In most offseasons, the Union’s fan base has grounds to complain about the team’s not signing a good striker, or a good playmaker, or sometimes both.

This winter, there’s been an unusually loud conversation about a position at the other end of the field: right back.

A vocal contingent of fans has been raising the point that Ray Gaddis just turned 30, played all 37 games last year, and recorded just one assist at a position that needs to deliver far more than that. On the other flank, left back Kai Wagner delivered eight assists.

Gaddis, the Union’s all-time minutes leader, has silenced his doubters so often that betting against him again probably isn’t a good idea. But this time, the critics have a point that even Union manager Jim Curtin doesn’t contest: It won’t be a good thing if Gaddis plays in every game for the second year in a row.

The player who can help fix that has been quietly rising up the Union’s depth chart for a while. In fact, Olivier Mbaizo likely would have made some real noise last year had his campaign not been derailed twice by injuries: some minor knocks in preseason and a torn meniscus in June. He played just four times for the Union in 2019.

But in November, Mbaizo showed his potential to the world when playing for Cameroon at the under-23 Africa Cup of Nations. He played every minute of the group stage — Cameroon finished third and was eliminated — and delivered a great free kick that led to a goal in a win over Mali.

This year, Mbaizo is healthy and raring to go, and should get a fair chance to prove himself. The first opportunity will come Wednesday, when the Union kick off their preseason scrimmage slate against Atlanta United (11 a.m., no broadcast).

“It’s an important year to, number one, stay healthy; number two, show well in the preseason games; and be that defender that the Philadelphia Union see so much potential in," Curtin said.

Curtin installed Gaddis as the certain No. 1 on the depth chart. But he also made it clear that Mbaizo will get that chance, and likely more.

“Right now, that spot is Ray’s, no question,” Curtin said. “The ceiling for Olivier is very high. … A real good engine on the right-hand side, crosses a good ball and is a great attacking defender as well.”

The Union likely aren’t alone. African youth national team tournaments draw swarms of European scouts. They’ll have noticed not just Mbaizo’s skill set, but also his wearing the captain’s armband for Cameroon’s under-20 and under-23 national teams.

Olivier Mbaizo (right) playing in a preseason game last year.
Mary Holt / Philadelphia Union
Olivier Mbaizo (right) playing in a preseason game last year.

“Everybody has seen his ability to play with his national team, and we’ve seen the flashes when he’s played for the first team here," Curtin said. “He has the ability to play in Europe; I really believe that. … If I’m doing my part and Olivier does his part, that certainly is a possible outcome for him."

There is plenty of precedent. The most famous example is fellow Cameroon native (and fellow right back) Ambroise Oyongo, who moved from the Montreal Impact to French club Montpellier in November 2017. That was a free transfer after Oyongo’s contract expired. It’s a safe bet that if — when — Mbaizo draws foreign interest, the Union will make sure they get paid.

Mbaizo knows how much work he has to do. He said “there’s no competition” between him and Gaddis to top the depth chart. But he’s ready to make his case to the Union and beyond.

“If I’m not playing, I respect the coach’s choice and I put my head down and keep working hard 100% to earn a place on the field,” he said. “This year, if I can stay healthy, I think I’ll be able to play a lot and show my mentality, my quality, and what I can do.”