For Pete's Sake / Union

Examining the Union’s underwhelming offseason

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

Like the Federal Reserve, Ernst Tanner has a dual mandate in running the Philadelphia Union: win as many games as possible, and develop young players who can be sold for cash.

This offseason so far, capped with yesterday’s signing of 20-year-old attacker Markus Anderson, has focused more on one of those missions than the other.

To wit, here’s the offseason incomings so far:

  • Nov. 16: Union sign 19-year-old midfielder Sanders Ngabo from Danish first-division side Lyngby Boldklub, where he made 19 appearances.
  • Dec. 12: Union sign 21-year-old left back Isaiah LeFlore as a free agent, most recently of Houston Dynamo 2 in MLS NEXT Pro.
  • Dec. 14: Union sign 20-year-old Homegrown midfielder Nick Pariano after a four-year career at Duke.
  • Jan. 18: Union sign on loan 21-year-old defender Jamir Berdecio from Bolivian first-division side Club Deportivo Oriente Petrolero, where he made 37 appearances.
  • Jan. 29: Union sign 20-year-old attacker Markus Anderson from Spanish third division side CF Rayo Majadahonda, where he made 18 appearances.

Our old friend Kevin Kinkead put it succinctly at Crossing Broad: “Union sign some guy nobody has ever heard of from some team nobody has ever heard of.”

It could be this offseason’s mission statement. It’s a fascinating study in team-building, but it’s also deeply frustrating and underwhelming to many longtime fans.

Where does this team stand?

How you may feel about this strategy may depend on how you feel about the Union’s current starting group.

Over the last four seasons, the Union have earned more points than any team in MLS, piling up wins and accomplishments. That success has largely been fueled by a small nucleus of talent that Tanner has carefully sculpted, mixing longtime Union veterans (Alejandro Bedoya, Andre Blake, and Jack Elliott) with little-known foreign signings entering their primes (Jakob Glesnes, Jose Martinez, Kai Wagner, Daniel Gazdag, Mikael Uhre) and a sprinkling of highly regarded young talent (Julian Carranza, Leon Flach, Jack McGlynn). That core has stayed almost entirely intact for several seasons, a rarity in professional soccer (or any sport, really).

But after climbing to just short of the absolute pinnacle in 2022, the Union took a step back in 2023, weathering a gruelingly long campaign only to come up just short on every front. Many people, myself included, felt at the end of last season that the squad needed a refresh to a mix that had gone just slightly stale: maybe a player or two out, and maybe a few signings who could compete for a place in the starting lineup.

Instead, though, the Union have doubled down on what works. Wagner looked to be out the door, but he ended up signing a contract extension. Bedoya, too, seems like he’ll be returning at 37 years old. While transfer rumors have swirled around Carranza, no departure looks imminent.

And no one in this group of signings looks ready to step into a regular role on a team competing at the top of MLS.  None of the five are older than 21, and only two acquisitions have any first-division experience, and the Danish and Bolivian leagues aren’t exactly the Premier League.  (For comparison, Gazdag, Martinez, and Glesnes were all in their mid-twenties with 100+ first-team appearances when they joined the Union.)

It seems much more likely that they’ll be regular contributors for Union II than in the first team, at least in 2024.

Really, when you look back at the last four transfer windows, the Union haven’t signed a single player with the intention of having them step into the starting lineup.

That’s a remarkable show of faith in the starting group. The bet is basically that there’s no need to buy any players who should be expected to immediately compete for a starting place. It hits if these players can all keep their level high, avoiding injury, drop-off in play, or simple stagnation.

With each year that goes by without an addition, the bet seems riskier.

Planning for the future

You can think of this season’s signings as a volume play to fill the second prong of Tanner’s mandate: developing young players for future sale.

Between this group of five and young center backs Brandan Craig and Olwethu Makhanya, the Union now have seven players under the age of 21 with basically no MLS experience.

If one or two of those players hit, then it doesn’t matter if the others wash out — there’s still profit in it for the club.

The paradox of Tanner’s dual mandate, though, is that young players need opportunities to play regularly if they’re going to develop and be sold, but those opportunities likely mean at least a temporary drop-off in the caliber of the starting group.

