Commentary / Union

Breaking down the big shifts of the Union offseason

Photo: Earl Gardner

Cataclysm and tragedy defined the end of the Philadelphia Union’s 2018 season, which left a lot to be desired by Union fans going into the four-month offseason. Despite the looming departure of MLS assist leader Borek Dockal, the offseason offered ample optimism, particularly as Philadelphia Union’s new Sporting Director Ernst Tanner began to operate with efficiency.

Now, with less than a month left before opening day, the Union look like a different team. Breaking down that metamorphosis necessitates looking at the major shifts that happened in the recent offseason.

Squad changes

Foremost, squad changes have come in droves.

The offseason began slowly with contract options exercised for core players like Cory Burke and Fafa Picault. Then came a series of low-key acquisitions: Matthew Freese from Harvard and Brenden Aaronson from the Academy. At the same time, the Union also shed off excess weight by declining options for players like Richie Marquez, Josh Yaro, and Jay Simpson. Tanner cashed out fan-favorite Keegan Rosenberry for $400k and lost No. 10 rockstar Dockal. It looked like the off-season was turning into a zero-sum game.

But then the real transfers started.

The Union jumped on the MLS South America hype train and signed Sergio Santos, a young and exciting Brazilian striker. They took on Aurélien Collin and Kai Wagner to fortify the defense. Finally, the Union found its marquee signing in Mexico international Marco Fabián, who will be Dockal’s successor in the midfield.

The Union may not have signed Mario Balotelli, but the offseason movement within the squad has answered a lot of the needs that resonated throughout last season. Tanner invested in a striker that should be able to improve the team’s dismal finishing rate and elevate them to the next level, and the club went from leasing to owning an international midfield weapon. Within the framework of the Union’s spending and operational philosophies, these are major improvements that will hopefully pay big dividends in the 2019 season.

Soccer philosophy

A major shift in soccer philosophy on the field has also occurred. Throughout last season, the Union fielded a 4-2-3-1 with a game focused heavily on possession and passing. It looked brilliant when it worked and heart-achingly impotent when it didn’t. With the introduction of Ernst Tanner and his European background, it looks to be that the Union will be moving towards a midfield-focused, transition-heavy game topped off with a two-striker system. It’s a big ask of a Union team that sometimes looked lethargic last season, but if Union head coach Jim Curtin and the coaching staff can pull it off, it should revolutionize the team’s approach. Implementing the new system effectively will be a fight against the clock, as Philadelphia Union faces some unforgiving early fixtures against Toronto, Kansas City, and Atlanta. A slow start like last season will mean leaving vital points on the table.

Overall, for the many fans that have bemoaned the Union’s “same old same old” approach in recent years, this season should offer an intriguing look into experimentation with a new style of play, particularly with a style that has produced some electrifying results in Europe and abroad.

Operational philosophy

Finally, an overarching evolution of operating philosophy has become discernible off the field. From Curtin, to Tanner, to owner Jay Sugarman, an evolved vision for the team and the academy is unfolding. It has been pretty clear to Union fans that operational priority went to the academy and development system rather than signing designated players and getting immediate results.

Now that philosophy is being asked to yield fruit.

In talking with the media, Sugarman repeated over and over that expectations for the Academy are being set higher than before.

The new benchmark is producing first team quality players, either for use by the Union or for sale in the international market. This is a big shift from the current status of the Academy, which currently receives the lion’s share of investment dollars from the Union but has only produced a few, albeit promising, starters. This is probably the most important shift that has occurred as Ernst Tanner had come into the picture, particularly because development is the central strategy for long-term success in Philadelphia Union’s operational philosophy.

For Union fans going into the new season, the bolstered squad in conjunction with a reinvigorated approach to the game should be as fascinating to follow in the short term as the new expectations of the development system are in the long term. While the Union face a significant hurdle in a tough opening series of fixtures, there is a lot of potential for the 2019 season to mark a turning point for the Union to elevate from mid-table fodder to playoff competitor. All eyes will be on the team over this next year to see what they accomplish.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    doesn’t matter how many players are in starting 11…. with fixed salary and almost no chance to own their futures.
    until players are being sold abroad, Union is just an MLS team doggy paddling……. in the high seas of international waters.
    People will argue otherwise. They are wrong.
    My great hope for Ernst Tanner’s legacy isn’t trophies, its turning out players from this academy known through out the football world so that when someone thinks of Philadelphia, they think ‘Class’.
    I hope every human associated with this team at every level from the wee little ones, to the snack bar worker, to Tommy Wilson to all the coaches – to Jim Curtin himself have been served notice.

    • I see no reason why they can’t have both, trophies and be a selling team. With proper management, it should be achievable. I believe Ernst brings that. I believe he’s even said such in maybe somewhat different words. I already fear the day he leaves, as I am unsure this country has produced or can claim anyone with his ideals and ability to find talent. Certainly he’s proving already to be a wizard at deal making and player movement.

    • John O'Donnell Jr says:

      If that’s the vision you have and is successful, you better enjoy it while you can because I seriously doubt Philadelphia would support that. Can’t see how that would be economically viable in this market. I agree we can sell on but it better be as a team that raises some silverware along the way. Thank God Ernest believes that’s part of the equation.

