A View from Afar / Union

Union blow up the draft, lose a key coach, stare at an incomplete roster

Photo: Paul Rudderow

From the outside, it’s hard to gauge the impact of assistant coaches.

B.J. Callaghan was one of the few who you could actually measure to some degree.

Apparently, U.S. Soccer saw it too, because they hired the little known assistant for Gregg Berhalter’s staff on the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Callaghan’s impact was seen early on in his Union tenure on set pieces.

Previously, the Union’s set pieces were largely unimaginative. Send ball up, hope for a header, move on. More often than not, nothing came of it.

Once Callaghan arrived, that changed. The Union began enacting creative movements, whether it was centering a ground pass to a waiting shooter or finding Alejandro Bedoya for flick-on headers to teammates waiting to shoot on goal.

Callaghan wasn’t inventing most of these moves out of thin air. He found many of the plays through scouting worldwide.

That was the strength, we’re told, for which U.S. Soccer grabbed him: Analysis and scouting.

It will be a loss for the Union, but it’s the sort of thing that reflects well on the club.

It’s become typical among more cynical Union fans — whose cynicism is often justified, mind you — to criticize the Union coaching staff out of hand, but take note: In the last few months, we’ve seen head coach Jim Curtin place fourth in the MLS Coach of the Year voting, while Callaghan was plucked from obscurity to join the national team. 

Union stick a fork in the MLS amateur draft

We didn’t pay attention to the MLS SuperDraft. Did you?

Neither did Ernst Tanner. He sold literally every 2019 draft pick the Union had for $150,000 in allocation money and another $50,000 if certain performance metrics are met by the drafted players.

Not team had ever done that before. 

Baller move, Ernst. Absolute baller. 

Also, way to send a message to the league about the decreasing value of the draft. Changes are in line for the draft, and Tanner affirmed that in a way no other team ever had.

Now, did the Union get fair market value?

Probably. Consider the context:

  • Chicago gave up $100,000 in MLS funny money just to move up from No. 15 to No. 5 in the draft.
  • New York City paid $75,000 to move up from No. 19 to No. 12.
  • Minnesota paid just $50,000 for the No. 15 slot.

Cincinnati didn’t even use two of the draft picks the Union sent.

Further, the Union already have a very young roster. They need to add proven quality players who can contribute immediately, either with depth or starting capability. Nearly half their roster is age 21 or younger. Accruing allocation money can potentially help put the team over with a foreign signing.

That said, consider this:

Few teams have done as well in the draft as the Union. Andre Blake is a former No. 1 overall draft pick. Jack Elliott was selected in the fourth round. And so on.

The draft is changing because so many of the best players are signing with clubs as homegrowns well before draft day rolls around. It will likely remain as a player acquisition tool, but its value is undoubtedly decreasing.

Tanner is ahead of the curve.

An empty roster

The Union have filled just 22 of their 30 roster slots, with preseason training due to open next week in Philadelphia. Some of those spots are developmental in nature, occupied by players unlikely to feature often for the Union this year under ideal circumstances: Anthony Fontana, Brenden Aaronson, Matt Freese. Without any draft picks in play, that’s a thin roster.

The Union have time yet to bring players in, and to be sure, we’ll likely see a few trialists in camp next week.

Still, it looks like they’ll enter the season with the same problem they have every year: Key spots not filled until right before or during the season. As usual, the Union are behind the curve on off-season transactions, lagging behind while clubs like Kansas City and Toronto reload early on with smart acquisitions who enter preseason already settled in with new housing, physicals and the like locked down. Sergio Santos may have arrived early from outside the organization, but nobody else has.

This always presents problems for the Union. Consider last year’s slow start, attributed largely to Borek Dockal’s late arrival. Once he settled in, the Union were a good team, period. That’s just the latest example. 

This is the sort of challenge handed every season to Union coaches by their front office.

You can give Ernst Tanner a pass, given this is his first off-season at the helm as sporting director.

Institutionally, however, it’s still the same undercapitalized player acquisition model backed by Union chairman Jay Sugarman and company. 


  1. I don’t think you can give Tanner a pass on this offseason and late acquisitions. As you said, it’s been an institutional problem every.single.year. And with the greatest case study being 2018 as to why it is important to have your key players here at the start, there really isn’t any excuse.
    Couple this with the fact that Tanner himself stated that they needed to get the ball rolling, and the did to a certain extent with Santos, but that “January addition” they talked about hasn’t happened, and January is almost over. Every other team in the League is doing it right, how can we not?
    I just don’t think I buy the “First offseason, still learning the ropes, etc” tag line about why we can’t operate on a “normal” level. If you’re coming in as the Sporting Director, shouldn’t we expect our candidates to be educated and well versed in the MLS mechanics of player acquisitions? Of the Teams constraints and strengths financially? Of the areas of need based on talent and your vision? Maybe an idea or two of players you are interested in as targets?
    Maybe it’s too much to ask.

