The Philadelphia Union finished inside the top three of the Eastern Conference in each of the last three Major League Soccer seasons.
The Union have a Supporters' Shield and a semifinal berth in the Concacaf Champions League to show for their success.
Philadelphia's next goal is very clear: It wants to win MLS Cup.
“It has to be. At the end of the day, Ernst wants to win trophies, I want to win trophies, our fans want to win trophies," Union head coach Jim Curtin said on Thursday at his end-of-season press conference.
"In my time here, we have finished third, first and second in the conference and overall we’ve won the most points in the regular season over both conferences, which is really astonishing when you think back from where we came from," Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said.
There is a clear directive from within to improve on the 2021 squad in the offseason to put the club in the best position to win MLS Cup in 2022. That starts with adding a new striker. Tanner is already on the hunt for that new addition.
“Formerly I mentioned that we are going to sign a striker and hopefully we can announce something soon," Tanner said. "We are not under pressure in any way. We have a good team and we have all the time, but at the same time, it’s always good if you start the preseason with the players available."
The Union could lose a few players in the January transfer window, but as of now, Tanner said there is nothing on the table for Kai Wagner or Jamiro Monteiro.
"The market over in Europe, in this moment, is like dead," Tanner said. "There is not much movement. I’m pretty relaxed as of now, but at the same time, if somebody is going, we will definitely replace them."
At 24, Wagner may have reached his ceiling in Major League Soccer and might be prepared to make the jump back into European play. It is hard to gauge what his transfer market could end up being. He came from the third division in Germany to MLS and his current ceiling in the Bundesliga may be a mid-to-bottom tier squad because of his previous experience in the German soccer pyramid.
Monteiro was away from the Union at one point this summer as he explored a move away from MLS to be closer to his family. The Union are working on getting Monteiro's family over here on a permanent basis.
"We are working on the family visa for Jamiro’s fiance," Tanner said. "It’s not that easy, as everybody knows, we brought her over the last couple months, but we need to get her a long-term visa, which is pretty demanding as the embassies are not really open and only doing emergencies."
Monteiro will miss the first part of the Union's preseason due to his participation in the African Cup of Nations with Cape Verde. Olivier Mbaizo should also feature for Cameroon in the tournament that starts on January 9.
“I’m in touch with Kai in person anyway and with Jamiro as well and his agent," Tanner said. "There are two clear situations there and they are both contracted with us. They are expected to come back, one when the preseason starts and the other after the African Cup."
The Union have their eyes on the European scene for good reason right now. Jack De Vries just made his first-team debut for Serie A side Venezia in the Coppa Italia. De Vries is on loan in Italy until the end of the 2021-22 European season.
“He is constantly playing for the Primavera team, which is a mixture of U19s and the second team basically," Tanner said. "He scored seven goals within Autumn, which is pretty good. The responsible coaches there are telling me that he just needs to be patient and he will get his caps in the first team."
"He got a chance to play in Coppa Italia," Tanner said. "I texted him later and he said that it was good experience and he didn’t expect to get the call so early. He’s in a good spot. He likes it there and I’m happy to follow his progress there."
The complexion of Homegrown players on the roster could change in the coming weeks. Anthony Fontana and Matt Real were offered new contracts, but did not accept them.
“The door is still not closed on those two players," Curtin said. "They are very talented players that have had a taste of being an MLS starter and have done well with it."
"The question with every development is how do they come back next year and is it with the Union or another club," Curtin said. "I loved working with Anthony and watching him get better since he was 9-10 years old. He scored big goals for the Philadelphia Union in big moments and that’s what I’ll always remember. Our relationship remains strong and the same thing for Matthew. Again, a young kid that has come through the pipeline and done well for us and has gotten a taste of being a starter. I think he wants more minutes and that’s natural for a young player. He happened to have Kai Wagner in front of him and that’s something that’s difficult in pro sports."
"Whether they are with us or another club, those guys are still part of the Union family and they’ve had incredible careers and development here and you forget how young they still are," Curtin continued. "It’s just the beginning of their careers. They are just getting started. We will help navigate and talk with them as they either stick around here or move on to another club."
The Union will make at least one Homegrown signing for the 2022 season. Left back Anton Sorensen will have a first-team deal.
“He plays a position at left back, and Ernst will tell you, is one of the hardest to find in the world," Curtin said. "It’s a tough and unique skill set that he has. When you talk about talent and engine to get up and down, he certainly has that. We’ll work with Anton on doing it every day."
"Once you get to this level, your talent only gets you so far," Curtin said. "He has talent, no question. If you made a checklist of qualities of a left back, they are all there. What he needs now is games. We saw him get better as the season went on. He has to come in very fit and prove that he can push and get first-team minutes in the team."
Sorensen was called up to the first team for the Eastern Conference Final due to the team's COVID-19 hardships. He could be Wagner's backup at left back if Real moves on from the club.
Philadelphia could make more noise in defense soon. Tanner hinted at a potential contract extension for center back Jack Elliott.
“It’s clear that we are dealing with that. Let’s see what we can do and what we announce soon," Tanner said.
The Union recently signed Jakob Glesnes to a contract extension that keeps the Norwegian in Chester for the next three years.
“We believe building up the spine of the team is important," Curtin said. "Jakob’s leadership in the locker room is really vital to our club and our success. His actions on the field speak for themselves. He’s as good of a defender as we have in MLS."
"Sometimes the accolades lag behind a year or two and more people recognize you, especially with defenders and then they get their credit and All-Star selection, or best XI. It takes some time," Curtin said."
"Jakob has been a true professional, a warrior back there. He can raise his level and then not to mention he can score the occasional goal that makes your fans and coaching staff go completely insane. He’s a great person and great leader. For Ernst to lock him up and for Jakob to want to be here in Philadelphia says a lot about the direction of the club and the presence of a real foundation on that back line and in the goal with Andre as well," Curtin said.
Philadelphia will also have to make a change on the coaching staff after Pat Noonan's departure to FC Cincinnati. Curtin and Tanner's phones have been ringing constantly about that, but a decision on the new assistant will not be rushed.
“Ernst’s phone has been ringing off the hook. My phone has been ringing off the hook," Curtin said. "There’s tons of interest. A lot of coaches want to be part of our environment and learn our principles and style and want to be in our culture, which is a good thing. We certainly have a lot of options from within. Our first pillar is to build from within. We will certainly look internally. There’s candidates internationally and from the league, there’s players and coaches I’ve worked with in the past. We’ll sit down and make a decision. It’s not one you want to rush into because we have a little bit of time and want to make the smart decision. There’s no shortage of candidates and that is a good thing."