A View from Afar / Union

Five thoughts on the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Five thoughts on Philadelphia Union.

Ready? Go. 

How good are they? 

Through one third of the MLS season, the Union have earned the pole position in the Eastern Conference. After a slow start, they have won seven of their last nine.

So just how good are they?

Good enough that you should be watching, that’s for sure. Beyond that? We’re about to find out.

They’ve beaten a mixed bag, with wins against: 

  • a punchless Columbus side,
  • twice against an expansion club in Cincinnati,
  • once against the league’s worst franchise (New England),
  • at home over two pretty good teams in Montreal and Dallas,
  • away against another pretty good team in Toronto, who were playing mostly without Jozy Altidore.

None of those teams wows you, but it’s not a bad group.

Now they get Seattle at home. The Sounders are one of the league’s best teams, but they’ve also benefited from one of the most home-heavy schedules in the league, opening their year with seven of 11 at home. They are 1-1-2 away on the road. They’re also coming in with some injury issues, most notably to holding midfielder Gustav Svensson, which has made them vulnerable recently to pressing.

The last time the Union were in first place this late … 

The last time the Union occupied first place this late in the season was in 2016. Then Vincent Nogueira abruptly returned to France just four months after obtaining his U.S. green card, and the Union cratered without their midfield fulcrum.

Strange stuff can always happen. Though maybe not that strange.

(Nogueira’s career path deserves its own close-up examination one day. Aside from his time in Philadelphia, he has never strayed far from his birthplace in eastern France when looking for employment. He left first division side Strasbourg to join fourth division Annecy last year. By choice. Nogueira continues to confound. We continue to wonder “What if …”)

Ernst Tanner: Good scouting, common sense

Ernst Tanner has figured out MLS in six months in a way that most of his predecessors never did.

Nearly every year of the Union’s existence, I have written the same thing: Trade your underused assets while they still have value.

The Union rarely did it, save for during John Hackworth’s tenure in charge, and they usually ended up cutting ties with those assets only once they had depreciated to the point of no trade value (example: Josh Yaro) or the Union had lost all leverage and reaped less than the optimum (example: Amobi Okugo).

So when I wrote the same thing a week ago about Derrick Jones — trade him while he still has value — I expected the same as usual.

Lo and behold, Ernst Tanner did exactly the right thing by dealing Jones to Nashville.

Further, he doubled down on that notion by acquiring a small pile of allocation money for David Accam. Between the two, the Union cut salary and reaped benefits by trading players who, despite their talent, were buried on the depth chart, looked likely to stay there, but could absolutely flourish in the right environment.

Please, someone tell me now how complicated the job of MLS sporting director is.

Often, it’s just common business sense. 

Credit to Ernst Tanner: He has common sense, in addition to excellent talent evaluation skills and good contacts.

And in six months, he has done what Earnie Stewart couldn’t do for nearly three years. Tanner has filled the first team’s key gaps, given head coach Jim Curtin the tools he has long needed, and set the Union up to be a title contender.

He even found an actual left back. How revolutionary.

Raiding Europe’s scrap heap

What’s been most impressive about Tanner is how he has found value in European markets generally viewed as overpriced.

Kacper Przybylko was a castoff from second tier German side Kaiserslautern. The Germany-born former Poland youth international has never scored more than seven goals in a season above Germany’s regional leagues. He runs a bit like a stiff, stilted giraffe, the motion’s anything but fluid, but he has some great traits that plenty of strikers don’t: Poise, touch, vision, smarts, hustle, physicality, and dead-eye finishing ability. MLS defenses will eventually figure him out, as they do with everyone, but Przybylko may be more equipped to handle that than most. If you can finish, you can finish. You just need open looks.

Then take a look at the guy who paired with Przybylko on Saturday’s beauty of a counterattack goal.

Jamiro Monteiro departed first division Dutch side Heracles Almelo to join FC Metz after their latest relegation from Ligue 1. It’s a questionable career move to begin with, given it was Metz’s fourth relegation in ten years, although there’s something to be said for the fact that they went back up every time (including this year). Then Monteiro couldn’t get on the field for some reason with Metz.

Acquiring Monteiro via transfer less than a year after his transfer to Metz is the kind of move you don’t often see on the open market. Monteiro’s full transfer is not yet done, but if it gets done, that’s down to a prescient loan acquisition by a sporting director who recognized that Metz was getting relegated with or without Monteiro. He took some numbers off their wage bill and got the Union a dynamo midfielder in the process.

Marco Fabián remains a low risk, high reward signing. He hasn’t paid off yet. Maybe he won’t. But this is exactly the time Borek Dockal kicked into gear last year. Fabian is coming off an injury, but we should know by the summer transfer window whether this one is going to come good. Regardless of whether Fabián succeeds with the Union, it was absolutely still a move worth making.

And that’s not even going into the Kai Wagner find, which just seems like flat out good scouting.

