Well, it's that time of year again, the start of another MLS season! The Philadelphia Union are heading into their 12th season, with last season being their most successful, as they lifted the Supporters Shield, the first trophy in club history. With Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie's sales, the Union has two huge holes to fill in their roster. The club has gone out and signed Stuart Findlay, a 25-year-old left-footed centerback from Scottish Premiership side Kilmarnock, and have recently acquired Leon Flach, a 20-year-old central midfielder from 2. Bundesliga side, FC St. Pauli. Does either one of these signings bring excitement to Philadelphia Union fans? What about one of the five new homegrown signings in, Nathan Harriel (19), Brandan Craig (17), Jack McGlynn (17), Quinn Sullivan (17), and Paxten Aaronson (17)? Will this current roster be enough to make a deep run in the CCL (CONCACAF Champions League), the league, and eventually the playoffs? Only time will tell, but regardless of the Union making a splash with a "flashy" signing, they have been able to make the playoffs the last three seasons and keep a majority of this roster intact.
With MLS set to play a whole 34-game schedule, compared to the 23-games they played last year, let's look at last year's numbers compared to what I predict will happen in 2021.
Whether it's a shortened season or not, who would have expected a striker would lead the team in assist? When you think striker, you think of someone scoring all your goals, like Kacper was in 2019 with his team-leading 15. What's so surprising about Kacper leading the team in assist last year is, he's your typical Target Man Striker. He's tall, standing at 6'4, he's physical, he constantly would win balls in the air and make runs into the box in 2019. You look at how the Union used Kacper last year. He was making runs out into the channel, crossing the ball into the box, where he typically would be on the end of those crosses, but not so much in 2020, which might explain why he led the team in assists.
2020 Assists Leaders:
Do I think Kacper will once again lead the Union in assists this season? The answer to that is no. As I mentioned earlier, the Union will miss not having Brenden Aaronson, who was second in assists last season and was arguably their most creative player last season. Who will step up this season? My guess is Jamiro, Bedoya, and Mbaizo will be the top three in assists this season. Now, I know the name that jumps out at people is Mbaizo but look at the first leg against Saprissa. He had seven crosses into the box during the match, with one of them connecting with Kacper to give the Union a 1-0 victory. He could've potentially picked up a second assist when he put the ball into the box, and Leon Flach arrived just late. Mbaizo seems a lot more comfortable going forward and helping the Union attack, something Ray Gaddis seemed hesitant to do during his time as a Union player. I know with the arrival of Nathan Harriel this season, it's expected that Mbaizo and Nathan will split time at Right-Back, but if that game against Saprissa is anything to go by, then we could see a big season from Mbaizo in terms of assists. The other two, Jamiro and Bedoya, are probably a little bit more explanatory. Jamiro, in his first two seasons with the Union, has registered ten assists, led the team in 2019 with 7, and Bedoya has had seven the last two years. Jamiro has primarily played on the left side of the diamond during his time as a Union player and still has managed to register so many assists. If he splits time between the eight and the 10, which is a more attacking position, how many more assists could we see Jamiro register? Bedoya is always a threat going forward with some of his clever runs, and now you add a player like Mbaizo who likes getting forward from the fullback spot. How much of an impact will that have on Bedoya?
2021 Assist Leaders:
Goal Scorer Leaders:
Last season was a crazy year for the Union in terms of goals scored, as they scored 44 goals in 23 games, which was the most for an Eastern Conference team and tied for second overall with the Seattle Sounders; Portland Timbers finished first with 46 goals scored. If you go back a year prior and look at 2019, which was the Union's most successful season until last year, they scored 58 goals in 34 games played. The Union was 14 goals off, matching their 2019 total in 11 fewer games in 2020. It makes you wonder what kind of records this team would have broken in terms of goals scored; unlike most teams, who rely heavily on one striker, the Union score with a whole different cast of players. To score 44 goals overall and have your leading goal scorer lead the team with 8, it tells you everything you need to know about this team and how they rely on every player. Kacper Przyblko, Sergio Santos, and Anthony Fontana were the top three goal scorers last year, and it's hard to argue that it won't happen again.
