Analysis / Union

Update: Tanner 2.0

Photo @PhilaUnion

About a week ago, the Philadelphia Union had not won in over a month, losing four consecutive home matches. Adjectives like “awful,” “disastrous,” and other synonyms abounded on social media and in the press. The expectations of the last two or three years were under heavy challenge until Jim Curtin reconstituted 2022’s usual starting lineup and dismantled a struggling New England side in Foxboro 3-0.

But no one should have been surprised by the challenge.

As PSP began to discuss last February (click here for link), Ernst Tanner publicly stated on December 5, 2023, that the Philadelphia Union’s roster is transitioning towards its next five-year cycle. In February, PSP labeled that transition a change from Tanner 1.0 to Tanner 2.0 and sketched the path his build of 1.0 had followed after he came.

Key points to remember are that the Tanner 1.0 build began with the defense and that its most expensive additions, strikers Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre, were added last. Today we update the conversation from February and discuss what the 2024 season has revealed about Tanner’s build of Tanner 2.0.

As an organizational principle for what follows, we divide the narrow diamond into its six defenders and five attackers, while realizing that it oversimplifies how the system actually works. If a player’s name below is both underlined and in italics, we believe the player is a current and serious candidate for Tanner 2.0.

A succinct review

In mid-2018, Tanner and head coach Jim Curtin began building the roster that took Philadelphia to the MLS Cup four years later by starting with the defense.

Four of the current 2024 players had already been on the roster before Tanner arrived, and three were defenders: goal keeper Andre Blake, center back Jack Elliott, and right back Olivier Mbaizo. The fourth was midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. None were imported, expensive, starting-caliber strikers. Cory Burke, now departed, was a striker reserve.

Tanner’s next three additions were also defenders. Kai Wagner came before the 2019 season opened, and both Jakob Glesnes and Jose Martinez arrived before 2020. The current back six were in place to start the 2020 season. Once the defense began proving itself, the Sporting Director then started acquiring the more expensive attacking players. Leon Flach and Daniel Gazdag came before and during 2021. They were followed in 2022 by Julian Carranza and Mikael Uhre as the two strikers. (And at the end of that season all Union fans cursed Gareth Bale.)

Our chart below visualizes the Tanner 1.0 roster build. Years indicate initial acquisitions, and the in-cycle changes column reflects PSP’s judgments. For example, Quinn Sullivan seems to be more of a striker replacement than a midfielder, and Jesus Bueno seems less of a single six than a shuttling eight. McGlynn is the showcased sale candidate.

Tanner 1.0 (2018-22)
Defensive back six In-cycle Changes
GK Blake 2014
LCB Elliott 2017
RB Mbaizo 2018 Harriel 2022
LB Wagner 2019
RCB Glesnes 2020
DM Martinez 2020
Attacking forward five
RM Bedoya 2016 Bueno 2021
LM Flach 2021 McGlynn 2022
AM Gazdag 2021
S Carranza 2022
S Uhre 2022 Sullivan 2022
Testing down on the farm

While building the second five-year cycle, Tanner cannot follow the previous pattern exactly because the individual opportunities will present differently. For example, the penalties for Inter Miami’s financial rule-breaking roster in 2020 (read 2021 MLS article here) forced them to make Julian Carranza available, which was a one-off opportunity.

But we can expect Tanner to follow the same general pattern as the first build for the same underlying reason, not risking “big money” until the rest of the squad is in place and proven. The next year or two will see experiments with young, inexpensive attackers, while the new defensive six are discovered “cemented,” meaning they have convinced the head coach to play them.

Assembling Tanner 2.0 is in its opening stages. Nobody is yet ready to play significant minutes with the first team, but four positions within the new defensive six already have new serious candidates in place. They are already internalizing the system and trying to prove themselves while playing down on the farm.