Because the Union have been so good when at full strength for the past few seasons, those opportunities have been fewer and fewer. And it’s not clear where they’ll come from this season, either:

  • Berdecio and Makhanya are wedged behind three surefire starters at centerback, with Craig already shipped off to USL for a year on loan.
  • LeFlore was basically Kai Wagner insurance, and with the German back in the fold his path to minutes over the next few years is shrouded.
  • Ngabo has played some in midfield in preseason, but he’s likely fifth choice at the shuttler positions behind McGlynn, Bueno, Bedoya, and Flach.
  • Anderson has barely any first-team experience and will likely start no higher than sixth or seventh in the pecking order for two spots.

At some point, the Union will need to sell (or simply move on from) their current starting lineup. But transfer attention has been more theoretical than actual for the club’s best assets, McGlynn and Carranza. (Sale of the latter may not be for lack of trying: Jonathan Tannenwald reports that the Union have had multiple deals in place for Carranza this offseason, which were turned down by the player’s camp.)

It is a very delicate balancing act, this dual mandate.

Two paths

Here’s the best-case scenario for Tanner, manager Jim Curtin, and the Union.

The Union’s starting XI remains one of the strongest in MLS, buoyed by many years playing together, and are able to stay at or near their peak levels. The squad is augmented by the younger players who’ve slowly been introduced to the side, and a few of the signings from the last few windows take their chances when they’re given. Jack McGlynn and Julian Carranza are sold for big money, but they’re quickly replaced by rising young talent. The Boys in Blue are deep enough to compete on all fronts and bring home major silverware in 2024 or 2025.

Here’s the worst-case.

The Union’s starting XI tumbles from its peak, with key players hitting their 30s this season. The reserves aren’t up to the same level, and the drop-off costs the Union serious points. The shine is off some of the top prospects, and the Union aren’t able to recoup as much in sales as they’d hope. It’s clear that only serious investment in in-their-prime talent will keep the Union among MLS’s elite, and there’s no appetite from ownership to make that investment. The club slides into a few years (or more) of mediocrity.

It’s not clear to me which of these is more likely than the other. Certainly Tanner deserves the benefit of the doubt for the way he’s built this team over the past half-decade.

But it’s also fair to be frustrated if you’re a fan who wants to win trophies, thinks this squad is just one or two pieces away, and doesn’t care whether the Union turn a profit on any of their players.

So far this offseason, the Union have bet that they can win games without signing any new immediate contributors.

We’ll see whether that bet pays off.


  1. Union +/- 2024 says:

    Excellent recap and write up. Many have (rightful) trust in Ernst to put a good team together. The existing lineup has played well, but it is not okay to go in as-is. Bedoya isn’t a bad player to bring back, but he can’t and shouldn’t play so many minutes. His status calls for him to still play often and he will be paid over what his current talent level is. Both are not great things for a team trying to win on the cheap. Can Flach be counted on to be a real backup? McGlynn should take another step forward, so that’s a big plus. Harriel should as well. The forwards were all underwhelming. This will be yet another year with the same exact tactics and much of the same players, and the Union seemed to be found out a little bit last year.
    The current strategy you outlined here has a couple of flaws. MLS roster rules don’t really jive with having a bunch of young guys who can sit and watch and learn and see if they pan out. There aren’t enough spots for that. We NEED every player on the roster, this year more than ever, to be contributing in a number of games to get anywhere we want to go. The other problem is the coaches strategy. He is very well known to play his veteran, known guys more than they should, and can be reticent to change. He also plays the starters the entire game almost every game, with a sub at 60 and 80 mins like clockwork. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for (multiple) young guys to get some work.
    In another world, Craig would have been starting all those games Lowe started last year, and maybe there would have been more offers and a chance at profit. Sullivan would have gotten more minutes and we could afford some loss or change there. Reality is that most of these young guys will not see much of the field at all unless there’s some epiphany by Curtin.
    Why does a transfer have to be brought in to be plugged into the lineup? Wouldn’t it be good to have a couple viable players at important spots to be pushing each other, not to mention the 3-4 competitions mean there needs to be multiple players who can start.
    Very excited for the year, was in Clearwater for the game Saturday. Let’s hope for a couple of real signings soon.