2020 Goal Scorer Leaders:
Well, if you listened to my appearance on The Stateside Soccer Podcast back on March 24th, I spoke very highly of Sergio Santos and broke down his 2020 stats and what his numbers would've looked like if it was a regular 34 game schedule. With Anthony Fontana getting "the keys" to play as the number 10 with Brenden's departure, you can easily make the case why Anthony will be towards the top of the list in terms of goals scored. Anthony has more of an eye for goal than Brenden, and it's evident by looking at the goals Fontana scored last year for the Union in 6 fewer games. The whole argument for Sergio Santos is, can he stay healthy? He's missed 15 games since the 18/19 season due to numerous injuries. He also missed all of the 2020 pre-season and first leg against Saprissa with a toe injury. There's no question that when Sergio is on the field, he causes havoc for the opposition with his speed and left-footed shot. Jim Curtin even recently admitted how much of a difference Sergio makes when he's available, saying: "As a coach, I'm going to select him every time to be a part of the 18 because he's so talented". So, I do believe if Sergio can stay healthy, play more than 62 minutes per game, then he could make a big difference, just like we saw last season. And Kacper Przyblko has to be included in that list as well. Kacper is a player that Jim usually plays every game, and more times than not, from the start of the whistle to the end. Because of that, that means Kacper always has a chance to score. I know it has always been the Union's case to have a striker have one great year and then fall off the following year. I know Kacper went from 15 goals in 2019 to 8 goals in 2020, but Kacper was dealing with COVID to begin the season, and who knows how much that profoundly affected him during the season. Look, another season of Kacper and Sergio up top together means that they will understand each other's runs more and ultimately link up together better.
2021 Goal Scorer Leaders:
2021 Union MVP:
Last season the Union announced Andre Blake as team MVP, and whenever you have a goalkeeper like Andre Blake on your team, more times than not, he'll save you a couple of points during the season. So, it's tough for me not to choose Andre Blake here because of how crucial he was for the Union last season, but for me, it comes down to Jose "El Brujo" Martinez and Sergio Santos for the team MVP. Jose finished 4th overall in the "MLS Newcomer of The Year'' award, though it's worth noting he finished second in media voting; the media members knew how important Jose was to the Union last year. I think most Union fans will agree that they were surprised at how well Jose's passing was last year. The big question going into the 2020 season was how they could replace Haris Medunjanin's passing from the number 6 position? Jose answered that question and then some, with him completing 83% of his passes last season, but most surprising was how well he was at completing his long balls. He completed 112 out of 140, which is suitable for 80%. Not bad for a player that no one had a clue about coming out of the Venezuelan league. Jose was 4th on the team last year in tackles with 40, but most importantly, when the opposition was in the Union's final 3rd, Jose was there to put out the fire for the Union with his 25 tackles in the box, which was second only to Mark McKenzie on the team. We saw a big performance from Jose in the first leg against Saprissa, and there is no reason to think Jose won't continue that performance into the season. And finally, I believe Sergio Santos will be up there because I predict him to lead the team in goals with 15. Well, teams love players that score goals, and if Sergio does indeed lead the team in goals, he will win 2021 Union MVP.
Eastern Conference Predictions:
So, when you look at the 2021 Philadelphia Union schedule, a couple of things stand out for me:
1. We play only two Western Conference teams, Portland and Minnesota, with the Union traveling out West to play Minnesota.
2. We play New York Red Bulls, NYCFC, DC United, Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire, and yes, New England 3 times this season.
3. 8 Wednesday games, 5 of which are home. 1 Monday game, which is away at Nashville, and 2 Thursday games, both away.
4. Decision day is away at NYCFC. Decision day being away at NYCFC doesn’t boast well for Union fans because we know the Union no luck playing away to NYCFC as they’ve gone 0-4-1 in their five games against NYCFC. And the Union have lost 8/11 decision day games. Not great when you look at it, so should we chalk that game down as a loss already?
The last ten games of the season see the Union play five home games and five away games, in which eight of the ten games are against playoff teams from 2020. So, the Union must start fast and pick up 3 points as much as they can because we’ve seen in the past that the last ten games have either made or broke the Union’s season.
You look at the teams the Union had finished ahead of in 2020; most of those playoff teams have gotten better. Keeping the core of players around will boaster the Union’s chances of finishing in the top 5, in my opinion, but I don’t believe they have enough depth as of right now to make a push for the top 2 spots in the East.
For a successful season, I’d take two playoff wins and a possible chance at reaching the CONCACAF Champions League final? But, it is MLS, and it’s the craziness that we all love, so who knows what will happen until it happens!