Tanner 2.0 Taking Shape for Transitions

Photo Ruari Rossi

At his early December end-of-season press conference alongside head coach Jim Curtin, Sporting Director Ernst Tanner said the Philadelphia Union is beginning to transition into its next five-year cycle.

It is time to provide a first discussion of that transition. If the first cycle that culminated in the 2022 and 2023 teams might be called Tanner 1.0 or Phase One, the new cycle might be called Tanner 2.0 or Phase Two.

Tanner 1.0

The Sporting Director officially began work on August 9, 2018, although it was clear he had already started his Philadelphia tasks several weeks earlier. Using tape while still in Europe, he evaluated the two Philadelphia professional rosters, their supporting technical staffs, and the philosophical principles that underlay the entire organization from the youngest academy sides to the first team. Once he was officially in place, Tanner acted methodically on his evaluations.

As we move into Tanner 2.0, we might assume a similar evaluation would begin, but the evaluation has been ongoing ever since Tanner arrived. Philosophical principles are now in place. Union behavior suggests these principles are constantly tested by actual conditions in North America. Subtle adjustments are being made to account for actual experience here. The second team was originally to be ages 17 through 20, or perhaps 21.

Philosophical adaptations

To illustrate the evolution of the age principle, consider Chris Donovan and Jeremy Rafanello.

In August 2018 Tanner, almost certainly would not have considered signing and re-signing college graduate Donovan. Even after four years in North America, Tanner’s attitude in his July 17, 2022 announcement initially signing Donovan remained skeptical. When Jeremy Rafanello graduated from Union Academy in 2018, Tanner let him go to Penn State and then to lower levels in Europe. He signed him back four years later, on August 23, 2022.

Tanner’s philosophy has evolved for two reasons. The academy provides practical, enduring training in playing his favored narrow diamond and the pool of youth soccer talent in North America is less exceptional than central Europe’s. Hence, Donovan and Rafanello are both on the Union’s 2024 roster.

The critical element of Tanner’s age principle remains. Prospects for sale to European development clubs still need to be identified when they are 17-years-old. The timing of their subsequent two future sales does not work otherwise. And his requirements to qualify as a prospect are highly exacting. Many who have left his program survive and flourish in MLS and elsewhere.

He now accepts that MLS squad players, front-line reserves, and even a few MLS starters can be developed from those who are older and have come from less advanced, less professionalized backgrounds. Donovan and Rafanello personify the point.

Tanner 2.0

The sequences in which the Sporting Director put together the side that came less than two minutes away from winning 2022’s MLS Cup may instruct us how Phase Two may unfold.

The attackers were the last pieces acquired to culminate Phase One. That timing may have been determined partly by the need to sell prospects to obtain the capital to buy Daniel Gazdag, Julian Carranza, and Mikael Uhre since they were the most expensive pieces of the build, even though Carranza was a steal. None of those three moves could have happened without the sales of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie.

We have yet to determine how much working capital now exists for Tanner to build Phase Two. The proof of concept embodied by both Aaronson brothers and McKenzie has attracted new investors. It took three golf carts to transport the board on last November’s tour of the completed fields of the WSFS Sportsplex. Incidentally, the Sportsplex’s unfinished buildings will compete for that capital against Tanner’s new and more numerous roster.

The steps to develop Phase Two’s side may not chronologically separate as obviously as they did during Tanner 1.0. He will have a greater ability to acquire a player he fancies whenever that player becomes available, as he probably just did with Markus Anderson. But the age structure of 2024’s roster demonstrates that transitions in defense, midfield, and attack are looming or already underway.


Peter Andrews, Philly Soccer Page’s second-ever Managing Editor, recently called the Union’s 2024 offseason “underwhelming.” He is correct that no stars or prominent future stars have signed for 2024. Since November 15, though, ten new first-team contracts have been signed or re-signed. Hopefully, two more will be added by the end of the month for a total of 12, which would equal 39% of the league’s maximum allowed roster size (31). Eight are–or will be–brand new to the first team, roughly one-quarter of the 2024 side. Even though the eight newcomers are not star-studded, their sheer number suggests a transition is underway, despite current banner headlines and pinned tweets touting a 37-year-old captain’s return for a ninth season. Among his many talents, Tanner is good at public relations smokescreens.

As evidence of the reality of the transition to Tanner 2.0, Union Communications created a document to assist media members as they try to sound intelligent about the Philadelphia club. It’s been rearranged, lightly condensed, and simplified to fit the Philly Soccer Page’s layout requirements, but its essence remains the communications department’s creation. (Here is their original.)

