5 Union II Players to watch rise the ranks to the 1st team

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

Philadelphia Union II is the best team in MLS Next Pro. With 26 points from 11 matches played, Philly boasts seven impressive wins, three draws, and one lone loss. This club has ballers at every position, and with the first team sputtering in MLS this season, some fans may be looking to its second team to see the future stars today.

Our Philly Sports Network Union team has been following the second team closely and has pinpointed five players who could soon rise up the ranks to earn first-team contracts sooner rather than later. Oh, and in case you were wondering, not one of these players is Cavan Sullivan; that would be too easy a choice. Here are five players to watch for on UII this season who could be getting homegrown first-team contracts in the near future.

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

5 Union II players to watch

Neil Pierre

By: Eric Frysinger

When watching Union II, one could be forgiven for picking Neil Pierre out as a man amongst boys. And yet, the 6’5 centerback is only 16 years old, meaning he might still be growing. In fact, the Union II website doesn’t list a height- 6’5 is pulled from their announcement of his signing as a 15-year-old in July 2023, nearly a year ago. Pierre may have grown even more since then. It’s easy to forget his age, and that he hasn’t even completed a full season with the second team.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Neil Pierre grew up focusing more on basketball than soccer. His older sister starred as a high school basketball player, and Neil sought to follow in her footsteps. His father and brother (Union homegrown Nelson Pierre, currently on loan at Skövde AIK), however, had other ideas and persuaded him to give soccer a try.

And yet, to focus only on Pierre’s height is to do him a disservice; he performed well enough with the first team this preseason to draw praise from Union first-team head coach Jim Curtin. Even when he first signed with Union II, that team’s head coach, Marlon LeBlanc, pointed out his potential and his “ability to handle pressure and remain composed when isolated,” rather than his height.

During an interview with The One Team We Agree On podcast, Pierre cited Virgil van Dijk and Antonio Rüdiger as two players he has modeled his game on. He went on to say that he thinks he can improve his ability to build from the back and remain calm under pressure, as well as his reading of the game to understand the opponent’s press. If he can combine Rüdiger’s hard edge, van Dijk’s calmness on the ball, and both players’ instincts for being in the right place at the right time, he’ll be well on his way to achieving his goals.

In 2024, Pierre has formed a formidable defensive partnership with first-team centerback Olwethu Makhanya and has already both played in and started more games than his debut season in 2023. We know Jim Curtin is reluctant to play center backs too young, given how impactful a mistake at the back can be, but if Neil Pierre continues to progress, he may not leave the team with much of a choice about, at the very least, promoting him to the first team squad.

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

Frankie Westfield

By: Tim Lovenguth

We all know the Philadelphia Union loves a left-back who can defend and help in the attack. Frankie Westfield is that type of player. Add his ability to be a vocal leader and captain of Union II to his skill on the field, and Westfield seems to be a fairly complete player. The 18-year-old has been a standout for the second team this season. He has two goals and three assists from the left-back position, playing every minute of the season for Union II. He is one of the two captains of this team and seems indispensable.

When teams try to attack down Philly’s left side, Westfield shuts them down. He wins 86.7% of his tackles per game, winning 59% of duels with the opposition, and 60.7% of aerial duels. He is a lock down defensive-minded outside back who also has the chops to go forward.

When Union II has possession, Westfield looks very similar to Kai Wagner. He bombs down the left flank and looks to be an option to produce crosses, or makes runs into the box. Westfield has made 0.73 successful crosses per game, and a cross accuracy of 36.4%. His three assists from 11 matches make him a good crosser of the ball and in the right position. Speaking of the right position, Westfield has been a willing runner coming into the box as well. He averages a shot per game and has scored twice this season.

While the sample size for Westfield is small, having a left-back who is similar to Kai Wagner in the style of play and someone who can be a leader for the team, makes him one to watch for the future. The Union doesn’t have many left-backs on their roster. Matt Real has been loaned out, and the backup to Wagner seems to be starting right-back Nate Harriel. The way Westfield is playing, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a first-team contract on his horizons maybe as soon as 2025!

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

CJ Olney Jr.

By: Steve Beavon

As the resident Union II reporter for PSN, I have a front-row seat at seeing all the talent that’s currently coming through the academy and the MLS Next Pro side, and let me tell you this, the level of talent is out of this world good, and the 5 players mentioned in this piece doesn’t come close to scratching the surface. 

Now, onto someone who, in my opinion, is the best of the lot down in the Union II roster and that’s attacking midfielder and star maestro, CJ Olney Jr. Olney is currently in his 2nd full year in the MLS Next Pro, after scoring four goals and assisting 8 times in 23 games last year, he also led the team in key passes during that season. 

