After moving to Philly to advance his development, Flach thriving in Union midfield
May 25, 2021
THERE WERE A LOT of uncertainties regarding the Philadelphia Union entering into the 2021 season. The team was coming off a season where it won the Supporters Shield but had sold two players who were named to the league’s Best XI in 2020. Despite those losses, however, the Union have shown that they will be competitive following a 3-2-2 record to start and an ongoing run to the CONCACAF Champions League to the semifinals.
The sales of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie have not made it easy for the Union but part of the reason for the club’s early success has been the emergence of Leon Flach who has earned a starting job in the midfield.
Flach, 20, was purchased in March by Philadelphia from St. Pauli for reportedly around $350,000. Thus far he has looked like a bargain.
“It was a big step for me,” Flach told ASN. “I think everyone here made it really easy for me, the team, the coaching staff, for sure.”
The move from St. Pauli in the 2.Bundesliga to Philadelphia came at a time when Flach was beginning to earn first team minutes at St. Pauli – and as a former German youth international – was one of their better prospects.
But there were many other factors at play. For one, club finances at St. Pauli have not been in great shape during the pandemic and there was a deal to be made. Plus, in 2020 Flach had begun to represent the United States internationally and he remained in touch with many of his U-20 teammates. As he did that, he began to follow MLS more and noticed a high level of play with many good young players eventually getting sold to levels higher than the 2.Bundesliga.
When Philadelphia, a winning club with a solid recent tract record for developing players, approached him – it seemed like the ideal move.
“I was also already a bit interested in the league before and watched some games, especially the games of Philadelphia,” Flach explained. “I met Cole Basset and Cameron Harper at the U-20 January Camp last year and we kept in touch. I was talking to Cole. He told me everything about the league. I think it's a rising league with great potential. It's just getting better. That is what everyone is saying now. There are great young kids playing there.”
Thus far, Flach has started six of the team’s seven games and all four of its Champions League games for a total of 856 minutes across all competitions. The Union have won three of their last four games and have conceded just a single goal during that span.
As for how he has observed the play, it has exceeded the expectations he had before arriving.
“I was a bit surprised,” Flach said. “I think the quality is higher than I expected because, especially in the offense, and the players you're playing against - I think the most of them are really, really good. For example, when we played, New England - Carles Gil... But if you compare it tactically, it's a bit different than Germany because in Germany everybody's focused on the tactics a bit more. Here, the intensity is, I would say a little bit higher because it's going from offense to defense really quickly. It is high intensity. It's a really high level we are playing on and it's the perfect level to develop yourself as a young player.”
Part of moving stateside was also Philadelphia Union specific, as opposed to simply moving to MLS. Flach was also particularly intrigued by the offseason sales of McKenzie and Aaronson to clubs that now have them set to take part in Champions League playoff and qualifying rounds later in the summer.
Flach wants to return to Europe at some point and play at the highest levels but believed that the Union offered him the best path to get to where he wanted to go – even if it meant leaving Europe.
“I think if you're a young player, the reason is to play is to have a role in the team,” Flach said. “That's what I have here. It's definitely a plan to go back to Europe one day. I don't know when, but it's a plan. Philadelphia is a perfect club for that. If you see Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, follow their way - maybe back to Europe. That's definitely a dream.”
Philadelphia head coach Jim Curtin recalls the process started with Flach on a connection with Union technical director Ernst Tanner. They saw a player who was not getting the minutes he deserved and held a zoom call with Flach and his father. Soccer was the primary concern for Flach and his family but his father also wanted him to experience American culture (and Flach’s younger brother will be attending college in the United States in the fall).
“It's no coincidence that he probably had eyes on what happened with McKenzie as well as Aaronson - that it's a good place for young players who want to get minutes,” Curtin said. “Then you fast forward. We thought we were getting a really solid piece who could play multiple positions as a No. 6 or on the side of our diamond as a No. 8, or as a left back in a pinch. He had versatility which really appealed to us. Then you get the kid and you're like – OK, let’s see what we have. And gosh, when I say soccer IQ, he's off the charts for a kid this young… We didn't think he was going to be this good, this fast. But now I feel like I can put him anywhere.
“He breaks up plays,” he continued. “He's very fast too. He doesn't look like it but he's hitting speeds near what Mark Mckenzie hit, and he was our fastest player. He's moving. He's probably the second fastest our team.”
For now, however, Flach is happy reconnect with his birth country. Flach’s parents are German but he was born in the United States during a period when his family lived in Houston where his father worked. During his early childhood, the family would return to Germany in Hamburg where he was raised and developed as a player with St. Pauli. In 2019, he played for the German U-18 team but made his debut with the U.S. U-20 team in 2020 when he featured in a 2-0 win over Mexico in a friendly.
In a world absent a pandemic, Leon Flach would right now be with the United States U-20 team at the World Cup in Thailand anchoring the team’s midfield. The news of that tournament’s cancellation on Christmas Eve, 2020 was a major setback but Flach hopes he can take advantage of whatever opportunity is next for him – whether it be the next U-23 team or possibly even this summer’s Gold Cup team.
“It was definitely a hard message when I was told the World Cup was canceled because it was always the dream to play such a tournament,” Flach said. “But now we'll look into the future. I don't know what the next tournament will be, maybe the U-23 team. If there's a chance for a call-up one day, I will be really happy. But first of all, I want to play for Philadelphia and I think if you have success in your club, the rest will follow.”
For now, however, Flach is enjoying life both on and off the field. He lives within the City of Philadelphia and he says it sometimes reminds him of Hamburg with the architecture and the rivers. He’s also a big NFL fan and, in 2019, travelled to London from Germany to watch his team, the Houston Texans play at Wembley. This year he already is making plans to attend a Philadelphia Eagles game.
On the field, things are equally as positive. He is earning very positive reviews for his play and the Union are back to winning – and are the league’s last remaining team in the CONCACAF Champions League where they will face Club America in August.
“It's a great honor for us,” Flach said of the Champions League run. “We deserved it because we had great matches - especially in the first game against Atlanta. Now playing against an Ligx MX team in Club America, it's a really difficult opponent for us, but I think there's always a chance and we have to go for it.”
“It was a difficult schedule for us to play like every three games. It's not always easy, but I think for us it was good. Everyone knows his role now what he has to do on the pitch, because I think it changed a bit compared to last season because two key players went to Europe. I would say that especially in the midfield and in the back, we have really good connections now. It is something you can see with clean sheets. We’re definitely improving.”