Prioritizing development and leaning on youth amidst a hectic 2024 schedule

Union II at NYRBII | Vazquez

Philadelphia Union’s 2024 campaign is five short weeks away, and when the team takes the pitch again after a restful offseason, it’s possible that fans will start to notice some young players stepping into elevated roles come game time.

During their end of season press conference on Monday, Head Coach Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Ernst Tanner emphasized the importance of leaning on development within the club to create depth in the season ahead. A robust roster will be paramount for success due to both the protracted Major League Soccer schedule and the inevitable absences of marquee players during the upcoming year’s hectic calendar of competitions, namely 2024 Paris Olympics, African Cup of Nations, Copa America, UEFA Euros, and FIFA International Windows.

“We need to have the depth, but we need to use the depth,” Tanner said. “In a worst case scenario, we could have five absences at the same time, and more or less all of them are key players – that's what we are going to expect in summer. But there's some time that we can do some things in development until then.”

After persevering through 51-game season, the club is using lessons learned to help craft a plan for their upcoming campaign, and it’s one that they say could include new strategies like more frequent use of talent on the bench and targeting games against certain opponents to use their best XI.

“I hate saying the word prioritize because you want to win everything, but we have to get creative with what games we go full tilt after, and which games you go,’ let's rotate and change,’ then and try to keep that drop off not that much. So that's our challenge now as a staff and as a club,” Curtin said.

“Last year was the first year we went through it, so we're still learning and I think we learned a ton. Now, we'll adjust, we'll make some tweaks, we'll try some new things, and you guys might look up and go ‘What the hell! They're only playing guys 45 minutes for these games and pulling them at halftime even when they're playing good!’ We have to do that because the load just adds up over the course of the season.”

Growth for the homegrowns

It all starts at preseasons when players are arrive in mid January for the first leg of preparation. Curtin anticipates this year’s trip to the sunshine state will be an important one, especially for those looking to take the next step forward.

“It will be a big preseason for a lot of those young guys, because they're competing against each other every day. It's time for some of them to take that next step, and it's some time for some of them to hold on to their positions,” Curtin said.

“I'll use a [Jack] McGlynn and a [Nate] Harriel like that because there's others coming in that want to take their minutes, so it's healthy competition that we have and that's a good thing.”

New names for the first team

There’s a host of incoming talent to look out for in 2024, starting with 17-year-old midfielder David Vazquez, who’s been a standout playmaker on the academy, MLS NEXT Pro, and international stages. On Monday, Tanner confirmed that the club is currently in the midst of contract negotiations with the Mexican-American with the hope of having him available for first team play.

In 2023, Vazquez made 22 appearances for Union II, contributing five goals and two assists during MLS NEXT Pro play. On the world stage, Vazquez has made 14 appearances for the U17 United States Men's National Team, impressing in the 2023 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, then scoring in the 2023 U-17 World Cup Round of 16 against Germany.

Another name of note is José Riasco, who made 10 Union II appearances in 2023 before he was loaned to Club Atlético Boston River in the Uruguayan Primera Division in September. On Monday, Tanner provided an update on the forward’s likelihood to return to Philadelphia next year.

“He is doing very well in Boston River right now, he just needs to play first team minutes and develop further on. He's just 19 years of age, and the second team here was just not really the right place or where he wanted to be. But, we are also in discussions with the league in order to make it happen to bring him back for the first team,” Tanner said.

Shortly before Philadelphia's semifinal matchup against FC Cincinnati in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, the club announced they had signed midfielder Sanders Ngabo to a two-year contract starting in 2024. The Danish youth international comes for first division team Lyngby Boldklub, where he made 29 appearances, registering two assists and scoring one goal.

“Sanders Ngobo was a really promising talent, even over in the European scene, but then he got stuck with a hernia injury or with a groin injury. His club was constantly fighting for relegation promotion, and that was basically his problem. So he didn't get the minutes, but he is still 19 years of age,” Tanner said.

“There was an opportunity to bring him over and develop him further on. We just have to take it, we are the club who needs to do that, and need to show that we can do it and that we are the number one club in player development here.”

Development was a recurring theme in Curtin and Tanner's final media appearance of the year, and the lot of budding talent could help supplement the squad in the busy season to come.

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Every match matters! In 2024, you do not want to miss your favorite matchups as the Union take on the best MLS has to offer! When we score, make sure you are there to get Subaru Park shaking!

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