Philadelphia Union Season Preview Part 1: The 2024 Roster

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Finally – the last full week without meaningful Union soccer until next December(hopefully). We’re just one week away from Philadelphia Union kicking off their 2024 season against Deportivo Saprissa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, so let’s take a look at what the Blue and Gold’s roster is looking like coming into the new season.

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

A relatively quiet off-season for the Union

Much against the wishes of Union fans, Ernst Tanner didn’t make too much of a splash in the off-season when it comes to new additions to the squad that can make an impact right away – but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some good business done. Here’s a list of all the incoming and outgoing players heading into the 2024 season.

Outgoing Players

  • D – Anton Sorenson – Option Declined
  • GK – Joe Bendik – Option Declined
  • M – Andres Perea – Traded to NYCFC
  • F – Nelson Pierre – Loan to Skövde AIK through 2024
  • M – Richard Odada – Loan to Aalborg BK through June 30, 2024

I don’t think you can be too unhappy with any of these names that departed after 2023. Anton Sorenson is stuck behind both Kai Wagner and Matt Real and at 21 it might be best for him to head to a team where he can have a better shot at first-team minutes. Joe Bendik was a great servant for the club, but the drop-off between him and Andre was too big for a club that wants to compete across multiple competitions.

The way things turned out with Andres Perea will always be a bit of a head-scratcher to me, but Ernst Tanner did well to make a bit of a profit from the sale of Perea by not including a buy-option in the loan agreement, forcing NYCFC to come back and pay an additional transfer fee for Parea in the off-season. I’m interested to see if Richard Odada can break into some first-team minutes when he returns from what seems like a rather successful loan to Aalborg BK

Incoming Players

D – Kai Wagner – Re-Signed
M – Ale Bedoya – Re-Signed
GK – Oliver Semmle – Transfer from Louisville City
F – Markus Anderson – Transfer from Rayo Majadahonda
M – Sanders Ngabo – Transfer from Lyngby Boldklub
D – Isaiah LeFlore – Signed from Houston Dynamo 2
M – Nick Pariano – Homegrown
D – Jamir Berdecio – Loan from Oriente Petrolero

Union‘s two biggest moves of the off-season were bringing back club Captain Ale Bedoya with both an on and off-the-field role, and recently controversial LB Kai Wagner. Most of the other signings – Ngabo, LeFlore, Pariano, Berdecio, Anderson – feel like low-risk, high-reward type players that will probably start with Union II and serve as pieces to build on when the next wave of exciting players come up through the Academy.

That being said, Jim Curtin was quick to point out the hard work and inter-squad competition that 20-year-old Markus Anderson has been bringing to the Forward group in pre-season training since his arrival, which is welcomed at every position in this Union team.

My favorite move of the off-season is bringing in GK Oliver Semmle from Louisville City. Semmle had a great season for Louisville in the USL last season, registering a league-high 13 clean sheets in 34 appearances. I feel confident that Semmle is an upgrade in the backup GK position which will be important this season with Andre Blake set to miss a minimum of 10-ish game or so due to International Duty.

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Full Roster heading into 2024

So with all the movement amongst the squad laid out, let’s take a look at Union’s roster as a whole heading into the 2024 season, and how prepared each positional group is to compete across multiple competitions and assign each positional group a grade.

Key

^ – Probable Starter
# – Injury
* – Rumored Move

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Goalkeeper

  • Andre Blake – ^
  • Oliver Semmle
  • Holden Trent
  • Andrew Rick

One of the Union’s biggest strengths will always be having one of the best Goalkeepers in MLS history between the posts – Andre Blake. How much more can be said about the guy? 4-time MLS All-Star, 3-time MLS Goalkeeper of the Year(the first player in MLS history to do so), and has his name under quite literally every GK stat in Union’s history book. He is Union’s biggest rock. But Ernst Tanner did well to address a huge question coming into the 2024 season – who would be Blake’s backup?

