For Pete's Sake / Season Previews

Grading Ernst Tanner’s offseason moves

Photo courtesy Philadelphia Union

Editor’s note: This piece is part of our week-long series previewing the 2019 Philadelphia Union season. For the full series, click here.

Ernst Tanner, the Philadelphia Union’s sporting director, replaced Earnie Stewart late in the club’s 2018 season, past the point where the team might realistically line up summer signings.

The European import spent the latter half of last season in the background, taking stock of the club and preparing to chart a course through his first MLS offseason.

Now that the offseason is complete, we’ve learned a lot about Tanner’s approach — ruthless, creative, and not restricted by “the way things are done” in either MLS or in Chester.

Grading the transactions that built the 2019 Union before they ever play a competitive match is a difficult exercise, because so much of it is projecting. We’re operating at an information deficit about these players’ talent levels, salary, the other options on offer, and more factors that went into each decision.

But it’s a fun thing to do. So, here goes: a report card for Ernst Tanner’s first offseason.

(Warning: I got bored with letter grades about halfway through. You’ve been warned.)

Extending Jim Curtin’s contract for one year: A. Curtin is a polarizing figure. In a nutshell, his supporters think he’s gotten the most out of tough roster situations while helping young players grow, while his detractors (of which I am one) point to his tactical inflexibility and inability to make in-game adjustments. Tanner’s decision to sign Curtin to a one-year “prove-it” extension was a brilliant move. If the manager is able to implement Tanner’s tactical systems successfully, few will argue that he doesn’t deserve more time in charge. If he fails, few will argue that Tanner didn’t give him a fair shake.

Resigning Ray Gaddis, Fabinho, and Ilsinho: B. It’s tough to evaluate these contracts totally until we see their salary data, but assuming that the two Brazilians take large pay cuts signing Fabinho as a talisman and Ilsinho to do wild stuff off the bench makes a lot of sense. Gaddis is the Union’s longest tenured player who’s hit his ceiling as an adequate MLS fullback. A useful piece to have, but Union fans will be annoyed if he gets the majority of the starts at right back this year.

Signing Sergio Santos from Audax Italiano (Chile): A. Santos is the sort of prospect that the Union should be looking for: young, a record of success in a lesser league, and the potential to bloom into a star. That Tanner both (a) paid a transfer fee to get Santos and (b) beat out Mexican clubs for his signature are bonuses. Santos could be the impact striker the Union have been searching for.

Trading Keegan Rosenberry to Colorado Rapids for up to $400k in allocation money: C+. Easily the most shocking and polarizing move of the offseason saw Tanner sell the local boy and fan favorite to Colorado. The return is decent, but Tanner will have to hope that things work out at right back (and that Rosenberry doesn’t develop into a national-team level player in Denver). It’s reasonable to wonder whether this move saw the Union turn a strength into a weakness, with the tandem of an untested Olivier Mbaizo and an all-too-tested Ray Gaddis not necessarily inspiring confidence.

Trading all of the Union’s SuperDraft picks to FC Cincinnati for $150k in allocation money: LMAO. Combined with the Rosenberry trade, Tanner wasted little time in indicating that he wasn’t afraid to be bold. The German pragmatically assessed the field of available players and concluded that there was no point even bringing any of them to camp. Given that any draft pick after the first round has little-to-no-value league-wide, this is a good return from a Cincy side that seems determined to celebrate joining MLS by spending its cash in new and deranged ways.

Signing Aurelien Collin from free agency: Sure, why not? Collin is well past his prime, but the Union have had some luck with well-past-their-prime defenders in the recent past. (See Onyewu, Oguchi.) Brought in to be the fourth defender, the Union will be thrilled if he makes fewer than ten appearances in all competitions. He should contribute some veteran savvy and personality (read: nastiness) to a club that has seemed curiously short of both of those things in recent years. Plus, he’s chosen to wear number 78, which is certainly… a choice.

Signing Carlos Miguel Coronel on loan from Red Bull Salzburg: Win-win-winThe only example of Tanner bringing in someone directly from his old club, the loan deal for Coronel makes a lot of sense as a replacement for longtime reserve John McCarthy. Andre Blake is likely to leave for the Gold Cup this summer, so there will be games to be had for the young Brazilian. If he impresses, the Union can buy him and sell Blake on to the bigger club that he deserves. If he faceplants, the Union don’t have to keep him.

