WILMINGTON — Back when Ernst Tanner started to set out his plans for the Union, he said his second year in charge of a team usually goes better than his first.
This might be a problem.
Tanner’s first full season in Chester went so well — third place in the East, records for wins and points, and a first-ever playoff win — that beating it this year is going to be tough.
The Union are going to try, of course, and why wouldn’t they. But if you’re expecting everything from last year to be exceeded, you might want to cool your jets a little.
"We had a transition season last year, and I think we over-exceeded every expectation," Tanner said Monday as the Union held their first day of preseason training camp. "I don't know if we are doing better or the same or even a little big worse, but I know that we will for sure be having a competitive team."
If those words cause you to worry, don’t do that, either. The sense inside and outside the Union is that this team is going to be pretty good.
More important is that this team is going to be pretty different. Tanner called it “a new team,” and that’s the best way to put it.
You’ll see the full implementation of the 4-4-2 diamond playing style that Tanner started to install here last year. There will be a lot of emphasis on pressing, forcing turnovers, and executing in transition.
You might also see that diamond rotate into a box, with two attacking players in front of two defenders. The Union's USL team played that way a lot last year, and the NWSL's North Carolina Courage have stampeded over the rest of the league with it in winning back-to-back championships.
That style has become so popular in the world’s game that when U.S. under-23 women’s coach Laura Harvey taught a seminar on beating it at last week’s United Soccer Coaches convention, she drew a packed crowd.
The Union didn’t bring Jamiro Monteiro back because he fit the way things used to be. They brought him back — and not cheaply — because he fits the way things are going to be.
Of course, Monteiro was also re-signed because he's really good. But so is Fafa Picault, and he didn't fit the system, so fans understood he had to leave.
Last year's squad went as far as it could with a playbook that wasn't what Tanner ultimately wanted to have here. This year's team will look much more like it.
The biggest effect of last year's success is that the Union are now in a bigger spotlight than they were before, not just locally but across MLS. Fans might not have heard of Oravec and Martinez before they got here, but plenty of people get what the Union are doing.
“We’re not going to sneak up on anybody,” manager Jim Curtin said. “The starting points are as high as they’ve ever been for us, but we’re not naive. … I think the rest of the league now respects us a lot more.”