  • Andrew Rick (18.2-years-old) is the current candidate to be grown into a workmanlike MLS goalkeeper. He will never be an Andre Blake, but we can hope for an equivalent to Matt Freese. Barring the emergency of injury to others, we guess he should make his MLS debut in 2025.
  • Olwethu Makhanya (20.1) is the left center back to be grown similarly to Rick. He is proving he knows the Union’s style of play. He is making its principles instinctive by playing many if not all of Union II’s matches this year. It remains to be seen whether he will need further experience in USL Championship – or equivalent – for a year before moving into MLS itself. If not, barring the injury caveat mentioned above, he might make his MLS debut late this year. To PSP’s eyeball he seems pacier and slightly quicker than Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Damion Lowe. If Lowe does not come back for 2025, Makhanya will have been judged ready.
  • Neil Pierre is the 16.6-year-old right center back candidate to be grown. He will probably become a first team homegrown before the 2025 season opens. He is still maturing athletically and is less far along than Makhanya. Pierre has been playing in the system with the Academy for years. Barring injury emergency, he will not debut in MLS any earlier than late 2025 or perhaps 2026. That will happen only if his physical maturation is quick, which is not always the case for the especially tall.
  • Brandan Craig is currently the candidate to be grown into the third center back. His offensive dimension is solid. He needs to learn Glesnes-like defensive reliability, consistency, and dominance against higher levels of competition, perhaps in El Paso or elsewhere. He has been excellent against youth competition in Concacaf and MLS NEXT Pro, but the youth competition from UEFA’s best exposed him.
  • To PSP’s eye Sanders Ngabo is now the leading candidate to be grown into a single six defensive midfielder. In MLS NEXT Pro he already plays the position better than Jesus Bueno ever did. He will probably debut with the first team late this season. He seems to understand the single six role more instinctively than the 25.3-year-old Venezuelan, who has always seemed more intuitive as a midfield shuttler.

So far, no one is being treated as an overt candidate for the Tanner 2.0 outside backs. The outside backs do not have to be found as quickly as the central channel four because Kai Wagner (27.3) and especially Nathan Harriel (23.1) are younger than Andre Blake (33.5), Damion Lowe (31.0), Jakob Glesnes (30.2), Jose Martinez (29.8), and Jack Elliott (28.7).

Frank Westfield (18.4) dominates as a left back for Union II in Division III, but there is no concrete public indication that Ernst Tanner thinks of him as a possible Division I professional and there may be a few reasons why. If we postulate Jose Riasco to be signed, the 2024 first team roster will have no room, and it will probably remain full until Copa America, the Olympics, UEFA’s Euro 2024, and the other more usual summer internationals are all completed. The only place to put a new professional will be on the second team until August, or beyond.

Aside from Westfield, the other outside back possibility in camp is 21.8-year-old Bolivian Jamir Berdecio. He has not yet proven himself as a mistake-free defensive player on the right side, although he is getting better. It may be a matter of his basic conditioning not letting him down latter in matches as he tires. Gavin Wetzel has usually replaced him to lock down the last half hour in the right channel defensively. Berdecio’s underlying aggressiveness fits the Union’s profile and his pace may fit it as well. His engine build should improve with time, but he does not yet approach the defensive consistency and reliability necessary to play in the back four for Jim Curtin.

Discovering midfielders

The next cycle’s attacking five are further away from being found than the defenders, especially strikers. Fewer attackers are as advanced as candidates, although there are three young possibilities at midfielder. Strikers are the furthest away from identification.

On Philadelphia Union II’s roster page (click here for link), headshot locations illustrate the point well. The two supplemental groups below the actual Union II players are the first teasers who have appeared for the Union and the Academy amateurs who have done so. The defensive candidates’ pictures are all in the first team group, but the attackers mostly are not. No new strikers are practicing every day in front of Jim Curtin. All defenders, except Westfield, are and we are starting to see some midfielders.

There are three young midfielders, but they cannot be considered as serious as candidates for the “Tanner 2.0” label as are the four central defenders discussed earlier. The evaluation process for the midfielders has been ongoing for a shorter period, and one of them is considered an anomaly.

