Breaking down Ernst Tanner’s offseason moves

Photo: Rob Simmons

Most fans were unfamiliar with Ernst Tanner, when he joined Philadelphia Union as the club’s new sporting director in August. Research into Tanner’s career made it readily clear that he put an emphasis on finding and developing young talent.

Aside from that, however, fans were left wondering what kind of moves Tanner would make as the club’s top manager. How would he shape the Union?

Tanner has been active this offseason. His moves have been decisive and revealing. Let’s break those moves down.

The young

First and foremost, many of Tanner’s moves put an emphasis on youth development, and when we say “youth,” we mean “youth.” Tanner believes in the increasingly supported principle that soccer players develop most from ages 18 to 21. His offseason trades follow that principle.

Fans and media alike were shocked when Tanner traded right back Keegan Rosenberry to Colorado Rapids for somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 in allocation money. Rosenberry, a Lancaster native and fan favorite, was still viewed by some as a prospect, ready to improve and take the next step in his development. However, at age 25, Rosenberry qualifies as a solid right back but certainly not as a prospect by Tanner’s standards. The club likes right back Olivier Mbaizo, age 21, who may not yet be as good as Rosenberry is, but he has more time to develop.

Tanner made headlines again on Thursday, trading away all of the Union’s draft picks to expansion side FC Cincinnati for up to $200,000 in allocation money. Debates as to the merits of this deal will go back and forth, but the bottom line is Tanner doesn’t value any of the Union’s possible draft selections. Most of them are past that 18-21 year development range. If they were good enough to playing in MLS, they would already be in MLS.

It is also worth noting that the Union signed 20-year-old Matt Freese to back up Andre Blake in net this season.

The old

Given these moves to trim the Union’s roster of any players (or, in the case of the draft, potential players) who had not reached a certain level of play by the desired age, Tanner’s recent resignings of Union left back Fabinho, 33, outside back Ray Gaddis, 28, and Bethlehem Steel FC captain and midfielder James Chambers, 31, may leave a few observers scratching their heads.

Neither Gaddis nor Chambers are the best at their positions for either side. Plus, their counterparts are significantly younger than they are, particular in Chambers’ case, as he plays for a side that is shaping up to be mostly Union Academy grads.

The explanation is clear, but it is worth noting: Both Gaddis and Chambers provide a veteran presence in the locker room. In particular, Chambers possesses the kind of leadership managers and sporting directors dream about. Gaddis, the Union’s all-time minutes leader, has also built up a great relationship with both the Union players and staff. As for Fabinho, left backs are simply hard to come by in any league for this sport. If Matt Real has, in fact, taken the step up to become the starting left back this season, the Union could do worse than Fabinho as a back up. At the same time, Fabinho can continue to help Real grow.

These re-signings are revealing, then. They show that Tanner does not simply look at development potential for individual players, but rather he tries to find a group that will help each other develop.

The new

This brings us to Sergio Santos, the Brazilian striker Tanner signed in December. Santos is the only name on the roster so far with no previous affiliation to the Union organization.

At age 24, Santos isn’t a prospect, and with no previous presence in the locker room, he was not signed for his leadership. That means Tanner probably expects Santos to contribute immediately this season.

This reporter is not familiar enough with the Chilean Primera División, the league from which Santos was signed, to comment as to whether or not Santos is likely to make that contribution. But if Tanner is willing to trade a talented player like Keegan Rosenberry, who plays at a premium position like right back, and sign Santos, who plays forward (a position of which the Union now have five), Tanner must really believe in Santos.

The bottom line

Tanner has plenty more moves to make, and each one will tell us more about what he believes and how he operates. But there is one thing that all of his moves have shown: decisiveness.

While Union sporting directors and general managers of old have flip flopped in their personnel changes, leaving analysts completely puzzled in their search for a pattern, Tanner’s decisions are clear and unquestioned. Tanner obviously has a systematic approach to making moves like those discussed.

Now we just need to see if that approach yields wins.



  1. Waiting for more signings tick tock tick tock tick tock…

    • Coach Burke said yesterday that “seven or eight” of his were either signed or in process. He said that left “three or four” to bring along to that level.
      My bet is that he knows who he wants, but has not yet gotten a commitment to join. But that is gut feeling from past experience on the basis of no current evidence at all.
      He does not comment on first-team matters.
      He did indicate that while Ben Ofeimu is currently and academy player on a zero-dollar amateur contract with Bethlehem — my aside not his — there are big plans for him. He avoided any hint towards which level.

    Short but some interesting comments.
    1) “First of all, we announced that we will change the system…” That is a much stronger statement then the previous ones eluding to playing sometimes with 2 forwards.
    2) “I’m not a possession guy at all” Previously I only heard Ernst say things about wanting to see more in transition but this might indicate a more drastic change in philosophy.
    3) [regarding Santos] “He really brings everything with him we are expecting for our new system and playing style” As above, points toward a more drastic change in system. Also sounds like Santos is a presumptive starter.

    • Seemed pretty clear talking with Brendan Burke Thursday that he is not yet certain exactly what “tactical flexibility” means. He expects to find out in the next week, ten days, two weeks.
      From the current depth chart and Tanner’s complete absence of discussing adding center backs, I myself seriously doubt they will go to three center backs. They have only three. If they signed Ben Ofeimu he would make four, but he only has a dozen games in USL.
      It would make sense for Tanner to wait to pick a shape until he has a sense of what his core roster would be. The bolder statement, to me, reflects that he has a much better idea what his roster will be and what he can do.
      While they have more strikers than Earnie Stewart ever did, remember that birth Cory Burke and C. j. Sapong can play in the outside channel.
      The conversation with Burke suggested that Bethlehem may be pressing even more than they have been defensively. Therefore, the Union may be also.

    • Peanut Gallery says:

      Another quote “active on the field.” And regarding possession: “I’m not against it… but it has to lead to a goal.”
      Active and attack-minded = unlocking the opponents defense.
      Yes, please.

  3. No Doakal replacement of equal or better ability = losing season with a youngish team with very few highly skilled vets

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