The Union’s defense was completed in 2019 and 2020, while 2021 added the next group of sale prospects and finished the midfield. 2022 added the attack. 2023 tried for some depth and partial coverage of potential departures. 2024 is trying to find pieces for Tanner 2,0 that will double as squad depth for many games, especially in the midfield.

How the Union were built
Chief Soccer Officer who made the acquisition Season Super-draft Home-grown Signed for free, a draft pick, and/or a transfer fee Loan
Sackewicz 2014 Blake
Stewart 2016 Bedoya
2017 Elliott
2018 Real Mbaizo
Tanner 2019 Wagner
2020 Glesnes, Martinez
2021 Craig, Harriel, McGlynn, Sullivan Flach, Gazdag, Bueno
2022 Rafanello Uhre, Donovan Carranza
2023 Trent Nels. Pierre Lowe,

Torres, Makhanya, Baribo

2024 Pariano, (Vazquez?) Ngabo,

LeFlore, Anderson, Semmle, (Riasco?)


To cement this point, here is an unofficial first-team depth chart with ages, focusing primarily on the midfield, both starters and backups.

Unofficial depth chart estimate (February 7, 2024)
Striker 3 TOTAL – 31 Striker 4
Uhre 29.4 Carranza 23.7
Donovan 23.5 Baribo 26.1
Anderson 20.2 Torres 27.0
(Riasco) 20.0
Attacking Mid 3
Gazdag 27.9
Rafanello 23.8
(Vazquez) 18.0
Left Mid 3 Right Mid 3
McGlynn 20.6 Sullivan 19.9
Ngabo 19.6 Bedoya 36.8
Flach – inj 22.9 Pariano 20.9
Defensive Mid 2
Martinez 29.5
Bueno 24.8
Left Back 3 Lft Centr Bck 2 Rght Centr Bck 2 Right Back 3
Wagner 27.0 Elliott 28.4 Glesnes 29.9 Mbaizo 26.5
Real 24.6 Makhanya 19.8 Lowe 30.8 Harriel 22.8
LeFlore – inj 21.2   Berdecio 21.5
Goalkeeper 3
Blake 33.2
Semmle 25.9
Trent 24.6
(Montali) 23.4

Parentheses indicate the individual is not yet signed, but likely will be. Montali might sign with Union II since there would be no room on the first team, unless he were loaned out for the entire season, without the possibility of recall.

Below are more specific signs of each segment’s transition towards Tanner 2.0.


The defense is being prepared for a transition in two years or more.

The re-signing of Kai Wagner preserves the old defense for 2024 and 2025–if Blake and Elliot exercise their 2025 options. Only Olivier Mbaizo is uncertain after this year, and he alternates seamlessly with Nathan Harriel. Jesus Bueno seems anointed as Jose Martinez’s successor at the single six.

Given Jim Curtin’s caution in developing the full trust of new defenders (recall Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie from his past), locking in Blake, Wagner, Elliott, Glesnes, Harriel/Mbaizo, and Martinez/Bueno makes a great deal of sense. The next generation of back-liners and their protectors will have plenty of time to learn their roles and prove their consistency.


The middle of the formation’s transition is underway right now. Alejandro Bedoya’s age forces it, and Leon Flach’s torn pectoral injury accelerates the need for such a change.

At left midfield, Jack McGlynn has already proven he provides more offensive flair against lesser MLS sides than Flach, but can he do so against the league’s best teams? He defends adequately but not as well. Does McGlynn have the resilience to carry the lion’s share of the left midfield load at two games a week from late February into early March and beyond?

Sanders Ngabo subbed on for McGlynn in the earlier stage of preseason. He played well but still needs to show 90-minute game-fitness. He became available to the Union because he had been recovering from injury. Flach’s absence will hurt.

A similar transition is underway at right midfield, but with greater proven depth. Will Quinn Sulllivan’s legendary conditioning allow Alejandro Bedoya to round into shape after a late start? Can they become as much of a pair as Mbaizo and Harriel are at right back? First clues will drop against Cincinnati and New England in Clearwater this Friday and next Wednesday. Once games begin to count, they occur with unkind frequency.

As a Homegrown behind Sullivan and Bedoya, Nick Pariano knows the system and looked well in the second half against Flamengo and Austin’s reserves. Still, he is as green as the DiMaggio Complex’s grass.

The shuttling mid questions are great, but not as great as the attacking midfield ones.

Last season Daniel Gazdag rivaled center backs Glesnes and Elliott as an ironman. He had to. Furthermore, whenever he was in Zone 14, opponents triple-teamed him, applying intense physicality. In the matches he missed while injured, his absence was painfully obvious.

