We're just four days away from the start of the 2022 MLS season that kicks off on Saturday, February 26th, with the Philadelphia Union against Minnesota United FC.
Under the direction of Head Coach Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner, the defense has been a main focal point for the Boys in Blue as they have marched their way up the Eastern Conference over the past three seasons. Gone are the question marks that the team saw in 2021 with all four starters back and looking to build upon a season that saw the club combine for 12 regular season shutouts and only 35 goals allowed.
It begins in the middle of the backline with one of the strongest center back pairings in the league thanks to Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes. In the Union's 43 games across all competitions in 2021 ,the defense was anchored by the duo in 41 contests. As the Union fully adapted to a high press and counter attacking philosophy both Elliott and Glesnes are sometimes left on an island to snuff out an opposition's counter attack as both the outside backs join into the attack.
Fearless tackling is required on an island with Elliott winning 36 tackles in the regular season and adding an additional 55 interceptions to lead the way. While defense is the main objective for the pair, 2021 saw both add their name to the scoreboard with Elliott scoring for the fifth straight season while Glesnes again had a long-range golazo that continues to bounce back and forth off under the crossbar in Atlanta.
Glesnes was the leading defensive scorer however with Kai Wagner's finesse notching three goals as well in 2021 that made him an MLS All-Star for the first time in his career.
The left back from Geislingen an der Steige, Germany, has left opposing outside backs, wingers and forward frustrated when they attack the left side of the Union since he arrived but Wagner turned it up another gear in 2021. Leading the Union defense with 44 successful tackles and 54 interceptions, Wagner also plays a key role in the offensive philosophy of the Boys in Blue. Counter attacking has been the bread and butter for the Union but when facing a defensive shape both Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo provide the width to stretch out the opposition.
Wagner racked up over 1,200 completed passes for the Union but was decisive in the final third of the pitch accounting for 53 key passes and four assists. On the other side of the pitch, Mbaizo's passing was responsible for the first Union goal of the season as the Union grab an important road goal at Deportivo Saprissa.
Working behind veteran Ray Gaddis for past three seasons, Mbaizo was handed the keys in preseason and hasn't given them back as his chemistry continues to grow with Alejandro Bedoya on the right side. Completing nearly 79% of his passes, Mbaizo too isn't afraid to have a look on goal either with the Cameroonian nearly notching his first professional goal late in the season against FC Cincinnati. While Wagner had over 200 crosses in the regular season, Mbaizo was the more accurate connection with 25% of his flicks from the wing into the 18-yard-box connecting with a teammate.
As the Union looks for more history in 2022, last season showed for the Union's defense is not only are they able to keep a zero on the scoreboard, they're playing key roles in adding a DOOP to the Union side as well.