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Trading away draft picks makes a lot of sense for the Union

New sporting director Ernst Tanner’s strategy for Bethlehem Steel has been made even clearer by SuperDraft deal

Matt Ralph

Ernst Tanner took a look at the players available in Friday’s MLS SuperDraft and decided he’d rather add some general allocation money to the pot instead of selecting any players in what would have been his first college draft.

It was a bold move, trading not one but all five of the Union’s draft picks to FC Cincinnati in exchange for $150,000 in general allocation money for 2019 and another potential $50,000 for 2020 depending on performance metrics of the players who end up getting drafted.

“This has something to do with the strategy we are going forward with the second team to make them much younger,” Tanner said in a phone call with reporters on Wednesday night.

The strategy, which Tanner has stressed since his arrival as the new sporting director last fall, is to focus on bringing players into a professional environment before they leave for college, giving them time to develop with Bethlehem Steel FC before pushing them through to the first team at the age many of their peers are starting college.

“FC Cincinnati is in a different situation,” he said. “They are an expansion team that needs to fill up their roster spots. We are in a situation where we have a good setup and a good infrastructure and a second team with an academy behind it.”

Tanner said he liked several players he saw at the MLS Combine in Orlando, but wasn’t confident any of the ones with the most potential would be left by the time they were on the clock for the 13th pick.

Part of his problem with the draft pool is the age of the players, which with the exception of the seven-player Generation adidas class of underclassmen who are made eligible after signing with the league, have mostly all exhausted their college eligibility (players who graduate early like Notre Dame midfielder Tommy McCabe are also in the pool).

“We need to take them out from university as soon as possible and bring them into a professional environment in order to use the best stage of development, which is surely not 22 and a majority of the players in the draft were 22 or older,” Tanner said.

Several players available — like Kentucky junior forward JJ Williams, Syracuse senior defender Kamal Miller and Akron goalkeeper Ben Lundt — have spent time over the summer with the Union’s USL League Two affiliate Reading United while also getting opportunities to train with Bethlehem Steel FC.

“I have been in discussions with the Reading people and we agreed to continue that,” Tanner said.

The Union will be able to use the additional allocation money acquired in the trade from FC Cincinnait in a variety of ways to strengthen the first team roster. The Union also recently acquired $150,000 in general allocation money and $50,000 in targeted allocation money for Keegan Rosenberry, a former top draft pick they traded to the Colorado Rapids (they’ll get as much as another $100,000 for 2020 in the deal depending on performance metrics).

“We’ve increased our possibilities but I’m not saying we have unlimited possibilities,” Tanner said.

Tanner admitted that it was a little unusual to trade all five of their picks away like they did, but from a PR standpoint it certainly doesn’t hurt to make a few waves and send a message to the league and perhaps more importantly to potential future players of the Union’s intent to develop and play young players.

It’s no secret that the SuperDraft has diminished in part because of the rise of homegrown players coming through MLS academies but also because teams are using their international roster spots to attract higher level players than the internationals coming through college.

Teams have been known to pass on making picks in later rounds, but the Union passing on the entire exercise is certainly an interesting and laudable development that could very well signal the start of a new era in how teams and even the league as a whole approach the annual event.