While the Hungarian was away during January securing his green card, Rafanello played as the number ten. Last season, he scored and created effectively for Union II, becoming their second-leading scorer with nine goals in 18 starts. It is a severe leap, though, from MLS NEXT Pro to Major League Soccer, especially for scorers. Rafanello can be a defender and an offensive placeholder as a number 10 in MLS. If Tanner did not think so, he would not have exercised Rafanello’s option, but can he be anything more?

If the Union does sign David Vazquez, the rising 18-year-old may prove to be Gazdag’s future successor. Whether he could do it this season remains uncertain. Not being knocked off the ball by MLS defenders would be a first indication. He has practiced with the first team quite a bit and looked well against Flamengo and Austin’s reserves, but it doesn’t matter until he signs.

Fourteen-and-a half-year-old Cavan Sullivan travelled south for 2024’s second leg in Florida. He played the second half for Union II last Tuesday evening, but is expected to move to Europe when he becomes eligible for the European equivalent of “working papers.” He will probably join Bajung Darboe and Marcos Zambrano as Academy players who were priced out of the Union’s ability–or willingness–to pay when they turned professional. The best European development academies are still more highly regarded than the Union’s and their owners have more money.


A superficial first glance at the depth chart finds strength within the Union’s leading striker pair. More careful examination discovers future change.

Julian Carranza wants Europe, although not, so far, the European teams that have sought him. Per Jonathan Tannewald (behind the Inquirer’s paywall) February 1, Olympiakos offered $7.5 million last summer, which the Union thought was too low. Werder Bremen, Mainz, and Ipswich Town (currently second in the English Championship) were seriously interested this winter. The Union was willing, but Carranza was not.

With summer approaching, teams may choose to wait out his contract and sign him for nothing as a free agent in December. Clubs below the elite levels in Italy and Spain may be cash-strapped as spending rules with teeth are taking effect. (That probably explains why Markus Anderson’s 3rd division Spanish club needed to sell him.)

Carranza’s older strike partner, Mikael Uhre, was less effective last year than in 2022. He had fewer opportunities through the central channel because opposing tactics shut down Gazdag. Instead, Uhre was reduced to playing for long direct service behind the back line without credible alternative threats to force defenses to hold their lines high.

Among the striker reserves and newcomers, Tai Baribo has yet to show he is an MLS goal scorer.  When he arrived last summer, he had been preparing himself for the start of a European season, and MLS was at its late summer peak. That clash of rhythms has often impeded fast starts by European imports throughout the league.

Chris Donovan continues confounding Tanner’s 2018 statement of absolute age parameters. He is an effective MLS defender as a striker in a counter-pressing system, and he has become a reasonably reliable poacher on offense. Like the team, he has made discernable progress year on year. He will never be sold to Europe. Whether he can someday match Cory Burke’s MLS production remains to be seen.

The other strikers on the chart are not MLS-proven.

Jose Riasco did well enough on loan in Uruguay’s first division to earn an opportunity with the first team. It will begin once CONMEBOL finishes its qualifiers for the Paris Olympics on Sunday, February 11.

Joaquin Torres and his magic feet will help fill Carranza’s space when the Argentine leaves. But last year, he lacked King Julian’s ball-controlling bite, both offensively and defensively. He was too easy to knock off the ball when possessing it and unable to clear the ball from others when defending.

Markus Anderson is unseen, aside from a promising YouTube highlight reel. Should he and Riasco prove themselves, they would exemplify the transition beyond the aging Dane and the ambitious Argentine.

In Tanner, we trust?

Tanner 2.0 is beginning its cycle. Just as the 2022 club was built over several years, so will the 2027 and 2028 ones be. Questions remain as to whether the club maintains a high level of play while transitioning and whether it can make enough money selling prospects to fuel the process.


  1. Appreciate the article Tim.
    Your work, time, energy provides absolutely peerless fucking reporting by you.
    And now my $0.02 as it relates specifically to his Academy
    …meanwhile his two front line academy players sold abroad under his direct tenure the Brothers Aaronson are finding it exceedingly difficult to ply their specific Union Derived skill sets abroad.
    John Parker offered a very compelling argument for the shift in how MLS as a “System” is operating when it comes to valuation of players… and why we’re seeing an apparent shift across the league and specifically as evidenced by Union the last 18 months… on Twitter / X. Highly recommend reading it if your on Twitter.
    They have some talent throughout academy as I’ve seen and been informed but I’m wondering how deep the talent pool really is (which has also been whispered about) and how well that talent translates to the greater European game… let alone meaningful minutes for a first team. I guess we’ll see.
    Ask me.. and I’ll tell you Union players are Hustle Merchants…. this is a good quality… but it’s limited too. Jack McGlynn being the obvious exception… he hustles as best he can but his direct inability to hustle is precisely why he plays such a unique game. His constraints have demanding a different interpretation. I’ll stand by my argument forever— Jack Mcglynns will not be found in academy’s hallowed walls very often again.
    Who’s next in line to be promoted from its VAUNTED academy? Who’s up?
    Cavan Sullivan not withstanding.

