Anthony Fontana will be the Union’s top playmaker to start the season
During the Delaware native's three years as a pro, we’ve seen lots of glimpses of what he can do for the Union. This year, it looks like we’re going to see a lot more than glimpses.
Over Anthony Fontana’s three years as a pro, we’ve seen lots of glimpses of what he can do for the Union. This year, it looks like we’re going to see a lot more than glimpses.
Jim Curtin acknowledged this week that Fontana is going to be the starting playmaker in the Union’s midfield diamond to start the season. It’s good news for Fontana, who has spent his career as an understudy to Bořek Dočkal, Marco Fabián and Brenden Aaronson.
“We’re going to give the keys” to Fontana, Curtin said. “I’m happy with where he is, and right now he is in that position for the No. 10 [role].”
Fontana, a 21-year-old Newark, Del., native, has registered 10 goals and one assist in 836 minutes on the field over 34 games. That’s an average of 1.07 goals per 90 minutes, a scoring rate with which any playmaker would be thrilled. And while he isn’t as good a passer as Aaronson, he’s better at finding spaces between opposing defenders to pop into and shoot from.
In that way, Fontana might actually be a better fit than Aaronson was for the purest form of sporting director Ernst Tanner’s tactical playbook, which values No. 10s who shoot. That doesn’t mean he’s a better player, and the Union of course wouldn’t say any of this out loud. But you get the idea.
Consider one of the European teams that best exemplifies the counter-pressing style. The top midfield playmakers at Germany’s RB Leipzig, currently in second place in the Bundesliga, are all frequent scorers: Christopher Nkunku, Emil Forsberg and Domonik Szoboszlai, the last of whom is one of Europe’s hottest prospects.
It’s not a coincidence that Aaronson’s transfer value shot up once he started shooting more often. European scouts knew he had all the other pieces to his game, but wanted to see that one before opening their checkbooks.
It also won’t be a coincidence if a few early-season Fontana goals land him on scouts’ radars, too. In fact, he’s already gotten the attention of those who know he has an Italian passport, which makes it a lot easier for him to sign with teams in the European Union. One of those teams, The Inquirer has learned, is Italy’s Venezia — a second-division club with a few Americans in its front office.
If this all sounds great to you, that’s fine. If it doesn’t, you might be one of the many Union fans frustrated that the team has spent barely any of the $12 million in transfer revenue it banked this winter on the kind of big-time attacker who would boost the team’s chances of winning a trophy for the second straight year.
“We recognize this is the group that we have for the time being,” Curtin said, a variation on a phrase he has offered countless times in his coaching career.
“That does not mean that there couldn’t be a piece coming in the near future, maybe before the MLS season kicks off,” he continued. “But we’re happy with the group that we have, and we’re prepared to go into competition with this group. We’ve prepared that way, and the players are going to be up to the challenge.”
Obviously, the lack of signings — beyond centerback Stuart Findlay, who hasn’t arrived yet because he’s stuck in a pandemic-enforced visa purgatory — isn’t Curtin’s fault. It might not even be Tanner’s, since big-ticket signings usually have to go all the way up the food chain.
But Tanner did say he’s been shopping for a new No. 10 this offseason. And fans rightly expect that $12 million to be spent in ways beyond covering pandemic-related losses. It’s fine to use some of the cash for that, but not all of it.
Signing a big-time midfielder would relegate Fontana to being an understudy again. But even in that role, he’d probably play a lot more than he has. Because the MLS season is starting later than usual, it’s going to be more compressed than usual, with a healthy serving of midweek games. The U.S. Open Cup and Concacaf Champions League will, too, if the Union make deep runs in them.
So it shouldn’t be necessary to force a choice between giving Fontana the playing time he has earned or signing a marquee playmaker. There’s room for both.
Coming scrimmages to be livestreamed
The Union will livestream two of their remaining three preseason scrimmages free of charge on their website: Saturday vs. the Chicago Fire in Clearwater, Fla., at 3 p.m.; and March 31 vs. D.C. United at Subaru Park, also at 3 p.m. The latter game will be the debut for the Union’s new color analyst, Danny Higginbotham.
As with the team’s free streaming of regular-season games on its website last year, you have to be within 75 miles of Subaru Park to watch.
Both games will be closed for in-person attendance, though some members of the Union’s Sons of Ben supporters’ club are planning to gather outside Subaru Park for the March 31 game.