Analysis / Union

The early returns on Ernst Tanner after a statement signing

The way Philadelphia Union opened its off-season, it looks like Ernst Tanner was just itching to get started.

  • The club was one of the first in MLS to announce its off-season contract decisions.
  • Tanner was active during the half-day trade window, trading Fabian Herbers to Chicago.
  • Most significantly, the Union made a key off-season foreign signing earlier than they ever have, securing the rights to Brazilian striker Sergio Santos.

The early takeaways are a mixed bag, but the Santos signing is definitely a statement move. Here’s why.

Analysis: Signing Santos right after his breakthrough

Santos doesn’t have an extensively impressive track record as a professional, but that’s likely why the Union could acquire him at the reported rate that they did.

The 24-year-old Brazilian from Belo Horizonte just had his breakthrough, netting 9 goals in 15 games this season for mid-table Chilean side Audax Italiano. This was the season he moved pretty much full-time to center forward, and he produced.

Before that, Santos bounced between that role and both wings, as a left-footed attacker with ability to take on defenders one on one.

Santos left for Chile at age 19 after failing to break through with his youth club, América Mineiro. They’re the smallest of Belo Horizonte’s three clubs, yo-yoing between Brazil’s first and second divisions. while rivals Atletico Mineiro and Cruzeiro are traditionally among the first division’s best clubs. Significantly, América previously employed former Union midfielder Fred, who is also from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

(Less significant to you but amusing to me: América is also my favorite non-MLS side. Seriously. Here’s a random photo of me wearing an América shirt at a tailgate outside Talen Energy Stadium with PSP original Ed Farnsworth and his friends.)

The point is that the Union have secured Santos’s rights before his value increases significantly.

At the same time, they have taken a risk by dropping a reported $500,000 transfer fee — which is about what Transfermarkt values him at — on a player without an extended track record of production.

This is how it’s supposed to work though. Buy low, sell high. If Santos has been sufficiently scouted, then it’s a risk worth taking.

The Union are acquiring Santos with the hopes of getting probably two good seasons from him, putting him in a shop window for Europe, and selling him at a profit.

Thank Atlanta and Miguel Almiron, Union fans. Santos reportedly chose Philadelphia over Mexican side Nexaca. MLS now offers a nice stage for Europe.

Analysis: Timing matters

This year, the Union got off to an awful start that cost them dearly come playoff time, and it was in large part due to Borek Dockal arriving just before opening day. He was neither fit nor acclimated with his teammates.

That’s been a repeated problem for the Union over the years: Bringing in key acquisitions too late and then struggling at the outset. That notably happened in 2014 as well.

By signing Santos now, it gets him into town and camp on time. He can get settled with a new home. He can start getting to know the technical staff. And he’s there on day one of preseason training.

It’s a great sign.

Analysis: Trades made — and not made

Fabian Herbers was due to leave the Union one way or another this year, as there were few players on the roster who looked like they would benefit as much from a change of scenery as Herbers. (I’m not sure Chicago is the right scenery, as they appear to be collecting strikers right now — and that’s where I’d like to see Herbers get a shot — but that’s a column for another day or another publication.)

The fact that the Union got anything for Herbers is a bonus. He easily could have departed in the Re-Entry Draft for nothing. So credit Tanner for making that deal.

On the other hand, the Union let Marcus Epps go to waivers, and the New York Red Bulls traded to get him — but they gave their asset to San Jose.

San Jose merely had to give up their spot in the waiver draft, which they likely weren’t going to use, to get a second round draft pick.

Philadelphia could have gotten that pick had they traded Epps themselves.

That’s a wasted asset and missed opportunity.

Epps already looked like the player the Union were making the biggest mistake in releasing this off-season. The Red Bulls seem to agree. MLS teams are rarely active in the waiver draft, with usually no more than three or four players selected, and you never see a trade made in the draft.

Early verdict: A good start

Ernst Tanner has wasted no time in putting his stamp on the Union’s roster. That’s a good thing, because there’s an impatient fan base that has no time for that.

The Union have the core elements of a very good team, but we’ve said that before. They’ve added a quality striker.

The biggest task now is finding a creative playmaker to replace Borek Dockal.


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