Ernst Tanner and Jim Curtin set the Union’s winter priorities ahead of their busiest season yet
Between the regular season, the Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup and the new Leagues Cup against Mexican clubs, the Union will likely play over 50 games in 2023. So they need to boost their depth.
As Union sporting director Ernst Tanner and manager Jim Curtin began their end-of-year news conference Friday at Subaru Park, they took a few minutes to reflect on the best season in team history.
“This season is really hard to top — you can probably only top it if if you win MLS Cup. And that’s what we probably need to go for next season, again,” Tanner said, in his typically understated way, of a squad that topped the Eastern Conference in the regular season, reached the Union’s first MLS Cup final, and smashed a pile of records along the way.
“We’re competitors, and we want to win, and we want to give our fans that final trophy,” Curtin said as he sat with Tanner on the podium. “The guy next to me will do everything for it, and so will I. And we won’t rest this offseason. We won’t get complacent, and we’ll continue to get better.”
The looking back didn’t last long, though. Next season starts in just over three months, and it’s going to be the busiest in club history. Between the regular season, the Concacaf Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup, and the new Leagues Cup pitting MLS teams against Mexican rivals, the Union likely will play over 50 games next year. Deep runs in those tournaments and the playoffs could take the total near 60.
The squad that takes the field to start the 2023 campaign in late February will look different from the one that left Los Angeles as title game runners-up this month. Paxten Aaronson is gone, Cory Burke is next to go, and Kai Wagner and Olivier Mbaizo are likely to follow them.
“We are going to have a player pool consisting of probably 27, 28 players,” Tanner said. “We are going to sign a centerback, that’s clear; we are going to sign probably an additional midfielder; and then we have probably to sign somebody for attack as well.”
Here’s what Tanner and Curtin had to say about some of the specifics in the Union’s offseason plans.
No position gets bigger headlines, and Burke’s departure means the Union will be making some this winter. Though the veteran Jamaican’s move to the New York Red Bulls isn’t official yet, he posted a heartfelt farewell message Wednesday on Instagram after reports of the move got out.
The Union have three striker prospects in their pipeline who are on their way toward the big time: Nelson Pierre, José Riasco, and Marcos Zambrano-Delgado. Riasco probably needs another year of seasoning, but Pierre is close to being ready for the jump. Zambrano-Delgado is a step behind but close enough that he could move up too. Significant foreign interest — which there is in almost every Union academy prospect — also could force the front office’s hand.
Asked if Pierre or Zambrano-Delgado could be on the first team next year, Tanner said: “We want to develop players, and we’d better develop young players into what we can sell, maybe, later on. You saw the successful example with Paxten now. That’s our DNA, and that’s how we go forward, and that’s what we are working for.”
And Curtin said: “The jump is a big jump, but we have guys that have trained with us, and we’ll take a big group down to Clearwater this preseason. ... Certainly, Union II guys will be getting chances in preseason with us, some that are signed already, some that aren’t signed yet.”
Aaronson’s departure means Dániel Gazdag needs a new backup. And because of the busy schedule, that player is likely to play a lot more than Aaronson did last year.
Perhaps there will be a new signing, as Tanner alluded to. There also will be an internal candidate who might initially come as a surprise: Quinn Sullivan. The 18-year-old has played as a second forward and deeper central midfielder with the Union and as a winger with the U.S. under-20 national team. Now a spell at the central attacking midfield role could be in his future, to see how he fits there.
“We have to find ways, and I have to find ways, to get him on the field more,” Curtin said. “His best qualities are closer to the goal — I think he’s probably strikes a ball as well as anyone on our team. He finishes plays off in training consistently. So we have to find a way to be creative in getting him closer to goal.”
That could mean a return to the tactical variation the Union showed in games before last year, when Ilsinho came in as a super-sub and the team shifted from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1.
This time, the shift could be to a three-centerback setup, either a 3-4-3 or a 3-5-2. Those setups also would help Jack McGlynn play in a more central role than he has so far. And that in turn would give Curtin room to not overwork Alejandro Bedoya in what’s likely to be his last year.
“Him going out to the sidelines to defend in space ... that’s not playing to his skill set,” Curtin said of McGlynn. “His skill set is to get on the ball to play, break lines, and different things.”
A 4-4-2 with a box midfield — two attackers in front of two defenders — instead of a diamond also could help McGlynn and Sullivan play more. The Union have pondered that setup for a while now but haven’t gone for it yet.
However things end up, it’s clear that there will be more flexibility on the field next year.
“When you are traveling from Seattle to Miami and you play on two days’ rest, you might you might need to change a little bit the way you approach that game,” Tanner said.
» READ MORE: Five big questions facing the Union this offseason
“We will go in to the season with four centerbacks, that’s clear,” Tanner said, and it won’t be a surprise if there are five when the time comes. Abasa Aremeyaw, a quiet signing this summer, is a good prospect but a ways from being ready.
A team that plays a three-back line needs a lot of defensive depth on the roster to cover the center spots and the wide roles. Curtin may be an old centerback himself, but his quip that you can never have too many of them is the truth. So it helps that left back Matt Real and right back Nathan Harriel have played a bit of centerback over the years, whether with the Union’s academy or their reserve team.
We certainly should expect to see more of Brandan Craig next year, and that will be a welcome sight. The 18-year-old from Bridesburg has loads of potential, and Curtin wants to give him a shot.
As for the outside back spots, Tanner offered this bit of good news if Mbaizo and/or Wagner leaves: “We will replace positionally if we lose guys.”