Philadelphia Union have a philosophy guiding their decision-making, that much is clear. If you didn't believe it before, then yesterday's deal that sent all five of the Union's 2019 MLS SuperDraft picks to FC Cincinnati should show it more clearly.
This was an unprecedented number of draft picks to send one way. In fact, it was the most draft picks ever involved in a Major League Soccer deal, even if you count picks going both ways in a trade.
So what just happened? Why did Ernst Tanner and the Union decide to punt on a player acquisition mechanism that has, in the past, brought in the likes of Andre Blake, Michael Farfan, Ray Gaddis, Jack Elliott, and Keegan Rosenberry? And is one implication of this deal that the SuperDraft has entirely lost its value?
First, here's what happened. Ernst Tanner looked at the Union's current roster and long-term philosophy, he looked at the 2019 draft class and decided that Philly's strategic goals meant providing a path to the pros for academy players was more valuable than anything that could come out of the No. 13 draft pick or below. So this wasn't a deal that was about the draft so much as it was about staying true to the club's current ideas on how to build a roster.
Tanner said after completing the deal that the club was confident that their own academy players were as or more valuable than many of the options in the SuperDraft. With that in mind, drafting players -- even if those guys ended up on Bethlehem Steel FC's roster -- could limit opportunities for academy players that needed to be tested with professional minutes.
Another way to understand the confidence that Tanner has is the academy is by viewing this deal through the lens of information. How much information does an MLS club have about a potential draft pick compared to the amount of information they have about an academy player that has been with the club since an early age? Would Jim Curtin have been as comfortable riding Auston Trusty through his highs and lows if he hadn't seen the young defender overcome challenges at the academy and Steel FC levels? Perhaps not. (In fact, one of the most successful draft picks in recent memory, Keegan Rosenberry, had worked closely with Jim Curtin for years so the Union knew a lot more about him than the typical draft pick. The result? a Rookie of the Year nomination, a strong third season, and a lot of value when Rosenberry moved on to Colorado this offseason. )
Now the Union have about $300,000 of extra MLS money with which to approach the stretch run of the offseason. Tanner can use that money to attack key needs at left back, midfield, and squad depth. Furthermore, the club now has the freedom to push top academy products up the path toward the first team to see if they grab opportunities.
But what does this say about the draft? Has it lost all value? Not necessarily. But the value of the draft is changing. The top of the draft likely still has plenty of value for some MLS clubs, and in some situations. The top 5-10 picks may still provide value if they fit positional needs, but if the available players are already in their early 20s, they are on the back end of their development curve and, while they may provide a few years of immediate contribution, the long-term potential of an academy player may provide more overall value.
The final piece of this deal is its innovative approach to roster building. The big question in dealing with MLS' many roster building mechanisms is: What has more value than the rest of the league recognizes and what has less value than the rest of the league recognizes.
The Union and Ernst Tanner are making a bet that other clubs currently overvalue a) mid-first round draft picks, and b) a volume of draft picks. This is not dissimilar to how the 76ers treated the draft when they were building their current roster: Packaging second round picks that the Sixers did not value -- but, importantly, other teams did -- allowed them to complete deals that might not have otherwise come to fruition. The Union just acquired enough allocation money to add a good player from another MLS team, international spots, a better allocation order spot, or some combination of those things, and they did it by understanding how they and other clubs value player acquisition mechanisms.
Will it work out? Time will tell. But this move certainly fits the club and Sporting Director's core philosophy: Build through youth and value innovation.