    • The real question is why are we using international spots on players that likely won’t have any positive impact with the Union.

  2. Two things:
    1) I wonder if and to what extent Callaghan’s hire came by way of Earnie? It doesn’t sound like he has any direct connections with Berhalter.
    2) Didn’t Ernst say back when Santos was signed that he expected to announce another signing in early January? Also, didn’t he say when the draft picks were traded that he was hoping to announce a signing later that week or the next? I believe it was in reference to a 10/8 type midfielder.

    • I was under the impression that the January signing was the U20 striker that they signed to steel. Forget his name country.

      • Faris

      • Faris was signed July 2018. had been known long before but turned 18 only then.
        the signing for 2019 season is Saed Diaz from Panama to the Steel.
        reported in late 2018, not announced officially until last week.
        a factor in both leagues is the league office turning around its paperwork.

  3. I love the proactive nature of Ernst’s moves. For all the Union’s talk of money ball and building through youth, they haven’t seemed fully invested in those ideas until Ernst. I’ve always thought the Union mis-allocated their funds to overpay for players in the center of the pitch, while the rest of the successful teams in the league concentrated on spending more in attacking positions. Ernst seems to be steering the Union back towards the proven mold, while also valuing his own academy players over twenty something college grads. I’m excited by this. I’d rather them fail this way, then compared to what has been done in the past. Do I expect it all to work? Hell no. Only a fool would. But I believe it’s the better way to go, and necessary if this club, under this owner, ever hopes to become relevant.

    • el Pachyderm says:


      • Your thoughts Pachy?

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Nothing particular, I just feel this is well summated.
        I’m all for youth. I’m for 15,16,17,18 year olds playing for Steel.
        I’m for two – four 18-20 year olds on the first team starting 18 week in week out. I’m for selling them asap and turning a profit. I’m for littering world football with Union Academy players.
        This has never been about MLS Cup for me. It’s about telling a story of how a long time Hotbed of fertile soil became Mesopotamia.

      • Yeah was just curious about your take on things. Thanks.

    • I agree with this. I feel mostly positive, too. I like Tanner’s approach so far.

      I’ll feel a lot better if we add a left back and another quality midfielder.

      • I agree with the midfielder and LB, but I’m not as worried about it as most are (maybe I should be). This being the in-season transfer window for the majority of other leagues, the opportunity for the Union to lose out on a target player seems greater to me.

  4. You cannot credit Tanner with the baller move of bailing on the SuperDraft and wringing good value out of it on the one hand, while simultaneously giving him a pass for not getting us a damn CAM (and some fullbacks) until late in the offseason.

    In other words, if the guy was savvy enough to quickly survey the SuperDraft and realize the Union didn’t need any of it — which no team had ever done before — then he is plenty savvy enough to know that we should’ve had our CAM by now, and that the team is gonna be hamstrung for the first couple months of the season at least.

    I have more ominous feelings about the Rosenberry trade with each passing week that goes by without a signing.

    • Yea I still don’t feel good about the Rosenberry trade. He was quality, in his prime, and fit the modern fullback description. Now we have zero proven fullbacks on this roster, and we’re basically banking on academy kids saving us. Can we really trust the academy to fill our entire back line? The best thing for a defender to have is experience and we can’t have all of them learning at the same time. I guess we’ll see.

  5. We have to consider Tanner has been trying and players have been giving us the cold shoulder. This club ain’t desirable to talent and we shouldn’t act like it is.

  6. For everyone concerned with not signing a CAM…. I’m not sure that we will. Who is to say that we will be playing with a formation that requires a CAM!?

    New coach with new tactics and a new formation. We could be seeing a 4-4-2 with two strikers or some kind of 3-back formation.

    If we are not going to have a CAM the. I’d like to see more of Jones.

    Just saying that for all this talk of not spending for/replacing the CAM spot, might be pointless

    • Derrick Jones? I like Jonesy but he showed how raw he was. He played more in 2017 (702 minutes) than he did in 2018 (385). I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s suiting up for Bethlehem indefinitely. His decision making leaves a lot to be desired but his physicality and athleticism are very strong. He’s a good academy product but is he great? We’ll see in 2019.

      • Yeah I agree, but I wanna find out what we have. Can’t really tell until he gets some consistent game time.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        this is Derrick’s year- has to be in my opinion, to cement himself as a viable MLS player.
        otherwise its soon to be the Las Vegas Lights, Battery, Kickers, or Triumph for this player.

    • Union have a video posted with Curtin saying they are looking for a #10 to replace Borek. It’s in a 3 min + interview with J.P. which like just happened.

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