    • I’d like to see them win trophies. It would be a nice change of pace ; )

    • From solely the team’s perspective, I think this should be the goal. If you’re developing top talent in the US that can then be sold to Europe, you’re earning good money so the first team can compete and succeed.

    • But isn’t MLS different then all other top-tier leagues in the world in that the league employs the players, not the individual teams? And doesn’t the league get a really big cut of all player sales?
      (I don’t know this, but I have heard it and I would be happy to be wrong)
      If that is accurate, is the percentage that the team gets sufficient to make this a viable business model for MLS competitiveness?

      • That’s why the league is changing that. You’re right. With the league getting a cut, it meant teams had to either take less or try to push the price above market rate to cover the “league tax.” It clearly has been a disincentive. I think breaking up single entity in this league should be a priority.

      • Pete, that is encouraging to hear.
        It sounds like you have been following this issue. Do you know if the change been announced? Is there a published timeframe?

      • Doc,
        I thought the league was working on changing that rule broadly, but I could be mistaken. Don’t confuse me for an expert. I do believe I’ve read the league is interested because they get the value of making MLS a stepping stone to Europe, a la the Almiron to Atlanta to Newcastle.

        They did change the rule for homegrown players. Clubs keep 100% of those transfers now.

      • John O'Donnell Jr says:

        League gets 25% after investment is removed for players team spending on transfer and salary.

        This is from a Dirty South soccer article.

        Here is the breakdown for Miguel Almiron Transfer.
        Transfer fee income (reported) 27,000,000
        Less: Total player cost -11,894,000
        Subtotal profit 15,106,000
        MLS Share (25%) -3,776,500
        ATLUTD Share (75%) 11,329,500

        So, of the reportedly agreed upon $27M transfer fee, Atlanta keeps $23.2M, and importantly, has the option (which they will certainly take) to use $750k of the transfer profit as General Allocation Money (essentially more spending power towards the team’s salary cap).

        After pulling out the General Allocation Money, the remaining amount can only be used either to pay for the costs of other designated players (e.g. new signing Pity Martinez, or Josef Martinez’ new wages), or by way of investment in an area it otherwise would not have spent funds on (e.g. a new training facility).

      • To add to what John so helpfully explained. I think that for the case of homegrown players, the team keeps all the money from a player sale. No 25% to the league.

      • Thank you, Pete. And John. Very helpful detail.

      • So all the academy kids will be homegrown by definition, so if they sell them, Union gets all the cash and league none. Interesting!

    • el Pachyderm says:

      John… Question.
      that $750K is on the books GAM money. United can however use that money to spend on players outside of the salary cap though, correct? Some of these MLS teams have $15,000,000 payrolls.

      • John P. O'Donnell Jr. says:

        Clubs also receive additional GAM in the following cases:

        Failure to qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs
        Transfer of a club’s player to another club outside of MLS
        Qualification for the CONCACAF Champions League
        Additionally, MLS will also provide all clubs that do not have a third Designated Player an equal amount of GAM from the funds collected by MLS for the purchase of the third DP spots. All teams receive extra amounts of GAM in any year that the league expands, and all teams are compensated if they lose a player in the Expansion Draft. New expansion clubs receive a separate amount of GAM for their inaugural season.

        Like Targeted Allocation Money (TAM), GAM can be used to “buy down” a player’s salary cap hit, including buying a salary charge below the Designated Player threshold of $480,625. For example, a team can “buy down” a player earning $500,000 to a budget charge of $300,000 using $200,000 of GAM. GAM and TAM may not be used in combination when signing or re-signing a player, or when buying down the budget charge of a Designated Player.

        General Allocation Money can also be applied in the following circumstances:

        To sign players new to MLS (that is, a player who did not play in MLS during the previous season).
        To re-sign an existing MLS player.
        To offset acquisition costs (loan and transfer fees).
        In connection with the extension of a player’s contract for the second year provided the player was new to MLS in the immediately prior year.
        To reduce the Salary Budget Charge of a Designated Player to a limit of $150,000.
        Additionally, a club cannot use GAM to reduce more than 50 percent of a player’s salary cap hit. This restriction does not apply where GAM is being used on a loan or transfer fee. A club may reduce 100 percent of a loan or transfer fee.

      • Thanks, John.

  2. OneManWolfpack says:

    “People will argue otherwise. They are wrong.” … vintage Elephant… love it

  3. Ok…I’m late to the party on this one…but there has to be a balance between the selling of players and the success of the club. If the Union are perennially in the playoffs. Players want to be here. The academy pool balloons and more players to sell,and move on to the first team. Yes I’m simplifying it,but it seems to me those things go hand in hand.

  4. Atomic Spartan says:

    Vision of profiting by selling players must be supported by organizational success on the first team. Otherwise, the value of developed homegrown talent will be undervalued.

    • If you want them to remember the name on the back of the shirt, they need to know the name on the front. Got it?


      Ps. A senator had to apologize to AOC for calling her a bimbo as that is deemed an offensive term. Do we send union jersey to him, her, or both?

  5. This must be what it’s like when JS goes to re-finance his real estate deals. Tells a new story about the same property, throws some new buzz words out there, and the lemming bankers or investors eat it hook, line, and sinker. Until it’s too late. And then they’re stuck. Again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *