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Julius Caesar, Ernst Tanner, and the Philadelphia Union Offseason



Photo by Matthew Ralph

During victory parades in ancient Rome, so the story goes, Julius Caesar ordered slaves to stand behind the victorious Generals and whisper, “All glory is fleeting.” Even in times of celebration, Caesar felt it critical to remember that glorious moments were only temporary. Indeed, that glory would someday be out of reach. This leadership tactic was of course meant to keep his Generals sharp, hungry, on edge. To maintain their greatness as long as possible.

Much like glory is fleeting, the greatness that precedes it might be even more difficult to capture. Greatness over an extended period of time is rare. Artists, athletes, leaders, all have their time, and then it fades. For we are dust and to dust we will return. If we can find a measure of greatness or glory somewhere in there, all the better.

Which brings us to the greatness of the Union’s Ernst Tanner. When professors teach future classes on Sporting Directors, they will dedicate an entire lecture to his tenure with the Philadelphia Union. It’s been a masterclass. It’s a work of art and science. He’s nearly single-handedly brought joy to Subaru Park, a place that at one point seemed destined to display mediocrity on an infinite loop.

Tanner inherited an ownership group that at best is limited, and at worst lacks ambition. He must have savored the challenge. With nothing but a bag of Sugarman coins, he systematically rooted players from obscure careers and brought together a coherent team, that plays a unique style of his devising, and has the most points in the league since he joined. A rabbit might as well have been pulled from a hat. A saw might as well have gone through a beautiful woman trapped in a box.

But a funny thing happened on the victory parade to The Forum. Tanner had a very bad 2022 offseason, and it sunk his 2023 team. Faced with an intense slate of games, including a Champions Cup, Leagues Cup, US Open Cup and regular season, the Union were desperate for depth. And for the first time since he arrived in 2018, Tanner failed to deliver. There’s no other way to sugar coat it. It was a disaster.

Let’s do a quick recap of what’s gotten us to this point. Tanner joined in 2018 and is responsible for an incredible slate of signings, despite the Union remaining in the bottom of league in salaries paid, and bringing in more transfer fees than they send out. The incoming list includes Kai Wagner from the 3.Liga, Leon Flach from 2.Bundesliga, Daniel Gazdag from Budapest, Julian Carranza from Miami’s bench, Jose Martinez from the Venezuelan league, and defender of the year Jacob Glesnes. He also deserves credit for Michael Uhre, who has overall disappointed given he commanded the team’s highest ever transfer fee, but he still raises the quality of the team.

All of these signings led the ‘21 Union to a semifinal with Club America, the biggest club in our region, and to within minutes of an MLS Cup in ‘22. They were right there against LAFC, one of the biggest spenders in the league. The GLORY was nearly in the grasp.

And this brush with greatness is what made the 2022 offseason so critical. The expectations would be as intense as the schedule. The Union got through 2022 with almost no bench, save a productive striker in Cory Burke. The starting XI was set to return. Depth was the obvious call. Meaningful depth never arrived, and it sank the Union’s 2023 season.

The offseason started with Cory Burke leaving for the Red Bulls for total compensation over $550,000. Fair enough. It would be hard to justify that kind of money for a backup. Nevertheless, the Union would need to replace him.

Tanner’s best answer was Joaquin Torres, who was to be paid $360,000, but failed to deliver and was eventually lost on Curtin’s deep bench. Tanner tried again spending $710,000 on Tai Baribo (plus a transfer fee) but Baribo failed to earn meaningful minutes. In late season rotation opportunities, Curtin opted to start academy forward Quinn Sullivan over Baribo, telling us everything we need to know. That’s over $1 million to replace Burke, and nothing to show for it.

Then there is the midfield where Bedoya is aging, and Martinez juxtaposes brilliance with frustration. Yes, Jack McGlynn would assume a bigger role, and has. Leon Flach is challenged in the final third but does the yeoman’s work on defense. But that was it. Tanner responded with Andres Parea, who showed promise early, but inexplicably fell into Curtin’s luxurious dog-house, and was loaned away without ceremony.

Thankfully, Jesus Bueno, a Tanner signing 2.5 years ago, emerged as a solid option. Injuries plagued the midfield this year, and Bueno was a revelation, even if he’s not the player that will put the Union over the top.

Tanner’s one recent good move was to snag Damion Lowe from Orlando. Curtin was handcuffed into starting Glesnes and Elliott every minute they could muster, but Lowe gave the Union solid minutes this year, and took pressure off the starting pair. He even gave the Union some tactical flexibility as they flirted with a 3-back system when injuries mounted.

The Union also let backup goalkeeper Matt Freese leave for NYCFC, and he was replaced with Joe Bendik. Bendik was particularly poor in goal when Blake went down with an early groin injury, and I think we’d all agree he cost the Union at least one position in the table, perhaps two.

Five total signings and only one success story is not good enough when the team is on the cusp of glory. Then there were the end of season leaks about Wagner and Bedoya leaving the team this offseason. Curtin was forced to damage control, but there is clear dissonance between Tanner and Curtin, and the goodwill of the fans. Tanner is paid to make difficult decisions and he should stick to his framework, as long as it’s not a repeat of 2022’s winter.

It might be here that the urge will rise to discuss Sugarman’s thin wallet or Curtin’s limitations, but I think even Tanner would stand on the balcony before his people, raise his hand, and point the blame at himself. Would a few more million in the budget help? Potentially. Curtin has proven to be a solid manager, even if big game tactics appear out of his grasp. There’s blame to go around, but only one man had a task to deliver depth and failed. Tanner. I think he’s in agreement.

So here Union fans sit after a very good but disappointing season. Restless for change. Moves are as inevitable as rain.  Tanner has already signed a 19 year old Danish midfielder Sanders Ngabo from Denmark. His age and Curtin’s track record makes him an unlikely candidate to have an impact right away, but you never know.

Many current members of the Union are rumored to be on the move. Carranza might go. Wagner and Bedoya are said to be gone. Wagner is certainly gone. It appears there’s a chance the Union will retain their captain. Will McGlynn look overseas? The Union still have enough talent returning to be relevant again in 2024, but they will need the return of Tanner The Great to find any glory. Another offseason like 2022 will undoubtedly sink their hopes of hardware.

The Union fans are whispering Caesar’s mantra in Tanner’s ear, but with a twist. “All glory is fleeting, but please keep the dream alive a little while longer.”

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