Who could stay and go as Ernst Tanner overhauls the Union this offseason
No matter what the Union had done Wednesday, or in the playoffs overall, new sporting director Ernst Tanner had plans well before then to engineer major changes to the team's playing style. What sorts of moves might he make? Here are a few guesses.
No matter what the Union might have done in the playoffs, new sporting director Ernst Tanner was already planning to engineer major changes to the team's playing style.
Tanner has made it clear that he wants the Union to play faster, putting a greater emphasis on transition play. The team's possession-oriented attack has produced some pretty soccer this year, but it has also gotten run over too often — especially the season-ending blowouts by New York City FC.
Those results should further empower Tanner to dramatically overhaul the Union's roster. What sorts of moves might he make? Here are a few guesses.
This is easy. For as long as Andre Blake stays in Philadelphia, he's the starter in net. John McCarthy is a serviceable backup, and Jake McGuire works as a No. 3. Academy prospects Tomas Romero and Kris Shakes are rising at Bethlehem Steel.
Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie struggled down the stretch of their first full season in MLS, but no sensible observer would bench them. They will keep growing, and their ceilings for the Union and the U.S. national team remain high.
The question is who backs them up. Jack Elliott for sure, but beyond that there's room for change. Josh Yaro and Richie Marquez likely won't get much better. Can Tanner move them on, and perhaps find a veteran to help teach young colleagues?
An academy prospect to watch is Ben Ofeimu, 18, who played 12 games for Bethlehem this year.
The Union badly need Matt Real to be next year's starting left back. He got a taste of the big leagues early this season but was too raw, so he spent the rest of the year in Bethlehem. He needs to be worth keeping in Chester.
Real is needed not just because of his promise but because his struggles forced the Union to shoehorn Ray Gaddis into the role. Not for nothing did Alejandro Bedoya lament after the playoff loss in New York that "we had a right back playing left back, so there's some things we can fix that are fixable next year."
Fabinho will turn 34 next March. He knows his time is running out, but he should be welcomed as an academy coach.
At right back, Keegan Rosenberry should remain the starter, but he needs to step up, too. Tanner will demand a lot out of his outside backs because they're instrumental in forcing turnovers and launching counterattacks. Rosenberry can do it, but he must do it consistently.
Olivier Mbaizo has good potential as a backup.
Alejandro Bedoya is a leader on and off the field, and his flexibility makes him ideal for Tanner's style. Haris Medunjanin, however, may face questions. As good as he is in possession, can he play a fast-paced game at age 34? His struggles against NYCFC, which plays a style much like what Tanner wants, raised serious warning flags.
Meanwhile, Derrick Jones waits for his shot. He should get it next year. His youthful, bull-in-a-china-shop style made him too much of a risk to start in the playoffs, but he has all the tools to thrive. With a good offseason, he should be ready.
Anthony Fontana should also play more, slotting into the depth chart as Bedoya's backup. Union fans got a taste of Fontana's skill and vision early this season before he was sent to Bethlehem for regular playing time. He should be in Chester more next year.
If the Union need another stopper, Tanner might go shopping for him. Warren Creavalle has been serviceable, but he might be more serviceable to another team.
Brenden Aaronson will be the backup, but to whom? It might not be Borek Dockal. Because there's no pre-set purchase price in his loan deal here, Tanner will have to play hardball if he wants to keep MLS's top assist provider this year. Henan Jianye will likely want a significant transfer fee.
Some fans won't want to hear this, but if Henan asks for $3 million or more, Tanner should say no. A sum that big can be put to better use by someone with his expertise in under-the-radar scouting — especially at soccer's most glamorous position.
Adam Najem might be trade bait, an unfortunate fate for a player with potential who hasn't broken through.
Fafa Picault fits Tanner's bill, and his scoring touch is good enough. After that, the questions start.
Will David Accam's sports hernia surgery fix what ailed him all year? The view here is he deserves a shot to prove himself, and not just because of his big-money contract. His pedigree is too good.
What about C.J. Sapong? He isn't a good enough striker and he isn't the right kind of winger for Tanner's system, but the new contract Earnie Stewart gave him in March runs through next year. If Tanner can get rid of Sapong, he should do it. Marcus Epps and Fabian Herbers could also be traded.
Will Tanner go shopping internationally here? Probably, and it's a good idea. He'll also keep an eye on 18-year-old academy winger Issa Rayyan for depth.
And what about Ilsinho? His skills are superb, but his durability at age 33 is a big problem. His smarts and UEFA Champions League pedigree would make him a terrific academy coach. Tanner must navigate his way from now to then.
Next year will be the Union's 10th season. There can be no more excuses from ownership for not spending the money to bring in a true top-level striker.
"Philly is a big market," Bedoya said, echoing a lament heard far too often — including on this page.
Cory Burke is good, but not elite. Jay Simpson is surely gone. Kacper Przybylko might be a reserve. It's time to open the checkbook and sign the scoring force this team has needed for almost its entire history.
Here's the biggest question of all: Can Jim Curtin implement Tanner's playbook? If Tanner thinks so, Curtin will get a new contract when his current one ends this year. If not, the Union's late-season swoon reinforced Tanner's right to dismiss the Oreland native.
The word reinforced is intentional. Majority owner Jay Sugarman and Richie Graham, the minority owner who helped bring Tanner here, made it clear when they hired him that he'd have the right to pick his own coach. Curtin has known that all along.
"That's not up to me," Curtin said after the playoff loss. "That's up to them to decide. … That stuff is out of my hands."
His players like him. Many fans don't. Tanner's vote is the only one that matters, and he said earlier this year that he'd wait until after the season to make a decision. Curtin's seat will be a bit hot until then — and as he admitted, it could stay hot afterward.
"Until we win a playoff game, that's when we'll get the most respect from our fans. That's the reality of things," he said. "We're asked to punch above our weight. Our players do it."
So does he. But Tanner isn't here to be sympathetic. He's here to win. Now it's time for him to go to work.