Oh, by the way … 

Two consecutive seasons of attractive, exciting soccer?

It’s looking like this Curtin guy can coach after all.

14 Comments

  1. If the other PSP article has it right, and Monteiro was a Stewart find, then I think this article should note that. Tanner got him here, but that’s because he was riding the bench for a year AFTER Stewart already tried to sign him.
    .
    Also in light of the other article, if Monteiro is only a one-year man, do we still view the trade of Jones as a positive? I’m not sure I do.

    • The Truth says:

      It has been widely reported that DJ had off-the-pitch issues. Whatever the case may be, wave goodbye to the both of them and hope we can bolster the position either this summer or this winter.
      .
      In a perfect world DJ grows up faster and evolves into Haris’ quasi-replacement. In that same world, the Union have pockets deep enough to sign Monteiro. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where I’m expecting 35 year old Haris and the constant-mediocre Warren Creavalle to hold down the defensive midfield in 2020.
      .
      Just enjoy Monteiro while we have him. He’ll go down as one of the best ever to wear blue and gold.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        What about Ernst Tanner’s tenure leads you to believe that he’ll rest on his laurels should Monteiro leave?

      • The Truth says:

        Forgive me, I should’ve been more specific. The many years prior to the hiring of Ernst Tanner have made me feel this way. Good players have historically left this team without outright replacements in place. Ernst has been a success and very well may identify those replacements before Monteiro’s departure but as a Union guy, I won’t hold my breath. Fair enough?

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        Indeed

      • If Tanner can bring in players like Monteiro and Wagner, give them a place where they can be successful for a season or two, and this leads to the players returning to Europe at a higher level than they left, it makes it easier to attract the next group in similar circumstances. We should be rooting for Monteiro and Wagner to have fabulous 2019 seasons and then return to Europe to a team in a higher level league than the one they left to join the Union.

    • Dan Walsh says:

      It should!

      I edited Nick’s article after I wrote this and didn’t have time to update, but you are absolutely right.

      Also, Jones was not going to break in with the Union. That had become clear. If one year of Monteiro wins the Union a conference title, then yes, it’s worth it. Also … if Monteiro continues playing like this, I think Tanner will do all he can to nail down that permanent transfer, including the option of letting Fabian go.

  2. I love that Ernst isn’t wasting roster spots/salary cap space with guys who will never make the 18 let alone see the field. Get 25 good players and we’ll still be fine even with the injuries/suspensions that we’ve had so far this season. He’s figured it out.

  3. Tanner earned my respect the moment I learned he discovered one of my personal favorites, Bobby Firmino. Brought him to Hoffenheim from Figueirense. Not sure how he does it, but the man has a really good eye for talent. Or he has a great scouting network that does. He’s been superb so far. Done all the things I thought Stewart would do for the first team but didn’t (recognizing that Stewart had a lot of organizational heavy lifting that Tanner now benefits from).

  4. I feel obliged to point something out: for the prior 2 seasons, we have all been wondering whether Curtin’s ostensible tactical inflexibility was his own doing, or was an order from on high. This means that the more you believe “this Curtin guy can coach after all”, the more you have to blame Earnie Stewart for completely handcuffing him previously, not only with regard to available talent, but also with respect to tactics. Just sayin’.

    • SilverRey says:

      Last year I was very #CurtinOut. This year I’m good with him there – for a specific reason.
      .
      I think that Ernst has been a good influence on him and has helped with flexibility. I think he’s the mentor that Jim never had. Curtin had grown in smaller steps previously, but he’s making some leaps and bounds this year due to Tanner.
      .
      I think it was less Stewart holding him back and more just Curtin playing what he was comfortable with in the past. But I definitely think he has had some encouragement to open up his tactics to play out what Tanner has in vision for the guys he’s bringing in.

    • I will probably repeat this till it happens but, the behind the scenes story written by Curtin or Stewart about the before, during and after of Stewart’s reign will be one hell of a story. The more time that passes, the more that evolves from that time, the more I believe this club was completely unprofessional and in shambles before Stewart came. I think Stewart came to the conclusion that he just needed to K.I.S.S. till he had some sort of professional organization up and running. He asked Jim what system he thought best/wanted to run. Jim said 4-2-3-1. Ernie said ok and off they went sticking to their guns like glue. Now did Ernie neglect the first team or maybe hold back a bit too long? Yeah you could argue that, deservedly. Ernst now as Pete says above gets to benefit from the groundwork Stewart laid.
      .
      Ernst is the GM I always wanted for this club. Stewart may just have been what the club needed in order for Ernst to be successful.

  5. SilverRey says:

    Dallas and Toronto I put on the ‘good 3 pts’ side, notably away. The others were teams that we absolutely should have beaten on the day just to be a playoff team. Seattle will be a good test to see where we are right now, especially in their current form.

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