Press Conference / Union

In end-of-season presser, Tanner previews 2019 season

Photo courtesy of Philadelphia Union

After announcing a heap of roster moves at both the first team and Bethlehem Steel level this morning, Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner and head coach Jim Curtin held a press conference Monday afternoon, in which they spoke about the roster moves, reflected on the past season, and gave fans a preview of what to expect in the club’s upcoming tenth season.

Jim Curtin returning for 2019

Tanner satisfied the curiosities of most Union fans early, confirming that Jim Curtin would be returning to the club on a one-year contract extension.

“It’s more or less an extension of a collaboration,” Tanner said. “If it’s going well, we can prolong it anyway.”

Tanner also praised Curtin, now heading into his fifth full season as head coach, for his connection with his players.

“His relationship with the players is, from what I have seen, very, very good.” Tanner said. “And he’s an expert in developing young players, which will be a clear focus in the future as well.”

Tanner also mentioned Curtin’s fourth place finish in MLS Coach of the Year voting as part of his credentials.

Curtin spoke on the extension as well.

“This will be my fifth season at a pro soccer club,” Curtin said. “That’s a long time. I recognize that… I don’t really self-promote, but I think it is a little bit of a reflection that, no matter who I’ve worked with, they’ve found good qualities in what I do.”

Tanner’s tactical changes 

Although he praised many aspects of the Union’s 2018 season and their current assets, including USL side Bethlehem Steel and the Academy, their training facilities, and their successful possession game throughout the past season, Tanner made it clear that he will be bringing some tactical changes to a side that he feels needs them.

“We’ve been doing very well in our possession game… but in a way it is time to change some other things in order to take the next step,” Tanner said. “I want to see a little bit more dynamics in our game, playing a little more aggressive with a little bit more compactness.”

His comments stood in stark contrast with the approach adopted by former sporting director Earnie Stewart, who preached a strict adherence to defined philosophy and principles regardless of opponent. While Stewart saw this adherence as a means to grow the club in a unified manner from the first team down to the youngest academy squads, Tanner sees a rigidity that can be a detriment at times.

“I find that we are a little bit too easy to reckon, especially when everyone knows that we are playing in a 4-2-3-1,” Tanner said. “Everything which helps you to win games… is welcome. We are not that stubborn focusing on [one thing] just for the sake of philosophy or whatever.”

More specifically, Tanner aims to add a transition-heavy aspect to the Union’s game that they can employ when a possession-based style isn’t a good fit for the opponent.

“The use of out of transition and the vertical play, that’s what we need to focus on… Maybe we should… focus on, in addition, what we are doing when we don’t have the ball.”

Playing quickly in transition is something Tanner has emphasized before — think Jesse Marsch’s Red Bulls side this season — and you can expect it to define many of the Union’s 2019 games.

Roster moves

“We for sure need to improve our roster.”

After parting ways with Jake McGuire, Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, Marcus Epps, Fabian Herbers, Adam Najem, and Jay Simpson, Tanner and Curtin spoke about the moves and what the Union need to do to put the best product on the pitch.

“It’s always difficult to move on from players. They gave everything, when they had the opportunity, for the badge,” Curtin said. “Good players. I have no ill will or anything like that.”

Looking ahead, Tanner explained, “We are going to scout now… I will be over in Europe. Maybe going to Africa. I will be around in South America, maybe Latin America.” Tanner didn’t imply that he had any players in mind in particular, but scouting has been an issue for the Union in the past. Tanner’s history finding talent implies that it’s one of his strong points.

Tanner also updated the media on players whose contracts are still up in the air.

Tanner explained that star midfielder Borek Dockal’s return is “out of our hands.” Dockal’s club, Henan Jianye, has not renewed his loan to the Union. Tanner also mentioned that Dockal has made it clear that he wants to return to Europe, a wish that Tanner pledged to “take into account and respect.” The Union will do their best to retrieve Dockal for at least another season, but with his heart in Europe and his contract in China the Union aren’t in a strong negotiating position.

It seems like the Union will move on from longtime reserve goalkeeper John McCarthy. “He has been here for such a long time being the second goalkeeper, and he wants to play,” Tanner said. “I think we should respect this.”

The Union are currently speaking to the agents of Warren Creavalle and Ray Gaddis, who are both out of contract. The club hopes to bring both players back for next season.

Additional notes

Coaching changes. Goalkeeping coach Tim Hanley will not be returning to the Union for the 2019 season after just one season on the job. Tanner mentioned that he is “currently in talks” with another goalkeeping coach and hopes to make an announcement soon.

Matt Real’s impact next season. Curtin praised Matt Real’s performance this season with the Union and the Steel, and he praised the Academy product’s ceiling even more. “We’re very happy that we have [Real] in our system,” Curtin said. “His preseason will be critical… Being ready to grab a hold of [the left back] position is something we have high hopes for Matthew.”

Fafa Picault’s move inside. Curtin and Tanner also mentioned implementing a two-striker system. After two years used mainly on the wing, expect to see Fafa Picault at one of those two spots. “I see [Picault] more as a striker than a winger,” Tanner said. “And [he]… told us that he wants to play inside a little more.”

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