The Union’s best ever season ended Thursday night with a loss to reigning MLS champion Atlanta United in the conference semifinals. Now it’s time to look ahead to the offseason.
Here are seven big questions the team faces on and off the field.
Will Jamiro Monteiro be bought?
This is the first, biggest and potentially most expensive question to answer. Monteiro was everything the Union hoped for and more when he was acquired in March on loan from French club Metz. He was No. 2 on the team in assists (9) and chances created (43), No. 3 in tackles (78), No. 4 in shots (56) and No. 1 in dribbles past opponents (66).
Monteiro’s loan agreement had two option clauses: to extend the initial four-month deal for the rest of the year, then to buy after the season ended. The first happened, and now it’s time to decide on the second.
Though the purchase price has never been published, we know that Metz paid $3.5 million to acquire Monteiro from Dutch club Heracles Almelo in July of 2018. Metz presumably wants to make their money back, and might want even more since Monteiro has done so well here. The Union want to keep him, but there are fair prices and unfair prices, and if Metz wants too much it will be fair to move on.
We also don’t know yet whether Monteiro wants to stay or go back to Europe. He’s been very coy about it so far. But the odds of Monteiro returning seem slim, going by what Union sporting director Ernst Tanner told the Delaware County Times after Thursday’s game.
“We already tried [to buy Monteiro] and it was unsuccessful," Tanner said. "We’ve been focusing on other guys as well. I think we will get a real good team, if all the solutions work out that we are working on then we will get a real competitive team.”
Who will replace Marco Fabián?
Fabián’s initial one-year contract is done, and he almost certainly isn’t going to be back.
The obvious replacement is Brenden Aaronson, but it’s not that simple. Monteiro’s fate is also a factor, because he showed this year he’s a good No. 10 too — especially when it comes to high-pressing opponents. Putting Monteiro (or a suitable replacement) there would allow Aaronson to play on the left, which would give him more space to take on runs with the ball.
Then there is Fabián’s shooting instinct, which neither Aaronson, Monteiro or Haris Medunjanin equaled. Fabián took the second-most shots of any Union player this year (68) and the most from outside the 18-yard box (46) despite playing just 1,275 minutes. He was the Union’s co-leader in shots on Thursday (3) despite not entering the game until the 66th minute.
Yes, plenty of those shots were off the mark. But he was the team’s No. 2 scorer (8 goals), and you know what the last one was. That’s a mentality, not just a skill.
Finally, there’s the star power that Fabián brought, even though the Union failed terribly at attracting the region’s growing local Mexican immigrant population. They barely showed up at all this year. Winning matters most, but having a big international name on the team still helps get attention, and the Union still need it.
Who will back up Haris Medunjanin and Alejandro Bedoya?
Medunjanin played every minute of every game this year, as a 34-year-old. Bedoya, 32, came close: he missed the last game and a half due to injury and one earlier game due to suspension. When he ran out of gas late in the win over the Red Bulls, he was subbed out of a game for just the fifth time in his three and a half years here.
That kind of workload can’t be sustained forever. Both men deserve good backups, Bedoya in the center of midfield and Medunjanin at the base. Anthony Fontana will play a much bigger role next year, but that won’t be enough.
It would especially help if Medunjanin’s backup is a real defensive No. 6, giving the Union an alternative to the Bosnian’s passing-oriented game. Each style has its time and place. Imagine how dynamic the Union would be with a Julie Ertz-style stopper behind the attack.
Will Olivier Mbaizo step up at right back?
Ray Gaddis silenced his critics again this year, ranking No. 1 in total tackles (83), No. 2 in crosses blocked 11), No. 5 in passes blocked (24) and No. 6 in interceptions (27). His pass completion percentage of 83.9% ranked a respectable No. 10, ahead of Mark McKenzie, Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott and Brenden Aaronson.
That wasn’t supposed to happen, though. Olivier Mbaizo was groomed over the winter to be the starting right back, then was derailed by minor injuries in preseason and a torn meniscus in June. Gaddis took the starting spot and, as he has done often in his career, refused to let it go. But his offensive contributions are still limited, even though he got forward much more this year than ever before.
Mbaizo has the raw tools to start next year. Let’s see if he earns it.
Will the team go all-in on the 4-4-2?
The Union’s ability to switch between a compact, high-pressing 4-4-2 and a more width-oriented 4-2-3-1 is a great asset. They shouldn’t get rid of it entirely, but they got away from the 4-4-2 a little too much for their own good down the stretch.
Jim Curtin hit the nail on the head when he said last month that the 4-4-2 wears opponents down. That makes the switch even more potent when Ilsinho comes in off the bench. We saw the effectiveness of the strategy in the playoffs, when Curtin returned to the 4-4-2 as the starting formation, then brought in Ilsinho and Marco Fabián to charge at tired defenders.
The Union have an opportunity now to reshape their roster and build depth that will make the 4-4-2 work even better. That will mean casualties. Ilsinho is worth keeping around, because even at 34 he has the team’s best one-on-one skill. He’ll also make a great academy coach some day.
Fafa Picault will likely the biggest name to leave. He’s a great guy, a locker room great presence and is popular with fans, but they know he doesn’t quite fit. Picault is out of contract after this year, and is likely moving on.
Will Bimbo remain the jersey sponsor?
Let’s address two key off-the-field issues, starting with what’s literally the big-money one. Bimbo Bakeries’ jersey sponsorship deal is finally up, and the Union have gotten an earful from fans who want a different brand on the front of their chests. The team has never overcome the stigma associated with the wider connotation of the word “Bimbo,” especially among female fans. We’ll never know how much merchandise hasn’t been bought because of that.
Bimbo has been the jersey sponsor since 2011, spanning two deals. The one now ending has run since 2014, and has paid just over $2 million per season. The Union can aim higher not just in brand recognition, but also in revenue.
Where will local game broadcasts be on TV and online next year?
PHL17′s deal for local TV broadcasts of games is up after two seasons as the flagship station (6ABC also airs a few games each year). It certainly helps the Union to be going to market right after their best ever season.
The team will also be looking for an online streaming partner, having failed to make a deal for those rights for two straight years now. Union chief business officer Tim McDermott has taken an earful on the subject (and the Bimbo deal) from fans, and is now on the clock to deliver.
Expect MLS headquarters to be watching, and perhaps involved in negotiations. The national media rights deal expires after the 2022 season, and the league office has told teams to not make deals past then to build an all-encompassing package in the next cycle.
For now, teams must pay the league $100,000 to buy back in-market streaming rights and take them to bidders. Obviously, if a streaming partner foots the bill, that becomes easier. But one of the big players in that space, FloSports, has been a failure. The company signed deals with D.C. United and FC Cincinnati, but was too expensive for many fans and the service was poor. D.C. United backed out of a $12 million four-year rights deal after just one season.
The easy solution should be a deal with ESPN to drop the local blackout on ESPN+, which carries MLS’ out-of-market streaming package. From there, an extension with PHL17 and 6ABC on the TV side would make sense.