Union sporting director Ernst Tanner has spent this winter engineering one of the biggest overhauls in team history.
It hasn’t always been dramatic — Jamiro Monteiro’s return was the biggest signing, and he isn’t much of a star — but it has definitely been effective.
As successful as last season was, there was never going to be a straight line from that season to this one. That big overhaul was coming no matter what last year’s results were. This year’s roster is a much better fit for the style Tanner wants to play.
As he prepared for his second full season at the Union’s helm, Tanner said it would be “quite easy to say now: ‘OK, last year, we have been third [in the Eastern Conference standings], and this year, the expectations are even higher.’ "
But that’s not where he is.
“Every change costs you probably some time, and maybe you’re doing not that good in this season,” he said. “But with a change, you at least have the probability or the chance that it will go better in [the] future, and that’s what we are doing now.”
Don’t confuse that with a dramatic lowering of expectations. The future Tanner referred to is pretty close to the present.
This team is likely a better team than last year’s, and one of the better teams in MLS’s Eastern Conference. But that doesn’t mean the Union will finish third in the East again.
The Union have been hamstrung during their preseason training camp. Injuries, visa problems, and U.S. national team camps kept seven starters and two key backups away from the team at various times.
A calf injury will keep left back Kai Wagner out of the season opener at 6 p.m. Saturday at FC Dallas (PHL17) and likely longer.
“How can that go, that you see a perfect team in this moment?” Tanner said. "It will definitely take us a couple of weeks until we get back to full strength.”
So the Union’s preseason record — three wins, four losses, nine goals scored, and 12 conceded — might matter only so much. As Tanner noted, the team won five of its seven preseason games last year, then went winless in its first three regular-season games.
Surveying the rest of the conference, Tanner sees a diverse landscape — especially when it comes to opponents’ tactics.
The Union and New York Red Bulls favor a high press. Columbus and Atlanta favor possession. Toronto plays with wingers. New York City FC plays on a field too narrow for it. Cincinnati has looked to Europe for its designated players, while D.C. United and Inter Miami have brought in South American flair.
Tanner likes the challenge of going up against all of that.
“It’s no secret that we want to do things differently,” he said. “And what we have in mind is a special style as well, in a way.”
It will help a lot if forwards Andrew Wooten and Sergio Santos step up. They are two of Tanner’s top signings, and they combined for just four goals (all by Santos) and three assists last season.
Wooten has been hampered by a quad injury in preseason, limiting his time. Tanner is certain that when Wooten is healthy again, he’ll recapture the form that saw him score 17 goals in the 2018-19 season in Germany’s second division.
“If he was doing a real preseason with us, things [would be] going by far better, and he can be the threat to goal he was in former times,” Tanner said. “In this situation right now, we just need to get him fit again.”
Santos is likely to start next to Kacper Przybylko on Saturday. The Brazilian showed flashes of potential last year and in this preseason, but there hasn’t been enough consistency, especially with his finishing touch.
“If he can be … more stable, he can be a real asset for us,” Tanner said. “He is somebody who knows [how] to score, he is very physical, he also can combine and assist … He is a real robust striker. Together with Kacper, that can be a really good duo.”