As I already spoke on, Semmle is an upgrade from Joe Bendik. Curtin spoke with him recently and said he is already fitting in well with Union both on and off the field – something important to Union’s culture. Curtin said he also liked how big, physical, and demanding Semmle is and at just 25 years old coming from USL, Union has someone with both some quality starting experience and some youthful energy behind Andre Blake.

Holden Trent and Andrew Rick will likely spend all their time with the second team this season but have both shown some promise down in UII – especially 18-year-old Andrew Rick. Overall, I feel much better about the GK group than I did a few weeks ago, or even than I did last season. I think it’s an upgrade.

The best GK in MLS gives the GK group a high grade off the bat, and now they’ve got a 25-year-old GK with lots of starting experience in USL under his belt behind Andre Blake – a huge question mark answered with Andre Blake missing around 10 games this season

GK Grade: A-

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Defenders

  • LB – Kai Wagner – ^
  • CB – Jack Elliott – ^
  • CB – Jakob Glesnes – ^
  • RB – Nate Harriel – ^
  • LB – Matt Real
  • LB – Isaiah LeFlore – #
  • CB – Damion Lowe
  • CB – Olwethu Makhanya
  • CB – Brandan Craig – *
  • RB – Olivier Mbaizo
  • RB – Jose Jamir Berdecio

Criticism of Ernst Tanner’s roster-building strategy over the last couple of seasons is justified, but one thing you’ve got to tip your hat to is Union’s ability to keep their core group of players together – and their backline is no exception. Amongst other clubs in MLS, the Union have ranked in the top 5 in goals conceded in the last 4 seasons, it’s a huge part of their DNA, and keeping that core group of players together should keep them as one of the league’s best teams defensively again in 2024.

Bringing back Kai Wagner answers another huge question mark and eliminates the headache of trying to find a new LB to fit the system and contribute right away. To me, it feels like Nate Harriel finally has the key to the RB position, but competition between him and Mbaizo gives the team solid depth in that position. The addition of Damion Lowe last season was welcomed and needed, and Jim Curtin says he seems extra motivated during pre-season. He will also add some solid competition in the CB position.

We haven’t seen a ton of Matt Real at LB, and I’m honestly not sure if we’ll get any more of him this season than we have in the past, but with Isaiah LeFlore set to miss most of the season due to an ACL injury, the back-up LB spot is Real’s for the taking – though we’ve seen Nate Harriel step into both the LB and CB position in emergencies, which Jim Curtin said they’ll likely utilize again this season.

Olwethu Makhanya and Jamir Berdecio will likely spend most of the season with UII, and Brandan Craig seems set to head out on loan to USL side El Paso Locomotive, a move he probably needs so he’s not stuck behind Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes and Damion Lowe.

Overall, Union has one of the best backlines in MLS, which gives them a deserving high grade. My worry comes in the department of depth – it does feel like Union is one injury away from needing to shift their entire plan defensively. The Center-back group feels OK, with Damion Lowe acting as CB3 and Nate Harriel able to slide over as well, especially in a back 3. Same with RB with Harriel and Mbaizo able to rotate as they have over the seasons.

LB might be the one defensive position that’s a little light, with Curtin not giving Matt Real too much time there and tending to move Harriel there instead. The defense is strong, and they have options behind every position, so it deserves a pretty good grade, but for some reason, the amount of games and the prospect of injury scares me.

Defense Grading: B+

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Midfielders

  • CAM – Daniel Gazdag – ^
  • LCM – Jack McGlynn – ^
  • CDM – Jose Martinez – ^
  • RCM/CDM – Jesus Bueno – ^
  • CAM – Joaquin Torres
  • CAM – Jeremy Rafanello
  • CAM – Nick Pariano
  • CM/CDM – Leon Flach – #
  • RCM – Ale Bedoya
  • RCM – Quinn Sullivan
  • RCM – Sanders Ngabo

It feels like the Union is hanging a lot of their hopes for the 2024 season on several players taking the next step in their careers, and the midfield is probably the biggest example of that. Jack McGlynn, Jesus Bueno, and Quinn Sullivan seem like they’ll be relied on more than ever in 2024. The left side of the 4-4-2 Diamond belongs to Jack McGlynn at this point, and it really feels like this could be the season the whole world learns his name after making his first USMNT appearance ahead of the Olympics.

