperDraft selections and Bedoya was just a $1 million fee from Ligue 1’s Nantes, but all three were already here.

All of that is insane. Wagner was a finalist for Defender of the Year in 2022 and will soon be transferred for many millions of dollars. Glesnes won Defender of the Year. Martinez is a top-three DM in this league. Flach has appeared in every single game the Union have played over the last two years… at 21 years old. Carranza was an afterthought in Miami and became a perfect fit for this team.

If they hadn’t been so successful with those signings, we’d be talking about their academy kids the same way we did Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie two years ago before those US internationals moved abroad. Jack McGlynn has played the most minutes this year and is viewed as an elite young talent in MLS, as is Paxten Aaronson. Quinn Sullivan, Brandan Craig and Nathan Harriel are highly-rated as well.

One advantage of a robust academy that graduates homegrowns into the first team is they’ve already been playing the system for years. When they get to an MLS contract, they don’t have to learn a new style or have any questions about their role. That depth is so useful and it helps with continuity.

3
Top-level replacements

Most were value signings in general, but I want to point out the front-end ones were opulent by the Union’s standards.

Last year, Philadelphia were very good, just like they were in 2020 when winning the Supporters’ Shield. But they didn’t have elite attacking talent to take them over the top, particularly in knockout competitions (playoffs, Concacaf Champions League) where that’s so important.

This year is vastly different. Daniel Gazdag, in his first full year after arriving via a $1.8 million deal from Hungary’s Honvéd, had 22 goals and 10 assists this season. Mikael Uhre, signed this winter from Denmark’s Brøndby for a club-record $2.8 million fee, recorded 13 goals and six assists in just over 1,600 minutes.

The Union went big (for their track record) and hit.

To wrap it all up here, even as they’ve moved players on (like Aaronson and McKenzie, but stalwarts Auston Trusty, Haris Medunjanin, Jamiro Monteiro and Kacper Przybylko as well), the Union have not only replaced them but improved. Glesnes, Martinez, Gazdag, Uhre and Carranza have all been upgrades, somehow.

1
Stars

It starts with Carlos Vela.

Sure, he’s not quite at his 2019 MVP level right now, but that was checks notes literally the best single season in league history (34 goals and 15 assists in 31 matches). He’s still a top-level star. We’ve somehow taken for granted 12g/11a in 2,333 minutes this year.

Denis Bouanga is a star, too. He quickly adapted to the league this summer and it’s evident why LAFC spent a reported $5 million to sign him from since-relegated Ligue 1 side Saint-Etienne. The Gabon international is electric and is oozing confidence after his Shield-clinching stoppage-time goal in Portland and El Trafico-style brace against the LA Galaxy in his playoff debut, a 3-2 Conference Semifinal victory.

Chicho Arango has turned into a star since arriving, winning 2021 MLS Newcomer of the Year honors and placing as an MVP finalist in 2022. Though he doesn’t have quite the same profile as his fellow forwards, the Colombian striker is still awesome. He had 16g/5a in 2,353 minutes this year and has scored another two goals in the playoffs.

LAFC took big swings to add Gareth Bale, Giorgio Chiellini and Cristian Tello this summer as well. None are automatic to start – heck, only one (Chiellini) even really has a chance to. Tello and Bale haven’t appeared in the playoffs yet.

2
Re-emphasis on MLS experience

More importantly than adding stars, LAFC re-emphasized the value of MLS experience this winter.

Obviously Vela and Diego Rossi stand out most from their historic, Shield-winning 2019 season … but the foundation under then-head coach Bob Bradley was made up of dependable MLSers that ranged from above average to elite. Walker Zimmerman, Tyler Miller, Steven Beitashour, Mark-Anthony Kaye, Jordan Harvey and Latif Blessing were integral members of that team. As everyone but Blessing has left, they weren’t replaced by much MLS experience.

General manager John Thorrington changed that this past offseason.

Kellyn Acosta (trade with Colorado), Ilie Sanchez (free agency, ex-SKC), Maxime Crepeau (trade with Vancouver), Ryan Hollingshead (trade with Dallas), Franco Escobar (trade with Atlanta) and others were signed. It was an injection of something like 1,000 games of MLS experience. Particularly early in the 2022 season, that carried the team as first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo molded the group.

Four of those players are first-choice starters for this team in MLS Cup.

3
Rising young talents

Though LAFC haven’t gone down to South America recently in this category, the Black & Gold have found great success with rising young talents. In this team, center-mid Jose Cifuentes and left back Diego Palacios are key, as is forward Kwadwo Opoku.

Cifuentes and Palacios were part of Ecuador’s impressive 2019 U-20 World Cup team before being signed by LAFC. They’ll be on the senior side at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in a few weeks too. Opoku, signed from Ghana out of relative obscurity, has kept performing even as LAFC sign big-money attackers.

The development of all those players is a core tenet. Cifuentes is the best example on this team, following Rossi (now at Fenerbahce in Turkey) and Eduard Atuesta (now at Palmeiras in Brazil). The dynamic central midfielder was on plenty of Best XI presented by Continental Tire ballots.

Cifuentes is in the 91st percentile in progressive passes and dribbles among midfielders in MLS, and the 78th percentile or better in goal contribution stats (like shot-creating action, non-penalty xG, goals, assists, etc.). He’s a star and will be in Europe very soon.

Palacios, too, is likely to be in Europe at some point sooner rather than later. Opoku has been a big reason why Bale giving them next to nothing hasn’t been a problem, and he’s keeping Tello on the bench. Those are former Real Madrid and Barcelona wingers!

Colombian center backs Jesus Murillo and Eddie Segura don’t totally fit in this category because they weren’t in the same mold when arriving from South America. But in the larger idea of finding talent and developing them here, it counts.