  • Cavan Sullivan (14.6) is already temporary. Unofficially, he has already been sold to Manchester City when he turns 18, possibly before then to a City Group-controlled academy in Europe. He will leave just as Tanner 2.0 achieves its final composition. He has yet to play a full 90-minute match in a Union II shirt in 2024. His longest appearance has been 34 minutes and he totals only 58. Those minutes may accumulate much further in August while he finishes the U17 season and perhaps enjoys a last family vacation in July. He may be a meteor that flashes across the Union’s sky — he will land on Manchester City’s planet.
  • The other two nameable Tanner 2.0 midfield candidates are David Vazquez and CJ Olney. Both consistently practice with the first team while playing for the second. Vazquez (18.2) is now a first team homegrown, but 17.4-year-old Olney remains signed to Union II because the roster is full. Both are candidates, but both must physically grow to survive MLS, considerably. Athletically, each is roughly where Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan were two or three years ago.

These three midfielders need to prove their ability to play against adult males on a week-in, week-out basis.

Bloodhounding new strikers

There are no serious striker candidates for Tanner 2.0. We discuss the strikers currently known in three groups below.

Statements of philosophy, the apparent business plan, and currently known roster moves all suggest that there will be no immediate, expensive striker signings from overseas, even within the Union’s frugal definition of “expensive.”

Extant known bodies can play the position moderately well, however, neither a new Carranza nor a new Uhre is already known, nor will they be in the next year or two. The next round of big-money signings to the attack will not happen until the new defense has proven itself and the new midfield starts performing. Only then will Ernst Tanner ask Jay Sugarman to open his checkbook, and that will happen only if the young players discussed below need supplementing or replacing.

For the next two years the Sporting Director will rely on developing those younger players into first-team attackers. They will play alongside competent journeymen, not expensive stars.

First, examine the current first team bench. Unsurprisingly, it has no star-for-star replacements for either Uhre or Carranza. Consider Jim Curtin’s 2024 substitution patterns.

  • Tai Baribo is reserve striker number four. His age also excludes him from more game minutes because he would block younger players from the developmental minutes they need to grow themselves past him.
  • Markus Anderson’s extensive use early this season showed only that he arrived in mid-season condition when other Union reserve strikers lacked it. The early schedule demanded 90 minutes every three or four days. Anderson could cover the ground and defend, but he has shown no offensive production with either the first or second teams until Memorial Day weekend. In fairness he was asked to produce during his earliest days of exposure to a difficult new system alongside unfamiliar teammates. He is reserve striker number three. His uniform number, 35, is customarily worn by a player on the cusp between the two professional squads.
  • Chris Donovan is reserve striker number two. He is not getting enough first team game minutes to keep himself in MLS game shape. As a result, he’s had three Union II starts, during which he has shown well — he was MLS Next Pro player of the week — but has not been at his sharpest. He dominates chance production with many headers, flicks, and shots, but has achieved only a low conversion rate.
  • Due to the three situations discussed above, midfielder Quinn Sullivan is now serving as the primary backup striker. This season, he has been more successful in this role compared to last season. With Mikael Uhre not performing well, Quinn has started as a striker several times recently. He is showing more willingness to use his individual technical skills in one-on-one situations compared to last year, but he is not at the same level as Ilsinho yet. Only time will tell if he will continue to be as successful as he is currently. As the season progresses, the rest of the league will catch up to his early conditioning advantage.

The second group of attackers to consider are Union II players.

  • As recently detailed elsewhere, Jose Riasco has been loaned away from Union II to Boston River of Uruguay’s Primera Division since last summer. During December’s end-of-season press conference, Sporting Director Ernst Tanner said he intended to sign Riasco to the first team. Either he meant it, or he was reinforcing the Venezuelan’s re-sale value. Only the final match of the 2024 Uruguayan first division Apertura remains. While Boston River currently lies third, they will not qualify of the championship playoff. We may learn more about Riasco joining the first team shortly.
  • Academy amateur senior Edward Davis III and his classmate, signed Union II professional Sal Olivas, are still learning the defensive requirements of being strikers within the Union’s system and trying to make them instinctive. For unknown reasons, Olivas has not been dressing for games recently. Neither player has achieved the production levels that earned Chris Donovan his opportunity to prove himself at the first-team level two years ago, although the Davis-Westfield connection has been productive. Back then, Donovan was a college graduate, while Olivas and Davis are still in high school.
  • Davis III’s fellow Academy Amateur striker, Ryan Zellefrow, provides substitute minutes to Union II when necessary. He is also a reliable penalty kick shooter for the shootouts that follow MLS NEXT Pro’s draws. He appears to be a strong candidate for a college program.

