The Union’s transfer approach, modified for a contending squad, delivers a promising window
The Philadelphia Union’s approach to the transfer market under Ernst Tanner has been clear, especially in comparison to the rest of MLS: spend wisely, bet on talent identification and development, and promote from within.
Tanner was the head of the academy at RB Salzburg in Austria for six years before joining the Union in late 2018 and those principles have propelled the club to increasing heights, including a Supporters Shield in a 2020 and a run to the MLS Cup final last year, that ended agonizingly to LAFC, who exist on the splashier, opposite end of the spectrum of roster building.
The Union’s record transfer fee was for Mikael Uhre in early 2022 for $2.8 million, the lowest record transfer among all MLS clubs. In the last year, LAFC spent over $11 million on just two players, Stipe Biuk and Denis Bouanga, more than the Union have spent in Tanner’s entire tenure.
None of this is new news – the Union operate at the peak of what a Red Bull-inspired approach can achieve in MLS, coupling team success with massive financial windfalls from selling dynamic young talents like Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Paxten Aaronson. Nearly every club in MLS would take the Union’s profitability and points per dollar spent if they could.
The most ambitious clubs are willing to spend top dollars for top talent, but some MLS teams end up spending big without filling out their roster or worse, spending big on players who don’t produce. For the rest of the league, the Union represents a unicorn for achieving more with less.
One side of the coin is youth development, but the other side is hitting on low-cost transfers from foreign leagues that produce above-average, and often, Best-XI-worthy outputs.
In the past four winter windows before 2023, Tanner has brought in two or three starters, and all but one have come from abroad. 2019 featured the arrivals of Sergio Santos, Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro on loan, as well as the pickup of Kacper Przybylko whose contract had expired.
2020 saw the option to buy exercised on Monteiro, as well as the addition of José Martínez and Jakob Glesnes. Next in 2021, the Union added Daniel Gazdag for under $2 million and Leon Flach for under $300,000. Last season, the Union welcomed Uhre and stole Julían Carranza from Inter Miami, where he had not clicked.
It’s only a top-level list of starters, but the Union has largely relied on scouting in under-utilized areas, with just one headliner coming from another team in the league. But nearly all of those players have been undeniable successes. The only real miss was Matej Oravec, who was bought in 2020 for $1.1 million and never saw a minute of MLS action.
While we can’t predict the future, the 2023 window looks different in terms of expectations. The biggest moves were to bring in Andrés Perea, Joaquín Torres, Damion Lowe and Richard Odada, and none of them project to be starters, currently. The first three all come from within MLS, which is generally uncharacteric for Tanner, who prefers to use the league to offload redundant players for MLS-ready cash (Santos, Przybylko and Monteiro recently, David Accam and C.J. Sapong earlier).
It makes sense for the Union to focus on depth as the team basically returns its entire starting XI, which as of today, has the second best odds to win the league at +600 (via DraftKings), behind LAFC at +400. And LAFC’s own XI has seen a shakeup with the departure of Chico Arango to Pachuca and the possible mid-season departure of Jose Cifuentes.
And so the Union tackled the biggest holes on paper, with the departures of Santos, Burke and Findlay, two backup strikers and a third center back.
Lowe started 28 games last year for Miami and is an experienced option behind the starting tandem of Glesnes and Jack Elliott. With Lowe, the Union now has the ability to roll out a back three, which it tried against the Revs in the preseason (with Brandan Craig joining the two top choices).
Lowe’s ball distribution, on the whole, is relatively underwhelming with low marks for pass completion and progressive passes, but that can work for a third center back. He boasts 90th percentile marks in defensive counting stats, which can mean that he was asked to do a lot at Miami, but also that he can play a high-pressing system and track down ball carriers. It’s no mistake that football reference lists both Elliott and Glesnes in the top-10 most similar players to Lowe within MLS in 2022.
Torres gives the Union versatility and flexibility behind the front line trio of Carranza, Uhre and Gazdag, with a completely different skill set. Torres is a prolific dribbler who ranks very highly within the MLS in take-ons (90th percentile), successful take-on percentage (90th percentile), and progressive carries (67th percentile). His passing stats in terms of chance creation and completion percentage are not great, as are his defensive stats, which is something that will have to improve as the Union ask a lot defensively from their front line.
His most similar comparison within MLS from 2022 was Frederico Bernardeschi from Toronto FC, who was a ball progression machine at Juventus before teaming up with Lorenzo Insigne to torch backlines in MLS for the back half of last season.
It’s not a clean fit into the way the Union play, whose best method of progression are long balls and winning the ball in dangerous areas, but it’s an option they didn’t have last year. The Union’s most progressive carries in 2022 came from Wagner with 55 and 34-year old Alejandro Bedoya with 55. Torres had 68 in 2022.
Head Coach Jim Curtin has a new tool in the box to change games, and an effective 10 when Gazdag can shift into the striker line. The Union don’t have a physical solution like Cory Burke though, and Chris Donovan is a little too unpolished in the box to be a reliable striker if injuries take a toll.
Perea will be the key backup to Martinez at defensive midfield, and he checks out as Tanner’s shrewdest bit of business to me for $700,000 in GAM spread across two seasons.
Martinez has been one of, if not, the best defensive midfielder in MLS over the past two seasons and eventually will get a look in Europe – Besiktas had rumored interest recently but the Union turned down a $2 million bid. Martinez has a $2.1 valuation on Transfermarkt, but the asking price for a 28-year old destroyer who does say, 80% of the defensive work of a Tyler Adams with 40-50% more of ball progression (Martinez is fantastic on wide switches) should be at least $5 million and maybe more.
Martinez aside, Perea is just 22 years old and profiles as more of a box-to-box midfielder than Martinez, with MLS-comparisons to Mark-Anthony Kaye, Derrick Jones and Paxton Pomykal. Perea can dribble and is a high volume-passer, having played in Oscar Pareja’s possession based system. But most encouraging are the defensive stats which are right on par with Martinez.
If and when Martinez leaves, the Union has a ready-made replacement at just 22 years old. This is the type of move that reinforces the Union cycle – the team can already expect upwards of a 500% return on investment on Martinez, and Perea already has the potential return of 200-300% or more with a Transfermarket valuation of $2.6 million that could appreciate in short time if he sticks.
Torres is a similar case, and while he is 26, his acquisition cost $500,000 in GAM split over two years while his Transfermarkt valuation is already at $2 million.
It might not be a perfect transfer window for the Union – I’m sure fans would be ecstatic if the Union were the ones introducing say Enzo Copetti or Evander, but for the way Tanner does business, he managed to thread the needle of addressing squad holes while also taking two swings on players that that have massive upside.
The clarity of strategy and ensuing execution is what makes the Union the Union. The moves still have to hit on the field, when they get on the field, but it’s hard to bet against the team’s previous track record.