Ernst Tanner’s MLS blind spot

Photo: Paul Rudderow

Regular Philly Soccer Page commenter, long time Union fan, noted soccer paraphernalia collector, and general lover of the beautiful game, Rene Turner, wanted to add his two cents to the PSP jar this week.

I am an Ernst Tanner fan.

How could I not be after a Supporters’ Shield winning season?!?! But as the ‘Trust the Ernst Process’ unfolds, I have a question: why has Tanner has only made two signings within MLS over the last two years. Why is his process not trusting players from MLS?

Tanner has a hard financial ceiling when it comes to roster building, and his verbiage alone will tell you he’s not going to be pushing up on that. He has done a good job with the money he has spent, but he has also shared his pleasant surprise at the team’s recent results, not expecting (nor prepared for?) the Supporters’ Shield win at this stage in his build.

(This should make us all more appreciative of the job that Jim Curtin has done with our team).

2021 is a little different for obvious reasons.

COVID has made scouting near impossible, with limited ability to talk to players face to face internationally. Add to this last month’s looming specter of a strike, which made things even more fraught. Both of these were factors to consider when reviewing the offseason.

Tanner maxed out the team’s International Spots very early in his tenure too, and the Union had to scramble last year to get everyone compliant. They still have yet to find a spot for their newest signing, Stuart Findlay.

The sporting director is also putting a premium on the value of Academy kids (all praise Richie Graham!), which brings us to current day and a mostly full roster.

With all of those restrictions in place, I do not understand why the Union have not looked in their own backyard this off-season to fill in the holes. There is a lot of talent emerging in MLS as Academies ripen and the level of soccer is rising across the board. Talent that could be flipped and sold abroad, with the growing realization around the world that US players aren’t as bad as everyone thought. Talent that could certainly help the team in the CCL. Talent that could help the Boys get into the Open Cup. Talent that could provide the side the depth needed to defend the Supporters’ Shield.

A fully healthy Union’s starting lineup contains only two US-born players.

The Columbus Crew signed Bradley Wright-Phillips and Kevin Molino (plus a Young DP) to bolster their MLS Cup winning squad. The strong got stronger. Granted they are making a splash to open their new stadium, but those also seem like moves that a team who wants to compete in CCL makes.

Their sporting director, Tim Bezbatchenko, isn’t playing around.

I would have taken either one of those players in a heartbeat for the Union. Can you imagine BWP coming off the bench to help us secure points in Costa Rica? The team could have had either one – or one of many other potential American contributors – but they apparently weren’t looking.

Make no mistake: I’m here for the mantra of ‘Play Your Kids’.

They make up nearly a third of the team’s roster, so I have no doubt they will get their time to shine. But most of them just got off a year of being consistently shelled at the U2 level and aren’t going to save points against Saprissa in the Concacaf Champions League. Incorporating the Academy is a main reason Tanner was brought in (like Stewart before him), but the roster needs to be more than just Academy kids and Internationals.

It seems very shortsighted, any year – but particularly this year – to not spend at least 10% of a team’s scouting budget on MLS. Tanner has already proven there is a market for these players. The Aaronson and McKenzie trades brought in a windfall. Adjusting for MLS’ cut at the time, Trusty gained us the same amount on his transfer to Colorado as selling him overseas for $2.5m would have brought. (and Rosenberry and Jones also pulled in similarly nice hauls). Future sales are trending up in general right now for MLS and Tanner should be buying low while he still can.

One last thing to consider: International Spots are going for over $200k right now. This extra cost can also be viewed as a $200k off coupon for MLS players. For illustrative purposes, could the Union have found someone within MLS at $200k above Kacper’s salary that could equal/beat his numbers?

I do.

Ultimately, there is a lot of talent at a price point that fits the Union’s wallet, that is already acclimated to the league, that doesn’t require special roster consideration, and is readily available.

In a year where it was excessively hard to bring international players in, Tanner wasn’t looking. Albright should have known better, but he wasn’t looking.

There are voids in our roster (beyond the pile of cash that isn’t forming itself into a DP) going into this season. I don’t understand why we don’t look to MLS to fill at least some of them.


  1. el Pachyderm says:

    salient arguement.
    until proven otherwise, I am going to assume this guy has his finger exactly where he wants it.
    the real question for me is, if the team finishes 3rd 4th or 5th in the conference, and wins a playoff game or two and vets more youth… is everyone gonna be all verklempt about it.. now that a taste of Victory is on tap at Cynicism Corner.
    my guess is… yes.

  2. I’d prefer adding a striker at the top of the depth chart, but if the plan is roll with the current set of 3 striker options, BWP sure would’ve been a decent insurance policy. Our top guy is solid but very streaky, and the other two just haven’t been consistently available for selection.

    Pretty good argument made overall that some depth options with proven MLS backgrounds would be useful to have around.

  3. My take is that the value proposition of MLS vetted players is low in Tanner’s mind, at least for the time being. Each player that Tanner has brought in or kept around, has either had a possible upside on resale, or provides an extra value proposition in play and on/off field leadership and experience. The latter, the Ilsinho/Collin types, have a limited roster space in Tanner’s world. One to three may be acceptable, but more are just taking up valuable space. BWP, though still potent last year, isn’t a resale piece nor is he especially a fit at his age and the amount of running required.
    As for Pachy’s premise, I for one am not going to be upset by getting the youth playing time and finishing mid table. If they do play and play well and go out early in the playoff’s I may end up criticizing some, but then expectations would have changed. It’s relative. Though going from the base idea of playing the youth and not securing silverware or making long playoff runs, no that would not cause me to get pitchforks and torches.