    • I would add two names to your point, El P. One was a situation of significant legal complexity probably that my guessing intepretation could easily be wrong. The second I am more sure of be use of a conversation with a source who would absolutely know what he was talking about.
      Bajung Darboe is the first. Whether he had the flair to be called a generational talent may have begun to have been somewhat in doubt. And Minnesota’s gyrations about its academy program, shutting its academy down and then station it back up again – I suspect under League Orders with threat of heavy discipline for further non-cooperation — probably doomed the Union’s ability to keep him. But they did not keep him and LAFC ultimately got him according to reports although I have so far not seen evidence that he’s actually played there. (I haven’t looked fr it lately.)
      The one that truly got away because he was really good and a European team’s pockets were deeper than the Union’s was Marcos Zambrano. No one every said it in so many words, but the clear, unmistakeable unspoken message that was conveyed was that the Portuguese side gave the family more money than the Union was willing to provide.
      Tanner has to be realistic about his ability to sign generational talents as professionals. compare him to his former assistant. Chris Albrigth now has a big checkbook. Tanner does not. He knew he wouldn’t from jump street. He came anyway, AND he re-upped. That means he has a strategy to cope against being badly outspent.
      The Union have just invested the price — I would guess — of a good European elite level striker in moving their academy from a serviceable if crammed facility to a much better one. WSFS Sportsplex has the potential to develop into a money maker in the future and the club itself will get the revenue.
      The may develop an infrastructure successful enough to generate bigger money for stars someday, but that is decades away. Sugarman will take some profits out of the club first I would think, before they stat spending on big stars. Since I am retired and well on my downslope, I expect never to see it. You may by the time you are my age.
      For the foreseeable future hustle merchants who play as team whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts is what Philly is going to be.
      I fear the long term motto of the Sons of Ben will become, “Damn you, Gareth Bale!”

  2. Brilliant analysis——–(in Tanner,we trust) We have to trust him in his creativity. We have no choice, this could be a very exciting phase, although as a fan it will imply lots of ebbs in learning and performance. I would like to know more about the scouting network it seems very reliable.

  3. Love this deep dive. Our local podcasts lack this badly.

    • Be fair to the podcasts Dave, they have an hour at most.
      Working this up took the better parts of three or four days as I figured out what to say and how to say it.
      Most of us at PSP and elsewhere may not have that kind of time to invest.

  4. OneManWolfpack says:

    Great article. Appreciate the insight. So glad PSP stayed around. One thing I took away is that later this year or even next year, we should “get our attack”, a la late 2021, into 2022, and then go for it. Also means this year could be more of last year. Either way I’m here for it.

  5. Wow this was a fantastic read. Has me prepped for the season and with a more detailed understanding of how the club actually operates. Cheers!

  6. Nice article, we need more of this kind of Union talk!

  7. John P. O'Donnell says:

    I wonder how much revenue they bring in when they have deep runs in CONCACAF Champions Cup and Leagues Cup? Building the second phase possibly competing with player signings might be helped along with butts in seats for these two competitions.

  8. Is there any information on Riasco and his discovery rights?

    • I have seen nothing more than what Joe Tansey reported earlier.
      my general impression from past experience is that allocation money, or perhaps allocation money and a draft pick or two should solve that.
      I have received the impression over the years that signing a contract is so much simpler when done in person in the US that the Union prefers to do it that way. [As an apocryphal illustration think. about notarizing signatures combining notaries or equivalents from separate sovereignties.The US legal system has to reconcile two different legal systems every time it interacts with law in the state of Louisiana because that state is based on Code Napoleon not English Common Law.]
      Because of all of that, I have assumed ever since Olivier Mbaizo that the Union prefers to wait until signatures can occur in person in this country, usually after the signing party is 18 years-old.
      Remember that Europe has been hammering out how to conduct t business across international borders ever since the European Cola and Steel Community was created right after WW2, then the Common Market and now the European Community. If you want negative evidence, look at the mess that is the details of implementing Brexit.
      Whether you liked the Clintons, were ambivalent, or detested them, her advice to him has force. To wit, KISS, or “Keep it simple, stupid.”
      My impression is that is how the Union prefer to do business whenever possible.

      • Thanks very much for the info. It provides a measure of calm. The Riasco situation seems fishy, in that it seems to me that another MLS team likely filed for discovery on Riasco after (in bold type) the U2 signed him. It smells like a Cincinnati trick.
        Wasn’t that James Carville with the “KISS”? 🙂

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