Olney is the engine that drives Union II to such dominant performances like their last 2 games where they’ve won 5-1, and 3-1 just last weekend. I always mention when watching players, that there are a select few that when you watch them, you just get that feeling they’ve just got that special something and Olney gives me that feeling. 

He’s a complete creative genius, his vision and ability to read the game are already at an elite level, which separates him from the rest of the talent down in the MLS Next Pro. His passing range is phenomenal, just look at his assist to Sal Olivas last weekend, and he’s always aware of what’s going on around him. 

His pathway to the senior team is tough, Quinn Sullivan has been really good this season and obviously, Daniel Gazdag is going nowhere anytime soon, but he proves every weekend why he should be getting a look at the senior team, especially with them being so stagnant right now. He gives me the same feeling I had when watching Jack McGlynn when he was down with Union II, he’ll break through eventually, and when he does, Union fans are in for a treat. 

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

David Vazquez

By Jimmy King

Amidst the group of promising young Philadelphia Union academy players, attacking midfielder David Vazquez is near the top of the list of names to crack into Union’s first team soon.  After moving from LA to the Philadelphia area in 2022, Union acquired Vazquez’s Homegrown Priority from LA Galaxy and LAFC. 

In his first full season with Union II in 2023, Vazquez made the starting XI in 18 of his 22 MLS NEXT Pro appearances, notching 5 goals and 2 two assists for the Baby Snakes.  Vazquez registered the 2nd most key passes on the team with 38, and led the team in duels with 273 while achieving a success rate of 47.3%, showing his work rate on both sides of the ball.  

In February of 2024, Vazquez was named the 6th Union academy player to sign an MLS NEXT Pro professional contract, and signed a homegrown contract with the first team in late April, keeping Vazquez in Philly’s pipeline through 2027 with an option for 2028.  So far in 8 MLS NEXT Pro games in 2024, Vazquez has 2 goals and 3 assists, with a pass completion rate of 74.2%.

Vazquez most recently received a call-up to the United States Under-19 Men’s Youth National Team as they face off against Argentina and Uruguay in their final training camp before roster selections are made this summer’s 2024 Concacaf U-20 Championship, which will ultimately decide which nations will advance to the 2025 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Chile.

David Vazquez is often used as the #10 in Marlon LeBlanc’s 4-4-2 Diamond formation, but has been used as a shuttler on either side of the diamond, and has played as a forward/left-winger while with the US, Union loves a versatile midfielder.  Though he’s still just 18 years old, Vazquez is only 5’9 and 142 pounds, which requires him to use his vision, speed, and ability to beat players one-on-one with the ball to move the ball through the midfield and attacking third, despite being out-sized at times.  David’s team-leading 273 duels in 2022 is a strong testament to his willingness to press high up the field, an important piece to Union’s philosophy.  

The signing of Cavan Sullivan allows Union II a bit more flexibility in mid-field, which should help Vazquez’s chances of getting his first bench appearance with the First team shortly, while also adding some competition behind Daniel Gazdag with Jeremey Raefanello.  David Vazquez is a name Union fans should feel excited to see get integrated with Union’s first team in the near future.

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

Eddie Davis III

By: Paul Frenzel

The Union II has been on fire to start the 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season, picking up 26 points in their first 11 matches. This Union II side has a lot of young talents on it that Union fans should be excited about in the future, but there is one name that could come into the first team sooner than originally thought. With the Carranza transfer looming and a possible Uhre departure as well, the striker is a position that the Union will need some depth in. Insert Eddy Davis, and the Union have a young striker who is developing extremely well down with Marlon LeBlanc’s Union II side. 

Davis is a 17-year-old talent who joined the Philadelphia Union U17s back in September 2022 after leaving the New York Red Bull U17s. He made 4 appearances with Marlon LeBlanc’s Union II side in 2023, but this season in 2024 is where he really has broken out. Davis has 5 goals and 1 assist in 11 appearances this season, proving to be a vital part of the Union II. He leads the team in goals and is showing his importance for Marlon LeBlanc’s side. He has won the MLS NEXT Pro Rising Star of the Month twice already, along with winning the MLS NEXT Pro Rising Star of the Matchweek in both Matchweek 3 and 6. 

When it comes to the style of play, Eddy is exactly what supporters would want in a striker. He is clinical in front of the goal and tends to utilize his speed to gain an advantage over his opponents. He seems to fit the mold that Jim Curtin likes to see in his strikers, and as long as he continues to develop under Marlon LeBlanc, Davis might be a name that Curtin calls on within the next couple of years. All in all, this Union II team has a ton of players who have a chance to live up to their high potential, and Union supporters should keep an eye on this squad if they are not already.  

Union II
Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II

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Mandatory Credit: Philadelphia Union II