Assessing the Union Offseason
With the Philadelphia Union beginning their pre-season schedule and their MLS campaign starting in a little over three weeks against Minnesota United, it is time to look back at how the team fared during the offseason. For some, it could be viewed as one of the biggest in Union history. After backing up their Supporters Shield winning campaign with a CONCACAF Champions League semi-final and Conference Final, it showed that Philadelphia were now true contenders. They were not the measly middle of the pack playoff seed that may win a playoff game. The Union were there to win the MLS Cup.
That is what made this offseason so interesting. They had major decisions to make in regards to their retained list. They also needed to make a statement in the transfer window, and they needed to keep their key players together. We see all too often an MLS team making strides before they lose two or three players to Europe or South America. That could have been the case last season, but Jim Curtin did a fantastic job to galvanise his players into second place. It will be his job this season to take his side that extra step further and make the MLS Cup Final.
After the heartbreaking loss to NYCFC in the Eastern Conference Finals, Ernst Tanner had some big decisions to make. It was not as if the Union were lining up with their strongest line-up in the biggest game in franchise history. Instead, they were having to play fringe players to fill the holes as the team had a mass COVID outbreak at the worst possible time. Unfortunately, the Union were beaten 2-1 despite taking the lead. However, players who had not played regularly, and in Aurelien Collin's case, never played stepped up and gave a fantastic account of themselves. It showed the solid depth across the board that the Union had, so when it came to making the decision about players out of contract, Tanner had some key decisions to make.
Joe Bendik, Cole Turner, Jack Elliott, Kacper Przybylko and Sergio Santos all had options in their contracts exercised. A smart move by Tanner as he managed to keep a hold of Elliott, arguably the team's most improved player in 2021. He had gone from a rotational utility player to the heart of the defence and formed a fantastic partnership with Jakob Glesnes. Keeping Turner was also a smart move as it gave the Union more time to take a look at the 20-year-old.
The team offered deals to Anthony Fontana and Matt Real. The latter decided to put pen to paper and committed his future to the Union. A fantastic piece of business from Tanner and the front office to lock up a homegrown talent that had shown promise earlier in his career. It had become evident that his contractual dispute had seen him fall out of favour for players that committed their future to the Union, so it is exciting to see Real continue his development in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Fontana decided that it was time to move on. His playing time severely decreased after a concussion in Atlanta, and his contract situation did not help matters as he fell down the depth chart behind fellow Academy graduates in Quinn Sullivan and Paxten Aaronson. Fontana remains on trial with Ascoli, but Jim Curtin has made it clear that the midfielder will always be welcome back if he decides to return. Highlighting the great player's coach that Curtin is.
Collin and Alvas Powell were released by the team, but it appears that Collin is still training with the Union. Long time cult hero Ilsinho saw his tenure in Philadelphia come to an end after an injury-ravaged season, and it was probably for the best. That moves nicely into the transfer business that the Union did over January. Another key player in the history of the franchise said his goodbyes.
Kacper Przybylko was sent to the Chicago Fire in exchange for $1.15million in General Allocation Money, which would be split across two seasons. It saw the end of Przybylko's three-and-a-half-year stint with Philadelphia, where he played a vital role in helping the franchise become contenders. Despite being a divisive figure amongst supporters, the Polish forward scored goals. He was a streaky forward, there's no doubting that, but he always scored crucial goals. He ended the 2021 campaign as the Union's top scorer and the top goal scorer of the CONCACAF Champions League. Przybylko may go missing for 89 minutes of a game, but when presented with a chance, you knew that he would take it. That happened more often than not. He struggled with the Union's differing formations and lack of support in attack at times. However, it can not be understated how crucial he was in turning the team into serious contenders. He finishes his spell as the Union's second all-time goal scorer behind Sebastien Le Toux, and will no doubt be in the team's ring of honour in future.
The departure of Przybylko made the need for strikers even more important. Before he left, Tanner pulled the trigger for Julian Carranza. The 21-year-old signed on loan from Inter Miami, and although he was not the most exciting of signings, he certainly comes with potential. Carranza signed for Miami in 2019, but injuries and the introduction of Gonzalo Higuain saw his name trickle down the pecking order. He struggled to make an impact for Miami and failed to cement a regular run of starts for the team. The Union have signed the Argentinian on loan with an option to buy at the end of the season in what appears to be a cheap deal. It is a very risk-free move and is one that could pay off in the long term. He will offer the team something different, and Jim Curtin is already heaping praise on the young forward. It is clear that there is excitement surrounding what he can do, and hopefully, he can form a prolific partnership with the team's record signing.
On January 27th, it was officially announced that the Union had their guy. They had finally signed their talisman. The player that would allow them to go from contenders to champions. Mikael Uhre. The striker signed on a three-year deal from Brondby and comes to the MLS having scored 11 goals in 15 appearances in the Danish Superliga this season. Uhre may not be universally known like Higuain, Insigne or Shaqiri, but for the Union, it was a big deal. It was a sign of intent. They smashed their transfer record, got their marquee forward and stuck to their philosophy. It has become evident that Ernst Tanner does not believe in bringing in high profiled names, but instead going into Europe and finding diamonds in the rough as well as established players in the top divisions of lesser countries. It has been a major success so far, and hopefully, Uhre can take that trend to the next level. He will be coming in with plenty of expectations to hit the ground running. Even if he does not, give him time. Look at Daniel Gazdag, it will click for him, and hopefully, he can be that man the Union depend upon.
It was also crucial that the Union managed to keep ahold of some of their most important players in January. There were expectations that Kai Wagner would leave, having expressed his desires to go back to Europe. Despite late interest from the Premier League and La Liga, nothing materialised, and he stayed. There seemed to be next to no interest for Jose Martinez. Plenty expected him to be a target for higher profile clubs. That in itself was another massive win for Philly. They have successfully kept the core of their squad together, meaning that they can continue to build off the back of their previous successes
Overall, it has been a very successful offseason for the Union. I would give Ernst an A- because nothing is ever perfect, but he has gotten pretty much every single call right. Only time will tell as to whether Carranza and Uhre will be great signings. Tanner's track record suggests that they more than likely will. The two strikers will offer a more expansive look at how the Union attacks and utilises the high press. They will only help Gazdag improve. However, I feel that this Union team lacks a plan B. There is nothing to change the game off the bench. I have been saying this for months now, but they need a quick and skilful winger. Somebody that offers them something a little bit different. If the game plan is not working or they are losing a game, a change of shape to bring a player like that onto the field to help stretch the game would be massive for them. It would take the pressure off of Olivier Mbaizo and Kai Wagner, as well as expecting Leon Flach and Ale Bedoya to provide width. They are two players that struggle to do so. Barring that, it has been a positive offseason, and with the pre-season schedule just starting, it is a fantastic opportunity to see what the Union are building ahead of the new MLS season.