The third group of strikers to mention are the furthest from being ready for the first team. They are part of the U17s, born in 2007 or later, and might be playing at a higher level.

The U17 attacking talent has been playing up this year with considerable success. By August they may start to play roles for Union II. Only Tanner knows whether any of them fit his criteria for professional strikers. All three have been seen live by PSP practicing with Union II several times.

  • Diego Rocio (16.7) was most valuable player of the 2024 U17 GA Cup. He had one 19-minute substitution appearance for Union II on March 24. On April 15 he was called up to the U18 Mexican youth national team.
  • Jamir Johnson (15.9) scored three goals in the GA Cup, including the only goal against the South Korean side Jeonbuk. He was on the roster for Union II on May 5 but did not play, and he was subbed on for the last minute on March 24. After the GA Cup, he was called up to the US U16s on April 17 and again on May 22.
  • Anisse Saidi (15.9) captains the GA Cup-winning side that includes Rocio, Johnson, C. Sullivan, and Union II starting center back Neil Pierre. He dressed but did not play for the Union II match mentioned above on March 24. He is a Tunisian U16 international.

The cameos for the U17 strikers detailed above may have been so called first-exposure familiarizations, but we cannot confirm that. The organization always aims to give early appearances to its amateurs who are expected to play for Union II in the future. We assume the idea is to introduce the players to everything off the pitch early on, so that when they do play, they can focus solely on the game. If the boys already know where the restrooms and the showers are located, or how to decipher the labyrinth that leads to the locker room, they will be less distracted and can focus more on playing soccer.


Here is what we think Tanner 2.0 looks like Memorial Day weekend in 2024.

Tanner 2.0 (2025-29)
Defensive back six
LCB Makhanya 2023
GK Rick 2024
DM Ngabo 2024
RCB Pierre (2025)
Attacking forward five
RM C. Sullivan* 2024
LM Olney (2025)
AM Vazquez 2024

*C. Sullivan is almost certainly gone after 2028, perhaps earlier.


  1. My eyeball furiously twitching from the Trust The Process vibe of all of this.

    • Eh, is it really like that though? This process has already happened before, and already worked.

    • Tim Jones says:

      Yes, I do tend to believe the organization means what it says when it articulates principles.

    • I dunno I think the last time it worked it was an outlier.
      One what worked was mostly built on the work of the previous GM.
      This team seems built around a bunch of core players and a bunch of dudes who may or may not pay off.
      That’s not team building that is vaguely gesticulating towards the future as an excuse for not building a team now.

  2. Andy Muenz says:

    Tim, I notice you mention Neil Pierre, but not his brother Nelson. Where do you think he fits in here?

    • Tim Jones says:

      I remember that when Nelson was signed as a Homegrown, Tanner set his ceiling as MLS only.
      And he did not increase his actual production much last year in MLS Next Pro.
      I do not know why he has not even been dressing until recently with his Swedish team. Injured or learning a new system in a new place are two possible explanations, but I have no clue to the reality.
      YOur question is excellent; I cannot answer it.

  3. Zizouisgod says:

    Great stuff, Tim. An enjoyable read.

  4. The fact you do this for ‘free’ is remarkable. The time, energy, thought and organizing dynamics are so impressive.
    Just stellar reporting here.

    • Tim Jones says:

      My better half would say it keeps me out of trouble, el P!
      I enjoy puzzles and was trained in current history, which is reading the little of dead people’s mail that has become available and trying to tease out the rest.

    • Gruncle Bob says:


  5. The Grand plan and an eye for potential is most important. Timing helps and your advasaries under evaluation of players also helps when you are on the journey of growing the quality of your roster. Luck also helps. Wagner was a major coup for philly. Wagner former team missed the boat on his potential. Philly saw his potential and signed him. Don’t think he came on under Tanner. Caranza second best acquisition. Miami was a mess back then. We took full advantage. As far as player development we let are best young players walk. Not sure how much was reinvested in future. If Caranza leaves, it will be almost impossible for philly to stay on top with scoring. Their current back ups are not ready. There only chance for this season is to get lucky with a young new signing who is ready to blossom or acquire a star forward from a other league That is unlikely.

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