For months, the Philadelphia Union have been celebrated for the development then lucrative transfers of academy products Brenden Aaronson (to RB Salzburg) and Mark McKenzie (KRC Genk), all after winning the 2020 Supporters' Shield.
It's been a good time to be a Union fan, but now as the club gathers for preseason ahead of the 2021 campaign, the tricky task of replacing two Best XI players is directly in front of the group. Head coach Jim Curtin is as confident as ever.
"With the strong pipeline of young players we have, we have a real belief we won’t miss a step moving forward," Curtin told media on a virtual press conference Wednesday. "Others will step up in their absence, we’ll call on some guys to lead who had smaller roles last year, but we think we made some good improvements.”
In addition to the five homegrown players joining the squad in 2021, highlighted by Brenden's brother Paxten Aaronson, Brandan Craig and more, the Union have a number of academy products in the first team awaiting a larger role in the first team, like Anthony Fontana and Jack de Vries.
The new wave of academy talent have already impressed as preseason is underway.
“All of those players have shown they belong already," Curtin said. "For 16 and 17-year-olds to jump in and play against Ilsinho, Kacper [Przybylko], Jamiro, [Jakob] Glesnes and everyone, and do well, speaks to the talent they have. It’s what we believe in.”
Fontana, meanwhile, has had to wait for opportunity, though burst into the team with six goals in just 509 minutes last year. De Vries made four appearances off the bench in 2020, his first season with the first team.
In addition to the high-profile departures of McKenzie and Aaronson, the club moved on from a few first-teamers, including leaving the club with just three forwards. A team that routinely plays with two up top, coming into a busy soccer calendar, three forwards isn't enough. But the solution may already be in the locker room.
“We’re talking about internal solutions to solve the problem," Curtin said. "For example, we’ll give more reps to Jack de Vries, who can drift beneath the striker. He’s had a good relationship playing underneath Kacper. ... Ilsinho can do it obviously or we can alternate the formation. A lot of things are being discussed.”
Scottish center back Stuart Findlay remains the club's only senior addition of the winter so far. He will go a long way to helping soak up the minutes left behind by McKenzie, alongside incumbents Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott with the younger options behind that trio.
Still, further reinforcements from abroad are expected at some point in 2021.
“Every team right now is still looking to add, upgrade. ... We’re like the other MLS teams that I can say with confidence that I love and believe in the group we have right now, but at the same time we’re always looking to upgrade, so I’m sure there’ll be a piece or two will come in," Curtin said. "The group you see right now is not the final product, that’s clear.”