Philadelphia Union's long-term plan is coming to fruition in 2020


Over the last few years, a handful of buzzwords have been used inside the Philadelphia Union training facilities.

Depth. Development. Dynamic.

Sporting director Ernst Tanner and head coach Jim Curtin have preached about having two high-quality players at each position to ensure little drop off between the first-choice players and reserves when injuries happen.

No one could have foreseen a pandemic-delayed season in which three games in seven or eight days has become the regular scheduling mechanism and the start-stop nature of the campaign affected the health of a handful of players.

With Kai Wagner, who had a best XI caliber season in 2019, out for most of the club's Phase 1 contests and Jack Elliott on the sidelines for the last two games, the Union have called on their reserves to fill their roles and they have thrived.

It may be hard to call Jakob Glesnes a reserve since the Union employ a three-man rotation at center back, but with the way Elliott was playing, it was hard to keep him out of the first-choice lineup over the Norwegian.

In Wagner's place, the Union asked Olivier Mbaizo to shift to left back over Matt Real in what has turned into a brilliant move of managing by Curtin.

Mbaizo has been one of the Union's most consistent players over the last few games. The move also lit a fire under Real, who delivered two assists from the left wing when he got his starting opportunity in Sunday's 4-1 win over Montreal.

Before the Wagner acquisition, we thought Real and Mbaizo would form the fullback pairing in 2019 and beyond. That could still eventually be the case, but Wagner and Ray Gaddis, who was sidelined with an injury Sunday, have played at such a high level that it is hard to remove them from the starting XI when they are available for selection.

The depth has also come in clutch at forward, where Andrew Wooten has been more productive over the last three games than any stretch in his Union career.

Strikers are ultimately judged by their goal-scoring records, and Wooten needs to improve in that category. But the German-American has not let the lack of goals affect his play, as he produced three assists in the last three contests.

Something as subtle as chesting the ball down to Alejandro Bedoya's feet on the Union's first goal against Montreal can go a long way in affecting a game. Bedoya's 22nd-minute goal took the pressure off the Union to press for a tally up a man and it opened the gates for three more strikes to flow past Clement Diop.

Midfield depth was a primary target of Tanner's in the offseason. By discovering Jose "El Brujo" Martinez in the Venezuelan first division, he allowed Warren Creavalle to slide into a backup defensive midfield role, one that suits him perfectly as someone who can clean up games or make spot starts, like he did Sunday.

The other key piece of midfield depth coincides with the Union's commitment to developing their Homegrown Players. Anthony Fontana's development has surged forward in the way many hoped it would when he scored in the season opener back in 2018.

Fontana has taken more time to develop than other Homegrowns, but now that he is ready to contribute on a regular basis, he gives the Union another impact substitute to use.

An argument can be made for Fontana to start on certain occasions, including Wednesday's trip to FC Cincinnati, but it will be hard for him to vault Martinez, Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro or Brenden Aaronson on a regular basis.

The more convincing argument to be made is to have Fontana be the first substitute off the bench instead of Ilsinho, who has one goal and one assist in 11 regular-season appearances in 2020.

Ilsinho is still the best one-on-one attacker in the Union squad. That is not an indictment on anyone else's talent, that just speaks to how skilled the Brazilian is.

Instead of using Ilsinho as the first sub moving forward, Fontana should be the player charged with wearing down defenses and then the 34-year-old mastermind can enter as the final gut punch to a tired defense.

Fontana also brings more tactical flexibility to the lineup since he can be effective in the second striker role, or as a No. 10 in place of Aaronson. Ilsinho is still most reliable on the wing, which typically requires a shift to the 4-2-3-1 and sometimes gives the Union an unbalanced overload on the right with him, Bedoya and Gaddis.

Fontana is the latest in the line of Homegrowns to marvel with his improved ability in 2020. Aaronson and Mark McKenzie brought their games to another level at the MLS is Back tournament and there has not been much of a drop off since returning from Orlando.

McKenzie produced his first two assists in an MLS regular-season game Sunday while limiting the chances of the Impact. Aaronson was his typical dynamic self and chipped in the primary assist on Kacper Przybylko's 47th-minute goal.

Aaronson has been the key to unlocking the dynamic aspects of the attack. The New Jersey native has used his vision to pick out passes and make carving runs past defenders. He is not going to beat many players with his speed, but his tactical acumen and positioning is improving by the game, as is his touch in the final third.

Whatever concerns developed about Przybylko's finishing touch at MLS is Back have dissipated during the team's current winning run.

With his two goals Sunday, Przybylko moved into fourth on the team's all-time scoring chart behind Sebastien Le Toux, CJ Sapong and Jack McInerney.

With three more goals, the 27-year-old will have back-to-back double-digit scoring seasons. That is likely to happen if he stays healthy with the way Aaronson is producing in the final third and how well Przybylko has combined with Wooten and Sergio Santos.

The most remarkable aspect of the dynamic attack, which scored 14 goals in the last five victories, is most of the achievements have occurred without Monteiro contributing on the scoresheet.

The club's record signing has not scored yet in a regular-season game in 2020 and has two assists, one of which came Sunday night. While those are concerning numbers, it is worth noting Monteiro is receiving more defensive attention than a year ago, and in a way, it is opening up more space for Bedoya to trickle forward and create attacking opportunities.

Monteiro's expectations to deliver goals and assists should still be high, but in a similar vein to Wooten at the moment, he is contributing not by scoring, but by doing little things in midfield that open up space for others, or by playing the first ball in an attacking move that may not get credited with an assist.

If Monteiro becomes more active in the final third alongside Aaronson, the Union could produce a more dynamic attack than they already have, and that could be the X-factor to catch the Columbus Crew in the race for the club's first trophy, the Supporters' Shield.

The high standard set by Curtin and Tanner will not allow the Union to celebrate their recent success too much, but it has been made clear in the last six weeks that the plan set in motion when Tanner arrived is working and should produce more successful results in the future.