Every year each professional sports franchise must navigate a long and grueling schedule that will test the physical and mental strength of a club and its players. 2020 was more than just a test for Philadelphia Union’s outside backs as the group faced obstacles every part of the year and passed with flying colors to lead the Union to its first trophy in club history.
The group entered the season with high expectations led by Kai Wagner after his standout debut campaign for the Union. Wagner started 30 matches and racked up eight assists for the high-powered offense but as the season kicked off at FC Dallas, Wagner was still in Philadelphia battling back from a lower leg injury. While COVID-19 caused a pause in the sports landscape, Wagner was able to use the time to get not only back to full fitness but match fitness too as he played every minute of the MLS is Back Tournament. Wagner notched his first Union goal while in Orlando, opening the scoring against Inter Miami CF. It looked like the left back would be back in his fine form but an injury against D.C. United saw him sidelined once more in late August.
As the run for the Supporters’ Shield heated up, Wagner returned to the squad which saw the Union drop only one regular-season match in his last nine starts. In the clash amongst the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Wagner rose to the occasion with the game-winning assist and another to add to the result.
On the other side of the defensive line stood the talented and timeliness veteran, Ray Gaddis. The club’s all-time leader in appearances and starts, he continued to defy time with 15 starts in 2020. A vocal leader for the team on and off the pitch, Gaddis’ 2020 impact was more than just with the Union as he was a founding board member for the Black Players Coalition to "address the racial inequalities in our league, stand with all those fighting racism in the world of soccer, and positively impact black communities across the United States and Canada."
On the pitch, Gaddis played a key role in seven clean sheets for the Union and added an assist against New York Red Bulls on August 25th. Like his fellow starting outside back, Gaddis too faced an injury that caused him to miss time in late September and early October.
While Head Coach Jim Curtin’s starters were out, Matt Real and Olivier Mbaizo stepped up their performances when called upon. Real started the Union’s first two road matches, showing growth in hostile environments. As Wagner reclaimed his starting role, Real continued to push hard in training so that he’d be ready for any match minutes that came his way. In true Philly grit, Real’s top performances came at the home of New York Red Bulls. On September 6th he bagged his first MLS goal and two weeks later added a pair of assists against the Montreal Impact. Real however wasn’t spared from missing time in 2020 as a training injury knocked the homegrown out of the final regular season matches.
Like Real, Mbaizo made the most of his MLS chances in 2020 with 14 appearances and 12 starts. Typically preferring the right back position, Mbaizo took turns playing on the left side of the pitch for the Union to showcase his versatility and speed. Against D.C. United, Mbaizo notched an assist while his biggest assist came late in the regular season. Brought on as a halftime substitute for Gaddis, Mbaizo locked down the Fire offense while delivering a perfect cross to Cory Burke for the match winner on October 28th.