    • MLS roster rules are actually set up specifically to have room for kids in spots 21-30, with heavy incentives on the salary cap for these players. Union play the kids more than most MLS teams. There were a lot of times we had 3 guys 22 and under on the field at the same time between McGlynn, Donovan, Sullivan, and Flach. Few teams are doing that.
      Sure we all wonder about the what if of BC getting time, but I honestly don’t think he is quite ready for the next step yet. I trust their assessment on that.
      I agree with you about Jim to some extent. The insanity of playing the same starting XI for every competition in the first half of the season last year is something I hope he learned lessons from. I expect to see more rotation this year.
      Definitely psyched to start watching some of these games! They better be streaming them. Half of the league has already announced streaming schedules for the 2nd leg of preseason. Patiently awaiting Union to do the same…

      • They already did. All were announced as closed. Then Flamengo was added and the Union piggybacked onto Flamengo’s broadcast.
        while I join you in wanting to see them play during preseason, they aren’t going to spend the money necessary I strongly suspect.
        The other point is that often it is the other club that wants the match closed. In preseason it is between the two clubs.
        Best we can hope for till February 20 is those ‘live blogs.” Pat Noonan and christ Albright might be okay with it. who knows about Caleb Porter.

  2. I’d really like to see the team get more of these young players meaningful minutes. It’s hard to argue against a formula that has earned more points in MLS than any other offer the last four years, but the team desperately needs a refresh. I think a lot of last year’s regression could be attributed to exhaustion. These players coming in – proven or not – are the depth you have. They need to play. Otherwise, you’ll run this group into the ground again by the end of summer.

    • John P. O'Donnell says:

      Yes they need a refresh but they have two strikes that under performed last year in Uhre and Baribo. Also Gazdag didn’t really score goals last year other than from the spot. Would like to see someone who could push to be his backup this year on a consistent basis.

  3. Good to see you back, Peter.

    I think there’s a good chance that this year could be a lot closer to 2022 compared to last year (albeit without the magic of July and August 6 goal wins).
    Unfortunately, there’s also a decent chance that the Union fail to win any trophies this season, especially if the Inter Ft. Lauderdale signings all produce and they run away with everything in the league. Imagine if the Union do put things together and end up with over 70 points in the regular season but once again lose out. They’ll be branded again as cheap because their owner doesn’t have the deep pockets of others and Curtin will be lambasted for not being able to win anything despite having to compete against 10+ times the payroll he has to work with.
    In my opinion, they are either 0 players away from being able to win trophies or 10 players away…but it’s based on another team’s performance, not the Union’s.

    • paulcontinuim22 says:

      The owner HAS deep pockets but refuses to open the checkbook because he *is* cheap. The U are like a tax write off for him, and only he can prove the skeptics wrong.

  4. Where’d all those Aaronson bucks go? (B&P)
    You could make an argument that in 2023 Gazdag and Uhre both had bad years. If last year was an outlier and they return to 2022 form, then I think the U are only a DP striker away from competing for Cup and Shield.
    But IMO they do still need a DP quality striker threat to take pressure/attention off Carranza and keep teams from man-marking Gazdag to shut him down.

    • Peter Andrews says:

      Good points. The numbers on Gazdag last year are really stunning, as I’ve mentioned before. Just four non-penalty goals in over 4,000 minutes played across all competitions, a goal every eleven games or so. It seemed like he was regularly dealing with nagging injuries, plus a lot of travel to Europe for his national team.
      Uhre’s harder to figure out. He turns 30 this year. His first two seasons in MLS have been fine but erratic (24 goals in 79 appearances), and his manager was clearly frustrated with his play at times last year. It’s hard to see him as the top striker on a cup-caliber team, so I agree that they need to add a really good striker for if/when Carranza leaves.

      • John P. O'Donnell says:

        I would bet some money if you looked at all of Uhre shots on goal, more than 65% are right at the goalkeeper. I can remember at least one goal that went through the five hole but so many that were easy saves.

  5. Great write up, Peter.

    I think that we have seen an overall softening of the worldwide transfer market. It started at the larger European clubs that don’t have sovereign wealth backing (and are not in the Prem) start to become more frugal with their transfer spending. This in turn affects clubs that count on selling their best talents to those larger clubs to fund their transfer activity. This eventually trickles down to leagues like MLS where the Union cannot monetize players like Wagner and Carranza at a value which makes sense for them to sell rather than keeping them. Sure, deals still happen, but it’s not as frothy as it was a few years ago.

    I do think that Tanner now realizes that you can find players who can help you in MLS within the draft and college system and has pivoted to working those areas as well as trying to unearth gems in the lower levels of Europe and South America.

