Analysis

What might Ernst Tanner do this offseason?

Photo: Stephen Speer

In the 2022 end-of-season press conference Ernst Tanner indicated he expects to have “27 or 28” players on the 2023 roster.

He said that if the Philadelphia Union lose further players to departure they will be replaced.

And he said that he expects to make three roster additions: a center back, a midfielder, and probably an attacker.

At this writing the 2023 roster guarantees 22 returns. A 23rd is expected but remains in contract renegotiation. A 24th comes from a rumored but improbable departure. A 25th current player is also rumored to be departing, but credibly so. That rumor makes sound business sense, probably complies with the player’s wishes, and is compatible with the club’s “player development DNA.” For immediate on-pitch competitive success, the departure is counter-intuitive.

More games

The Union’s 2023 season will differ significantly from 2022. It requires a larger roster to play its estimated 10 to 15 extra games.

The 2022 season totaled 39 games. Thirty-four comprised the regular season. One was in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. One was an international friendly. And three were in the MLS Cup playoffs.

Tanner and manager Jim Curtin expect 2023’s matches to total between 50 and 55. Were they to make the four available championship matches in 2023 the total would number 60.

Four sources generate the expected extra games, so adding international friendlies seems improbable. The Union will compete in:

  • 2023’s expanded, 29-team MLS regular season and, hopefully, its playoffs.
  • The 16-team home-and-away Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League that begins in March.
  • The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, entering in May in the fourth round of eight.
  • The Leagues Cup – a brand-new four-week event that begins July 21 and combines the 47 teams of Liga MX and MLS into a group stage phase followed by five knockout rounds.

If we accept Tanner’s assertion that his roster additions in 2022’s late summer — Richard Odada and Abasa Aremeyaw — are primarily for the 2023 season, the Union played 2022’s 39 matches with 23 players. Late-season player usage supports the sporting director’s point.

The end-of-season roster decisions plus the two roster departures officially known so far are incorporated into the depth chart estimated below. It assumes one further first-team departure (Kai Wagner), and a successful outcome to the contract renegotiation (Joe Bendik).

2023 Depth Chart (with ages as of 14-Nov-22).

(Please Note that eight days  after writing  Marcos Zambrano announced on instagram 12-Dec-22 that he is leaving the Union’s Academy. That news changes some assumptions that follow below.)

 The Union players are bold-faced. The second-team professionals are in normal font.  The amateurs are underlined in italics. The two expected future departures – the second comes from the second team – are at the bottom of their position groups in parentheses. No end-of-season second-team roster decisions have been announced, so we have guessed.

  Striker Striker
Uhre 28 22 Carranza
Riasco 18 22 Donovan
Pierre 17 17 Zambrano
Sanchez 17 Attacking Midfield 17 Mazzola
Gazdag 26  
Sullivan 18
Rafanello 22
Left Midfield Darboe 16 Right Midfield
Flach 21 (Paternina) 21 35 Bedoya
McGlynn 19 21 Stojanovic
Perdomo 21 18 Ramirez
Defensive Midfield  
Martinez 28
Odada 22
Bueno 23
Left Back Left C Back Villero 21 Right C Back Right Back
Real 23 Elliott 27 Diallo 19 28 Glesnes 25 Mbaizo
Sorenson 19 Craig 18 Oliver 17 19 Aremeyaw 21 Harriel
Martelli 17 Portella 21   21 Nkanji 16 Westfield
(Wagner) 25   Goal Keeper 17 Stopek 17 Uwimana
Blake 32
Freese 24
Bendik* 33
Thompson 20
Rick 16

*Contract negotiations remain in process and he remains listed as a rostered player on the organization’s website.

Two depth chart notes

First, Tanner’s three additions comment — especially the mention in so many words of the defender as a center back — suggests the sporting director does not expect Olivier Mbaizo to leave. Although Mbaizo made Cameroon’s squad for the World Cup, he did not feature at the tournament, which might have raised his profile. Were Mbaizo to leave, right back would become the organization’s thinnest position and greatest problem because it would have only one professional under contract.

Second, the Union have announced no homegrown signings yet this year. U.S. labor law heavily circumscribes child labor, and anyone not yet 18 is regulated. Previous circumvention of 18th birthdays through first team “pre-contract” announcements seems to have gone out of style.

Of the four players judged to be the leading homegrown candidates, none are 18 and only two will become so soon. The other two are a year and nearly two years away. Striker Marcos Zambrano turns 18 on January 20, 2023. Fellow striker Nelson Pierre does so March 22. Right back Frank Westfield turns 17 this December 9. And midfielder Bajung Darboe will became 18 November 7, 2024, since he only recently turned 16.

