As Ernst Tanner was getting acclimated to his new job, in a new city, new country and new hemisphere, he started noticing one popular slogan around his new workplace.
During his first matchdays at Subaru Park in 2018 as the Philadelphia Union's new sporting director, banners and songs brandishing "Nobody likes us, and we don't care" caught Tanner's eye. In proper Philadelphia parlance, those songs perhaps would have a few expletives, of course.
"That’s really strong," Tanner told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh.
It didn't take long for him to feel at home.
Little more than two years after arriving in Philadelphia, with a franchise finally trending upwards after a lackluster first half-decade in MLS, the Union are just one game away from their first trophy in club history. A win Sunday on Decision Day presented by AT&T against the New England Revolution would clinch the Supporters' Shield (3:30 pm ET | ABC, full TV & streaming info).
This is how they went from a team on the edge of the playoff picture to possessing one of the most complete rosters in MLS in just a couple years.
In 2018, the Union were amid what was then their best-ever season by way of total points, resulting in a sixth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a first-round playoff exit at the hands of NYCFC. They also qualified for their third U.S. Open Cup final, but fell to the Houston Dynamo, just as they had to Seattle & Sporting KC in 2014 and 2015. It was far from a rebuild job on the banks of the Delaware, but some changes were necessary.
Philly picked up their points in 2018 by dominating games through possession and were moderately successful, with quality technical players like Haris Medunjanin, Borek Dockal and Alejandro Bedoya making up their midfield triangle. Tanner, who previously worked at Hoffenheim then Red Bull Salzburg, wanted to shift the club's identity to his preferred high-pressing, transition style.
“We needed to improve the quality of the roster, that’s what I was analyzing immediately," Tanner said. "To be honest, we were doing well but probably made the maximum out of what we had. ... So that’s what we did first, trying to improve the quality of the roster and implement a new style of play. A new methodology."
There were a number of key moves made immediately by Tanner, technical director Chris Albright and the rest of the sporting department.
Brenden Aaronson's Homegrown contract was announced — though it was already in the works when Earnie Stewart was the club's sporting director — and little-known Polish forward Kacper Przybylko was signed in September ahead of the winter transfer window. The club then acquired Sergio Santos, Kai Wagner and Jamiro Monteiro over the winter, while key contributors like Dockal, Keegan Rosenberry, CJ Sapong and David Accam all departed.
“The first transfer window was an excellent one, I would say," Tanner said. "We really balanced our roster in a better way.”
Those five key additions are all constants in the club's starting XI this season. It wasn't a perfect window — as evidenced by the swing-and-miss on Designated Player Marco Fabian — but it serves as the playbook for Philly to stay among the top teams in the conference. It is critical they extract value out of their academy and on unheralded acquisitions.
Przybylko was a free agent, one with few options after a nightmarish two-year battle with injuries. Wagner was playing in the German third division, and signed for a nominal transfer fee. Przybylko finished 2019 tied for fifth in MLS with 15 goals, while Wagner was regarded as one of the league's best left backs.
“The job Ernst and Chris Albright have done piecing together our roster is unbelievable," head coach Jim Curtin said. "We’ve done it in a unique Philadelphia Union way that implements a lot of good homegrown players, experienced guys to form a team. We took the good pieces we had (from 2018) and improved against the ball, it’s made us difficult to play against.”
Curtin shifted seamlessly from leading a possession-based club to one that thrives in high pressure and transition. One of the league's longest-tenured coaches, he signed a contract extension last year. He has given trust, playing time and development to the club's talented academy standouts graduating into the first team.
The club aren't near the highest spending teams in the league and aren't likely to start dropping $10 million transfer fees anytime soon. They remained in the bottom tier of spending across the league in 2020 even after factoring in the club-record $2 million transfer to make Monteiro's loan a permanent deal this winter.
"We showed (competing this way) is possible," Tanner said. "It will not be that you always get free players, that’s not realistic, particularly if you want younger players. Instead of buying players, we’re investing in our academy. If we don’t use our academy players, we counteract these investments. In a way, that’s what we’re building on. We have patience. We’re selling our first one and we will sell our next one soon. There’s quality coming out of our academy.”
No move was a better microcosm of Philly's evolution over the past two seasons than the decision to let Medunjanin leave after his contract expired after the 2019 season. The midfield stalwart started all but five games over three seasons for the Union and was one of the best passers in the league. However, he wasn't a dominant defensive presence even in his prime and was set to turn 35 in March.
There were disagreements within the club, but ultimately the Union moved on. Medunjanin since went to FC Cincinnati, where he's been a regular starter with the club that currently sits bottom of the league.
“The major goal was bringing in defensive pieces," Tanner said. "Last year we gave up significantly too many goals. It’s nice to have a win 4-3 or 5-4, but you cannot count on scoring three-to-five goals a game. It’s not possible. We really experienced this season how important it is to keep a clean sheet, how important it is to have that foundation. That was the goal.”
The Union have conceded less than than one goal per game this season, tied for best in the league. Last season they conceded roughly a goal and a half per game. Venezuelan midfielder Jose Martinez was Medunjanin's de-facto replacement, providing a tenacious ball-winning presence more suited to the team's high-pressing season. The Union also added center back Jakob Glesnes this offseason, giving them a deep center back corps which has also proved important in their improved defense, but it was a far quieter winter than the previous one.
This is the third consecutive year the club will set a new club record for points per game in a season. They won their first playoff game in 2019 and hope to win their first trophy this weekend.
“Ever since I got here, we’ve been improving,” club captain Bedoya said. He was signed from French club Nantes in 2016. “To win that first trophy finally would mean everything.”
A win on Sunday however it comes, be it 5-4 or 1-0, would clinch the Supporters' Shield for the often-overlooked Union.
“Imagine? The Philadelphia Union, nobody cared about us," Tanner added. "It’s almost too nice to believe in.”