Signing Kai Wagner from Würzburger Kickers (3.Bundesliga, Germany): Who? The secret love child of Kai Herdling and Andrew Wenger, Wagner is not a name that, uh, anyone had ever heard of before he joined the Union. Entering the offseason, most thought that left back would be Matt Real’s job to lose, with the Union maybe signing a veteran backup more capable than Fabinho to help out. Instead, Tanner moved for a player similar to Real’s age (Real is 19, Wagner is 22) and experience (Tanner believes the 3.Bundesliga is a similar level to USL). Whatever the signing says about the Union Academy product’s place in this year’s team, Wagner is essentially a massive unknown. An up-and-down preseason didn’t help inspire confidence. Maybe he and Real solve the left back black hole — for now, though, it remains the biggest question mark on the roster.

Signing Marco Fabian from Eintracht Frankfurt: Much rejoicingBorek Dockal was never coming back. Somehow, Tanner found a way to replace him with a better player. Yes, there’s risk here, as Fabian’s last few seasons have been marred by injury and an inability to get matches. But the upside is massive — Fabian could be a legitimate star in MLS and seems like exactly what this team needed in the middle of the park. And structuring the contract as a one-year deal with two team options insulates the Union from much of the risk. Tanner deserves plaudits for the signing that most are calling the biggest in Union history.

Trading C.J. Sapong to Chicago Fire for up to $450k in allocation money: A+ and fifty gold starsI come not to bury Sapong, who I quite liked as a person and who deserves an ovation from the Union faithful when he returns to Talen. But Tanner managed to pull nearly half a million in funny money for a guy in the last year of his deal who’s on a massive contract that is well above his actual value. Sapong’s 2018 season was a nightmare, and he faced starting the season behind Santos, Fafa Picault, Cory Burke, and David Accam on the forward depth chart.

18 Comments

  1. Chris Gibbons says:

    “The secret love child of Kai Herdling and Andrew Wenger,…”

    I wish I wrote that.

  2. I haven’t felt content but seeing it all summarized nicely on one page is…convincing. Thanks, Pete. Sure, we didn’t sign Balotelli but we made thrifty, tough, smart long-view moves. As long as Sugarman is in charge and the Super Mario signings aren’t possible, we must find solace in offseasons such as these. Looking forward to the summer window.

    • I think that Fabian might be the “Balotelli-like” player Kinkead’s inside man was referencing.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Funny how that ended up working out 🙂 Good reporters don’t lie. The may not be able to give the whole story, but smoke usually indicates fire.

  3. There’s been more than a few mentions of selling Blake this summer. Isn’t he still blocked from a work permit due to Jamaica being so low in the FIFA standings? When this topic came up last year, a lot of people wanted to cash in, until they realized he legally couldn’t play in England, at least. I’m not sure how many other countries are out of reach along the same guidelines.
    .
    Just something to think about before we start slapping a price tag on his back again.

    • It does not have to be in England. It’s a big world out there…

      • I’m not saying it has to be England, I was asking if this limitation also prevented moves to other leagues, as well as England.
        .
        If the market is limited, this talking point becomes much less relevant.

      • @pragmatist – my understanding is that the work permit issues are unique to UK law, not to the rest of Europe. (Something you’ll sometimes see is a Premier League club signing a guy who doesn’t yet qualify for a work permit, then loaning him to a continental club until he does.) So Blake would be eligible for a transfer to France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. It’s also possible that he’s now eligible for a UK work permit, but I haven’t looked into that in much detail.

      • Gotcha. Thanks! I wasn’t sure how common it was…apparently “not very” is the answer. 😉

      • Feb 07 19 FIFA rankings,Jamaica is 54th.

    • As great as a shot blocker Blake is, I don’t think Ernst rates him too high. I have to agree with el P’s assessment that Blake’s feet and distribution just aren’t good enough. The loan deal of Coronel says much to me. I think if Ernst gets an offer for him, he’ll take it.

      • if we have done well to address defensive needs before the ball gets to him, a competent keeper is all we will need.
        i believe we will get great value for Blake. if these recent moves pay dividends then i’m ok with the inevitable replacement

      • I hope you are right about “great value for Blake.” I just don’t believe it’s the case.

  4. John O'Donnell Jr says:

    The only thing I think you missed out on was Ernst has a plan and he explains it a tad better than the previous front office. Also he started implementing it at a reasonable time instead of last minute under the cone of silence. Personally I root for Rosenberry to star in Colorado as more allocation money comes back to the Union. With Colorado extending his contract, he should see plenty of the field to trigger those incentives.

    • I also root for Rosenberry, because it may look bad for the Union, but it could mean the USMNT has a solid, modern right-back for the next 2 WC Cycles.
      .
      I’m not saying he’s there yet, but the potential exists.

  5. Maybe Collin is wearing 78 to celebrate the year of the Miracle at the Meadowlands (which would also explain why the Cows didn’t want him). I’m guessing that’s not it, though.

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