The pipeline

When detailing his three acquisitions expectation, Tanner did not discuss sources. We speculate whether the players in the pipeline at center back, attacker, and the midfield are serious first-team candidates.

Gino Portella. The roster mystery on our depth chart is the 21.7-year-old German-Italian left center back. He has been physically present in Chester for two seasons, probably since January of 2021. We list him on the second team because that is what the organization does itself on its own website. But they did announce him as having his 2023 option exercised in the first-team’s end-of-season roster announcement required by MLS’s off-season roster procedures. Whatever his roster placement may be, it is a book-keeping anomaly only.

After arriving in January of 2021, Portella suffered a seemingly continuous sequence of soft-tissue injuries until quite late in the year when an orthopedic issue required surgical repair. He recovered and rehabilitated. Then he  began limited and then unlimited practice with Union II during the second half of the 2022 MLS NEXT Pro season.

Portella’s only 2022 MLS NEXT Pro game appearance came in the final minute-plus-stoppage-time of the first round of the playoffs on September 24 when Union II was eliminated by Toronto II. He started both the postseason friendlies for which professionals were eligible.

Twice in the second match he decisively intervened in front of an open net to maintain a clean sheet against a team that was giving Union II everything it could handle. The match ended 0-0. Under sustained encouragement from his bench Portella managed to last the entire 90 minutes.

Portella has been restored to health after a full season lost to injury. He would be a fifth CB. He might well be the center back Tanner referenced. He would raise our assumed first team roster numbers to 24.

Marcos Zambrano. If Tanner’s new attacker turns out to be an internal player already in the pipeline, he would most likely be the already mentioned 17.8-year-old academy striker.  But we doubt it turns out that way. The exciting Ecuadorian will be player number 28, not number 25.

The teenager spent the first seven months of 2022 with the Academy U17s and punctuated a strong MLS NEXT regular season with a breakout performance in the U17 MLS NEXT Cup. He won the golden boot for all levels of the entire tournament with seven goals. The final two keyed the Union U17’s second half 3-2 comeback against Columbus Crew’s U 17s that brought the trophy to Subaru Park.

Since then, not in exact chronological order, he has:

  • Scored the winning goal for the East in August’s MLS NEXT All-Star game in Minnesota,
  • Spent several days practicing with the first team,
  • Substituted and started in two Union II MLS NEXT Pro matches respectively,
  • Played a Union Development Squad UPSL regular season game this fall scoring a hat trick,
  • Substituted into a mid-November UPSL playoff  game, bicycling home UDS’s equalizer with literally his first touch on the pitch.
  • And at some late fall point he was called in to the last USMYNT U20 camp of the year. (The U20s are the group that Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Jack McGlynn, and Brandan Craig led last June and early July to qualify for the 2023 FIFA U20 World Cup in Indonesia and the 2024 Olympics in Paris.)

Knowledgeable sources have commented that the Union have been competing hard to retain the Academy senior’s services. Speculatively, after Zambrano turns 18 on January 20, 2023 there may be a homegrown announcement.

But discovering that the Ecuadorian is Tanner’s attacker addition would be surprising since he was over matched physically last August in his MLS NEXT Pro start against independent side Rochester. Instead, the expectation is that Tanner will add a different unknown MLS-ready striker familiar with the Union’s system but from outside the organization as player number 25, in addition to signing Zambrano to spot 28 as a homegrown.

Midfielders. Tanner’s third addition, the midfielder, is not likely to come out of the player development pipeline. They need an MLS-ready player for March, not a development opportunity who will achieve MLS readiness in 2024.

None of the six midfielders from the second team and the academy amateurs listed above were 90-minute, two-way, match dominators in MLS NEXT Pro in 2022.

The 26th 2023 player will be an unknown midfielder from elsewhere who is both MLS ready and experienced in playing something like the Union’s style of soccer.

Kai Wagner’s departure

The German left back is the player whose sale this offseason makes good business sense but is competitively counter-intuitive. Tanner’s comment in the end-of-season presser that further departing players would be replaced applies to Wagner.

So far our arguments have developed a 26-player total. That Tanner said 27 or 28 instead is most simply explained by a Wagner replacement. The replacement and the Zambrano homegrown signing  raise the roster count to Tanner’s 28.

Almost certainly Wagner’s roster asset valuation has been maximized by the awards he received and the numbers he put up. And he will be free to walk for nothing as an out-of-contract player by December of 2023. Realizing profit from the value added to Wagner over the last four years should happen now.

There are challenges. The Sporting Director will be asking a buyer to pay for MLS’s honors and MLS’s statistics, not Europe’s or South America’s. And for the first time Tanner’s request will feature not a teenager who can easily add future roster asset value to offset present day costs, but a 25.8-year-old. Profitably re-selling a 27 or a 28-year-old two years from now is a chancier proposition than re-selling a 21-year-old.