Jesus Bueno will likely get a lot more responsibility this season as well, with the right side of the diamond up or grabs and Leon Flach missing a chunk of time with a pectoral injury. But the most exciting of the young guys to me is Quinn Sullivan, who Jim Curtin is using a lot more on the right side of the Diamond in pre-season. Hopefully, that will be a position that allows him to play more naturally, he can be a really creative player at times which Union could use.

Daniel Gazdag is on his way to becoming the Union‘s all-time leading goal scorer, and yet there is still some need for him to contribute a bit more from open play this season. And not to mention, his backup is still pretty undecided with Joaquin Torres not working out in his first season as well. Can Torres get things going in Year 2, or does Curtin have a plan b for Gazdag’s backup?

Jose Martinez at the bottom of the midfield adds an extra layer of protection to that strong back-line, but with the injury to Flach and Martinez seeing a few small injuries last season himself, the midfield does feel a bit thin defensively. But like the backline, the midfield has a few players that can slide into different roles, with Jesus Bueno able to play both CDM and a more progressive role. I’m giving the midfield a B to start the season, but could easily see this ending the season as an A with the returnof Leon Flach and if some of those young guys can actually take a big next step. We’ll have to see.

Midfield Grading: B+

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Forwards

  • Mikael Uhre – ^
  • Julian Carranza – ^
  • Tai Baribo
  • Markus Anderson
  • Chris Donovan

Union’s Forward group is also really strong, with Uhre and Carranza and the combo of midfielder Daniel Gazdag accounting for the most goals by a front 3 in MLS over the last couple of seasons. But of course, Carranza could very likely be on the move this summer. We’ll finally be able to see what a player like Tai Baribo offers, and the addition of Markus Anderson adds some needed competition up top alongside Chris Donovan who’s looking to add to a decent season in 2023.

I think Union’s starter two forwards have the potential to win this team trophies, but there is some need for Mikael Uhre to contribute more. This feels like the part of the team that’s most fragile – one injury or transfer makes this team much weaker. Tai Baribo working out or not will play a huge role in how this Forward group performs in 2024.

Forward Grading: B

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union

Notable UII / Academy Players

  • D – Neil Pierre
  • M – David Vazquez
  • M – CJ Olney
  • M – Cavan Sullivan

Jim Curtin has been quick to shoutout a few young players like Neil Pierre, David Vazquez, and CJ Olney, who seem like they all could be options for the first team on an emergency basis after strong pre-seasons down in Florida – but we’ll have to see. Nonetheless, they’re very exciting players to keep an eye on in UII this season for the future. And of course, I think we’d all love to see 14-year-old Cavan Sullivan play for the first team before one of Europe’s biggest clubs come and snatch him away – but we’re probably not there quite yet. Let the kid be a kid.

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A good roster on paper

Overall, I think Union looks just as good on paper as they did last season and could see improvement if a few players can take their next step. That being said, it feels like Union is relying a little too much on those guys to take the next step or for players who didn’t work out last season to turn it around and contribute this season. It could very well happen – I’m probably more optimistic than most that players like McGlynn, Sullivan, Bueno, and Baribo will be able to contribute more with a good pre-season – but it also could very well not happen.

How it all pans out is something we’ll have to wait and see, and I think that’s where a lot of fan’s frustration comes from, to be honest. While a lot of other teams in MLS are spending money on notable players they feel confident will contribute right away, Union is hoping a lot of players take the next step to get Union over the hump. And while that does align with the way the Union tends to do things, do Union fans still have confidence in the way they tend to do things?

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