    While it’s unlikely that the Union will be unable to sell any of these players on, they will find some who can be regular contributors in MLS and that’s a better(and more economical) way to build roster depth. This allows him to save those transfer dollars for more established attacking options.

  6. My two cents…
    … MLS is changed for ever …again.
    Input: MLS 4.0.
    Output: Union are not good enough. And it’s been largely largely underwhelming.
    Every comment above is thoughtful and cogent. Peter your article similarly.
    … they can hang and finish 3-4 in league— I imagine pretty easily— because they have a solid defense (I hope) and the greatest MLS keeper ever… (aside from being a terrible penalty stopper) and maybe Uhre & Gazdag figure out how to be relevant again… in that dynamic counterattack which was neutered last year.
    I’m circumspect though. What’s worse— I’m even a bit bored and the season hasn’t even started. Hope the Smaug lifts — soon.

    • John P. O'Donnell says:

      They also have a third striker in Baribo who was basically a red shirt freshman last year. I also believe Sullivan might take another step this year. That being said Uhre troubles me and doesn’t look the part.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Indeed, John. Fair
        Surprised by Quinn. I talk with a buddy all the time about Fontana vibes with him and the first team. I’m surprised his family has not pushed an agenda to get him the hell out of here. But that’s just us.
        Would be nice to see Baribo make an important contribution. Drop a double digit gol tally on the season end ledger.
        Ultimately E.Tanner has built a competitive side and worked pretty well within the parameters of ownership… my hopes are to watch them ‘Just Play Well’ and see where -finishes- across multiple competitions lands them. Admittingly they did not measure up too often to my aesthetic demands last year. Hope that returns
        Finally, It would be some ‘Union Shit’ to send the U2 out in Lamar Hunt and win that damn trophy.

    • I was expecting at bare minimum a decent experienced back up goalie and an upgrade to Torres. Someone who can attack the d 1 on one and draw 2 defenders. Maybe they see something in Baribo that nobody else saw in his short time last year. Maybe Aaronson junior is coming back on loan from Germany? He has been pushing for a transfer because he has played so few minutes.

  7. “The club slides into a few years (or more) of mediocrity.” that’s where i see this squad. they’re no exciting to watch but more importantly aren’t built for the grind into late summer/fall. finishing 3–4 like Pachy says sounds about right. I don’t need to be the Miami Yankees but i need better than what we’re putting out there.

  8. Option 3: We could take Tanner at his word.
    He is planning for the next 5 year cycle. These players are young and inexperienced on purpose, to develop slowly as the older/core players begin their exits either in retirement or other teams. When the spots open, these guys will step into the team knowing the patterns and locker room and mentality.
    Still this plan comes with risk. But it has always sounded to me like Tanner knows the plan because he’s done it before.

  9. Gruncle Bob says:

    Big hat tip for the dual mandate fed reference.
    I tend to see this as a situation where the Prime Directive sits on top of the dual mandate. The Prime Directive is:
    THOU SHALT NOT EVER exceed my tiny-ass budget.

  10. Appreciate the analysis Peter, always good to read your column.

    I fear Pachy has it, we’re a consistent playoff contender getting at home field advantage in the first round. Never enough juice to win the Cup.

    Stars win cups in MLS. We don’t have enough to compete.

    It’s easy to spend other people’s money. Grunkle Bob captured the essence – stay on budget.

    My corollary would be: stay competitive and entertaining to fill seats, hope for the best.

    The U is the epitome of a selling team in a selling league.

  11. Assumptions underlying the point I am about to make: 1. Bedoya will be signed. Carranza probably leaves in June. 3. Torres may be moved. 4 & 5. Riasco and Vazquez will be signed
    If those assumptions are correct, the Union will have a squad of 29. If Torres and Carranza are still here it is the league maximum roster size of 31. The salary budget may cover as many as 31 first-team players.
    Ownership seems to have delayed finishing the WSFS Sportsplex from June until later. Perhaps it has done so to pay for the largest roster of the Ernst Tanner era.
    They are trying to respond to the demands on the roster and maintain their underlying business model.
    absolutely correct they will not buy stars. But they are trying to accommodate the extra Games.

  12. Union just signed goalkeeper Oliver seemle. According to Tanner the “best goalkeeper in the Usl” If that’s true he should be a decent Blake backup

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