Unless his acquiring club sees Wagner as blooming into a truly world-class player, his primary value will be how he contributes to results on the pitch not to the clerk in the counting house.

Wagner may want to return to Europe because he may wish to return his wife and young child closer to home, much as Pat Richter did when joining Bethlehem Steel in 2016. So now is the time for the Union to realize its profit while saying a grateful and cordial farewell to a player who has been a cooperative, effective professional fully dedicated to his club’s needs.

The discipline of the business plan says Wagner goes now, especially with Mbaizo coming back as a second proven outside back.

Next year’s roster

2023 PROJECTED FIRST TEAM ROSTER ESTIMATE (as of 11/30/22)

New players are bold-faced

# Pos Player Age Contract for 2023
1 GK Andre Blake 32.0 Guaranteed
2 Matt Freese 24.2 Option exercised
3 Joe Bendik 33.6 Renegotiating
4 LB Matt Real 23.4 Option exercised
5 Anton Sorenson 19.8 Guaranteed
6 REPLACEMENT TBD
7 LCB Jack Elliott 27.2 Guaranteed
8 GINO PORTELLA 21.7 Option exercised
9 RCB Jakob Glesnes 28.7 Guaranteed
10 Brandan Craig 18.6 Guaranteed
11 Abasa Aremeyaw 19.3 Guaranteed
12 RB Olivier Mbaizo 25.3 Guaranteed
13 Nathan Harriel 21.6 Option exercised
14 DM Jose Martinez 28.3 Performance trigger
15 Richard Odada 22.0 Guaranteed
16 Jose Bueno 23.6 Guaranteed
17 LM Leon Flach 21.7 Option exercised
18 Jack McGlynn 19.4 Guaranteed
19 RM Alejandro Bedoya 35.6 Guaranteed
20 UNKNOWN TBD
21 AM Daniel Gazdag 26.7 Performance trigger
22 Quinn Sullivan 18.7 Guaranteed
23 Jeremy Rafanello 22.6 Guaranteed
24 S Mikael Uhre 28.1 Guaranteed
25 UNKNOWN TBD
26 S Julian Carranza 22.5 Guaranteed
27 Chris Donovan 22.3 Option exercised
28 MARCOS ZAMBRANO 17.8 TBD

9 Comments

  1. If Kai goes a high quality left back replacement. An eventual replacement for Bedoya who played great but let’s face it he is not going to be able to play 90 minutes or even 60 by the time the season is 2/3 over. We need to start grooming his replacement this season. Martinez is a mystyery.. Even though he may be a lunatic hot head his presence will be missed if he asks to leave.

    • I could not have said it better myself.

      If I were Herr Tanner, I’d market Martinez to Italy & Saudi Arabia. Both would pay him and us what we need… and in his pocket, another Uhre who can “fit it” and be the level headed defensive midfielder to help replace Bedoya.

      Lunatic…..

      And Captain… age is a cruel game played on us all….. 60 minute replacement in 2023. All good. Leadership far more important.

      Imagining….

      Hosting MLS Cup 2023 in Chester.

      YES…

      Happy Holidays to all.

  2. It’s very unrealistic we will be able to replace Kai Wagner just with a left back, particularly in terms of his offensive contributions. The defense is overall solid enough not to miss him nearly as much, but offensively the Union will really miss his contributions from the flanks. Of course, some of that improvement may be internal as Uhre has had a season to gel.

  3. Is the formatting on the depth chart unreadable or is it me?

  4. My suggestion, I’d amend the article to say Academy Prospect rather than Amateur for those in italics. Every boy listed is in the Union Academy.

    Great article by the way… it’ll be interesting to see what Ernst Tanner and his team do over the next few weeks. Exciting time for the Union!

    • I use the term “amateur” rather than “Academy prospect” for two reasons. The first is precision of accuracy in language. in 2022 until August there was an amateur whom I knew to not be in the Academy, Boubacar Diallo. The second is highlighted by the earlier comments about the inability to see the full depth chart on a phone, about having to use a tablet, a laptop or a desktop to see the full visual. To get a five-column table to show completely on those bigger screens, I have to keep the columns as narrow as possible. And getting the cells in the table to display as single horizontal lines further restricts how much data I can place in the cell. Single word labels have better chances of surviving those technical constraints.

  5. It will be interesting to see if Andres Perea is a backup for Bedoya. As Tim said in the article, Perea appears to be an MLS-ready midfielder as Tanner said. Part of me also wonders if he is a replacement for Martinez if el Brujo gets sold this winter or over the summer.

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