The Philadelphia Union is in the middle of its offseason, and while this time of the year is usually festive and bright, it’s one of chaos for MLS clubs. For Philly and the 28 other MLS teams trying to gear up for the 2024 season, this time of year is frantic with re-signing players, looking for free agents, signing draft picks, and working the global market to bring in reinforcements. The Union has shown over the last few seasons that a major part of their player acquisition is by developing, finding, and playing young players.
Relying on young players to be difference-makers
When Sporting Director Ernst Tanner arrived in the middle of the 2018 season, it was clear he had a track record of finding young players and turning them into stars. He was brought to Philly to do this while using the wellspring of the Philadelphia Union academy as his main source of developing young players. Tanner, along with head coach Jim Curtin did just that.
Philly has leaned on young players to be major difference-makers. Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie were top players in MLS in 2020 helping the Union win a Supporters’ Shield. Leon Flach, Jose “El Brujo” Martinez, and Jesus Bueno were brought in, and Jack McGlynn rose through the academy to reshape the Union’s midfield over the last few seasons. Attackers, Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, and even Chris Donovan all have been key players for Philly coming off the bench. Nathan Harriel is the latest rising star at right back.
That’s 10 players who have been major difference-makers over the last four seasons; seven of those players are still under contract with Philadelphia. These players make up the core of the team, and there will be even more young players to come through the academy, or brought to the team by Tanner. Those upcoming players will get their chance, but it will be a trial by fire.
Trial by fire
When looking back on 2023, players like Jack McGlynn, Jesus Bueno, and Nathan Harriel stand out. They all had great seasons and were all thrown into the fire to be important players. None of these players were starters at the beginning of the season, yet all were called upon at times over the 51 games played to make a difference.
McGlynn played in 32 matches, Bueno played in 36 matches, and Harriel played in 39 matches in 2023. That’s a lot of matches for players who were not seen as starters to begin the season.
These players took on that trial by fire and were made stronger for it. Who will be the next set of players ready to make that jump in 2024? Could we see Quinn Sullivan or Chris Donovan be called upon to take the place of a DP attacker, or will some new acquisitions or daft picks make the team and get a chance?
This trend is set to continue
Developing and playing young players is built into the ethos of the Philadelphia Union, and it’s a calling card that sets Philly apart from other clubs. They will continue to do this as they ready themselves for the 2024 season.
We have already seen Philadelphia sign young players, Sanders Ngabo, Nick Pariano, and Isiah LeFlore. There are also rising stars in the academy (CJ Olney and David Vazquez) who are ready to make the next step to Union II and could make a quick jump to the first team.
Could more young players step into the spotlight by being thrown into the fire? The answer to that question is likely, yes, knowing the Philadelphia Union’s likelihood to need their young players to play like seasoned veterans throughout a long and draining upcoming season.
In art three of this year in review, we will look to the future: the fast-approaching 2024 season, and also the changes that this team could face before a ball is even kicked.
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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union