  4. I guess another domino for cynicism’s corner is are they willing to accept mediocrity this year for LT developmental reasons? Since no second division MLS league has emerged to play the kids in, are they planning on using the senior squad games to develop guys that they would have otherwise developed in the U2 league, realizing that it will cost them points this year?
    I’ve been full STH since their second year. I’ll keep buying tickets if the plan is to develop and sell talent AND be a team that can compete for the top 3 spots in the division.
    If the plan is to be like a Southampton (or others) and prioritize developing and selling talent over results, counting ourselves lucky if we crack the top half, I’ll spend my money elsewhere.
    They still have a stadium to fill in a competitive sports town, so I am hoping it is the former and not the later.

  5. Section 114 (as former as all of you) says:

    Please look closely at the Armchair Analyst on the Union, specifically the depth chart.

    He has an interesting, and reasonable, definition of the position that Ilsinho will be filling this season.

  6. Raymond L Davis says:

    Trust Ernie he is and has done the right things at the right time.

  7. I’m of two minds about it, while I agree that the Union do need to fill out roster holes with intra-MLS moves, I’m not sure there are any gaping holes in the roster. As I look at it, this is what the current depth chart is:

    Forward: Przybylko, Santos, Burke, Fontana, DeVries
    AM: Fontana, Ilsinho, DeVries, Monteiro, Bedoya
    CM: Bedoya, Monteiro, Martinez, Creavalle, McGlynn, various youth options.
    DM: Martinez, Creavalle, Elliot, Sullivan?
    RB: Mbaizo, Harriel
    LB: Wagner, Real
    CB: Glesnes, Elliot, Findlay, Collin
    GK: Blake, Freese, Bendik

    Excluding the rare blockbuster move, the main intra-mls moves you get are roster filler moves, and I’m not sure that the Union really have a need for that assuming Leon Flach is signing for the club, adding another midfield option.

  8. I think Tanner’s model for the Union is RB Salzburg. I don’t follow the Austrian 1st division much at all other than that it is a club that appears to operate by making money in the transfer market, always making more in sales than it spends in buys, and using its academy and development to consistently vie for the league’s title. Since RB took over the club, it has won 11 of the last 14 league titles and was runner up in the other 4.

    Tanner seems to be a pretty astute judge of talent. I don’t think he believes MLS players don’t have the talent, but he clearly thinks the talent on hand is not worth the cost in salary + transfer/trade.

    What I’m interested – no, hoping – to see is some bounce back from the striker corps. I feel like we won the shield despite a pretty mediocre performances from our goal scorers. Actually, it might be more fair to say they were poor in front of goal. Przbylko netted 8 in 23 appearances. Santos 8 in 21. If these guys can improve on their goals per 90, we’ll be in the hunt for a shield and a deep play off run again.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      Forward play last year was sneaky good, and it didn’t show up in goal numbers as much as it should. Kacper and Sergio were the 9th and 45th highest ranked players in the league last year according to and contributed in a lot of ways that don’t show up on the score sheet. Not to say there isn’t room for improvement, just that their contributions got consistently lost last year.

  9. Bo Derrick says:

    Tanner said #10 was #1 Priority.
    Team said Fontana would get a shot up top.

    Fontana gets said shot-they likely don’t need to pull the switch on a F until summer at the earliest.

    Where is B.A’s replacement?

  10. Section 114 (former) says:

    My issue is we aren’t spending the money we have. I would trust him on where, even though I have ideas. But I’m not sure this is Tanner, as opposed to an owner who is not spending money.
    If they spend on a stud at 9, 10, or even 8 and then play the kids around them, great. But with our best players in the front line being adequacues, babies, and aging players, this team is out gunned.
    And they have the Garber Bucks to change that.

  11. Remember that to make his system work, Ernst Tanner has to be a credible salesman to buyers who have an ingrained historical skepticism against the quality of American-developed talent.
    The difference between Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna, Weston Mckinie (sp?), and christian Pulisic among others is that he was developed in the United States, not Europe.
    Tanner has to overcome that strong, historical bias.
    His own credibility as a European talent judge helps. But by itself that is not enough.
    The developmental milieu of the Union senior roster, the training environment in which his youngsters are being grown, needs to be credible to potential buyers. The more Europeans and South Americans present in practice ce everyday, the more credible that growth environment is to potential buyers.
    It hurt Brenden Aaronson’s sale potential not at all that Haris Medunjanin was something of a mentor. Likewise that McKenzie had to defend against Ilsinho on a regular basis.
    Ray Gaddis was the only purely domestically trained player on the 2020 senior roster. Everyone else has substantial overseas exposure on their resumes.
    Think about buying a baseball player or a basketball player. What can you assume if the candidate is raised and trained in the U. S. of A.?
    I think it is fair to assume that Tanner wants the daily training environment to be as close to a European/South American blend in which to grow his kids as he can get.
    It goes to credibility of product in the eyes of the potential buyer.

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