As German-American midfielder Leon Flach was rising through the ranks at FC St. Pauli, long before he made his professional debut, he was on the radar of the Philadelphia Union.
They keep tabs on a vast number of players and his American passport certainly didn't hurt, nor did his call-ups to the US youth national teams. Flach was being tracked while still playing in the Regionalliga Nord, Germany's fourth tier, as well as the U-19 domestic league in Germany. St. Pauli knew they had a talent, too, and before long he was in the first team. They weren't particularly looking to sell when Philly sporting director Ernst Tanner inquired to the German club about their dual-national academy standout a year ago. That conversation was quick and it was not a fruitful one for the Union.
Things went a bit better when Tanner called this winter.
The Union finalized a deal to acquire Flach from St. Pauli on a permanent transfer, announced on Tuesday.
“We see Leon as a really good addition," Tanner told media on a virtual press conference. "He can cover a lot of spots and he’s maybe not even a depth piece. We’re happy, we had been following him. St. Pauli had their own plans for him but the closer he got to the end of his contract, we were able to convince them.”
Flach was born in Texas but moved to Germany with his family before his second birthday. He was called into German youth national teams prior to his time with the US U-20s. He made nine appearances in the German second tier before his move to Philadelphia.
“I always wanted to come back (to America) one day and it was really attractive with the Philadelphia Union, especially for young players," Flach said. "It was always an idea but now the moment was great."
Flach, who just turned 20-years-old in February, is a valuable addition to the squad given his versatility. The club view him as a central midfielder, either at the No. 6 or a more box-to-box role in their 4-4-2 tight diamond, though he has covered at both fullback spots during his young career already.
“It’s a really good fit, pressing high and putting the opponent under pressure fits really good with how I want to play," Flach said, adding he feels his best position is in central midfield as well. "That’s what I want and what I like about football.”
Flach is the club's second senior addition of the offseason, following Scottish center back Stuart Findlay, who only just arrived in the country to link up with his teammates more than a month after officially announcing his signing due to visa and travel-related issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those same embassy-related issues are making it difficult for the Union to further add to their squad.
Tanner was candid on the role embassy-backups are playing in the MLS offseason. With Philadelphia like the vast majority of teams struggling to get current players green cards, thus opening up international slots, it's difficult to make signings from abroad. Clubs can acquire slots from other teams, but they are becoming more scarce. The Colorado Rapids received $225,000 General Allocation Money for one in a trade with Atlanta United, the most lavish return for an int'l slot in recent memory.
Philadelphia need to figure something out on that front already, with nine players needing to occupy their eight international slots. The Union are still monitoring the market and keeping flexibility for further reinforcements.
While they are in the midst of a bit of a preseason injury crisis, missing as many as eight regulars between knocks and international duty, the good news is none of the ailments are particularly long-term. Their current squad should be back to full strength at some point soon, plus some additions either in the near future or the summer.
“We are basically covered in almost every position, maybe we have a little depth problem on the attacking side but that’s something we can solve in the future," Tanner said. "Either a No. 10 or a second striker, that’s something we’re looking for.”
The summer should come with plenty of intrigue around MLS, too.
“In Europe, the situation is disastrous with low income," Tanner said, who spent his career in Europe before coming to Philly and retains a robust network of contacts on the continent. "They don’t know how much COVID will impact their next season. I think there will be some really interesting players on the market this summer.”