Three Big Questions

Three big questions following Philadelphia Union's 2021 season

An MLS Cup champion has been crowned, the 2021 season is officially over and focus shifts to 2022 for all 28 (!) clubs as Charlotte FC also enters MLS.

Here, we'll cover three questions for every team as the offseason begins in earnest. With clubs already announcing their roster decisions, the depth charts will look lighter than the first crop of 13. Think of it as an exit interview, if you will. Matt Doyle, as always, has you covered on his preeminent season-in-review for each club. Read that, too.

He has gifs. It’s tough to beat gifs.

The big picture

"First-ever" or "club-record" are descriptors that have seemingly been overused around the Philadelphia Union in the last three years. But that's because they keep making club history.

The Union steadily kept having "best-ever" campaigns, culminating with the 2020 Supporters' Shield, their first-ever major trophy. That led them to their first-ever Concacaf Champions League qualification for 2021, outlasting all other MLS clubs before falling in the semifinals to Liga MX's Club America.

They won their first playoff game in 2019 and then got to their first-ever Conference Final this year, after beating the New York Red Bulls and Nashville SC at home. Their ECF loss to NYCFC was unfortunately marred by half of their starters being unavailable due to COVID-19 protocols, though the undermanned Union gave it a proper go and narrowly fell to NYCFC.

There'll always be some feeling of "what could have been?" for the 2021 Union and that sucks. Nevertheless, it was another really strong season with a sustainable foundation. That shouldn't be soon forgotten.

How many (if any) starters will be transferred?

The assumption from outside the Union is definitely that at least one key contributor departs this offseason. What the internal plan is – be it to hang onto their core for another season or the expected value for each player – remains to be seen. But given the club agreed on fruitful deals for Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie last year, and sent Jack de Vries on loan to Venezia, Philly don't typically stand in the way of their players when a move makes sense for all parties.

That being said, they could stand to lose up to three starters.

Venezuelan international midfielder Jose Martinez has a ton of clubs interested in him from Europe and even had inquiries in the summer that Philly didn't entertain, preferring to wait for the offseason. His excellence in MLS has been the baseline, but his stock rose with consistent performances with La Vinotinto. Though he's only spent two seasons in MLS, Martinez is 27 years old now. He's not a kid, nor a young talent breaking through into professional soccer. The timing this winter would make a lot of sense, provided the right offer arrives.

Kai Wagner is another. In an interview with Transfermarkt, he said he wants to return to Europe this winter (though he said something similar last year and ended up signing a new contract anyway). Wagner has thrived as an attacking left back in Philly's 4-4-2 tight diamond after being acquired from German third-tier side Wurzburger Kickers in 2019.

A third could be Jamiro Monteiro after a breakup seemed inevitable last summer, but no real offers arrived from Europe and Monteiro rejoined the team. He had no goals and two assists in 15 appearances following his reinstatement to the squad, not quite living up to his Designated Player tag. The 28-year-old Cape Verde international joined Philly following a disappointing stint in France with FC Metz after a strong few years in the Netherlands.

Where to focus reinforcements?

Obviously this depends on which (if any) of the players mentioned above are transferred.

Outside of that, sporting director Ernst Tanner has said Philadelphia will be looking for another center forward to supplement a group that currently includes Kacper Przybylko, Sergio Santos and Cory Burke. The club declined the purchase option on Brazilian forward Matheus Davo following his loan from Corinthians.

"We are always looking out to improve," Tanner told media last week. "As we are standing with three strikers now, we might for sure get one or better even two in order to enhance our competitiveness and get better."

With just three natural center forwards in the rotation, the Union often played with Przybylko alone up top and two attacking midfielders underneath, with either Daniel Gazdag or Paxten Aaronson playing as the de facto second forward.

"Time never stands still, and we are always on the search for the best possible player we can get. ... Maybe we even can announce something soon," Tanner said.

The futures of midfielder Anthony Fontana and defender Matthew Real appear to be away from Philly, though the Union made bona fide offers to both out-of-contract players. If both homegrowns leave, they'll need further reinforcements, be it from the academy or external means.

Which (young) players will take a big step in 2022?

In 2019, Brenden Aaronson broke into the first team and was excellent. In 2020, he took another step forward, being named MLS Best XI and sealing a club-record transfer to RB Salzburg.

McKenzie followed a similar timeline, though not quite as linear as Aaronson. He made his debut in 2018, played a few games in 2019 before becoming a Best XI center back in 2020, then sealed his own lucrative transfer to KRC Genk last winter.

Olivier Mbaizo went from intriguing rotation right back to reliable starter this year; Jakob Glesnes didn't get to show much in his debut 2020 season in MLS behind McKenzie and Jack Elliott, then broke out this year as a starter in a big way.

Who will break out in 2022?

There are several homegrowns who seem to have an inside track. Paxten Aaronson played more (and performed better) than would have been reasonably expected during preseason; he's ready for more opportunities in 2022. Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan, too, developed quickly and proved ready for real MLS minutes. That trio will be the ones to watch.

The Union have even more candidates. Jesus Bueno was acquired midseason and could have a big role if his compatriot Martinez is transferred abroad.

Is there another level for Leon Flach to hit after a really strong first season in MLS? What about Gazdag? Will Stuart Findlay have a chance to play enough to show why Philly were so bullish on his talent?

Depth chart as of Dec. 20
Union depth chart as of Dec 20

Couple thoughts:

  • Pour one out for the Ilsinho super-sub era, truly an electric time in Philly.
  • Even though Alejandro Bedoya is 34, he didn't show any signs of slowing down. Plus, McGlynn/Sullivan/Aaronson will give Curtin plenty of options to keep Bedoya fresh.
  • Gazdag took a while to get settled and refreshed following a very busy year, but the Hungarian international still delivered a respectable 4g/5a in 1,337 minutes. He's a prime candidate to break out.