The future of Philadelphia Union will be determined by how well the club builds on the foundation laid by former Sporting Director Earnie Stewart. The pillars of that foundation are youth development — not just finding strong, young players, but successfully turning them into professionals that contribute to the first team — and an innovative approach to all aspects of the game, both on and off the pitch. Additionally, the Union need to sign players to the first team that immediately strengthen the squad and make it a consistent entrant into the MLS playoffs.
Enter Ernst Tanner.
As the Academy Director at Red Bull Salzburg, and as Sporting Director and Academy Director at Hoffenheim before that, Tanner sought out hidden gems that could arrive young and quickly contribute to a winning culture, even as they developed as players and grew in transfer value. Roberto Firmino arrived at Hoffenheim as a skinny 19-year old and left as a strong, dominant, and immensely intelligent attacker. Sadio Mane and Naby Keita passed through Red Bull Salzburg, shaped from raw talents into unquestionably world class players. Niklas Sule and Sebastian Rudy were both recruited or developed by Tanner at Hoffenheim before Bayern Munich snapped them up in big money moves.
The pattern is clear: Tanner excels at identifying young talent and, perhaps more importantly, creating an environment in which that talent can thrive and quickly contribute to the first team’s success. In fact, Tanner has become famous in Germany as a pragmatic evaluator of young talent.
But this is not a man who claims to be a guru or magician. He’s simply a hard worker — his mantra translates from German to something like, “With hard work comes results” — retains an open mind to new ideas and cutting-edge approaches to player development and scouting. Analytics, novel methods of training and data collection, the latest research on health and wellness, these are the tools that Tanner seeks to understand and use in order to gain an edge on his competition.
One tool that seems so straightforward it’s hard to believe it can become a competitive advantage? A consistent methodology and style of play from the academy to the first team. As the Academy Director at Red Bull Salzburg, Tanner oversaw the implementation and growth of a long-term plan that propelled Salzburg’s academy to become one of the best in Europe. That’s no exaggeration: The 2016-17 Salzburg team at the UEFA Youth Championship knocked off a who’s who list of the best in Europe — Paris St. Germain, Manchester City, and Barcelona among them — as they captured the cup, defeating Benfica in a come-from-behind win in the final.
And while Tanner is proud of this achievement, he was just as proud of the fact that the team continued to play exciting soccer that remained true to the club’s principles whether they were ahead or behind, whether the match was beginning or drawing to an end.
And in the end, that is what Tanner wants to bring to Philadelphia Union. The scouting, the development, the outside-the-box thinking — all will be put into service of achieving one thing: Consistent playoff appearances.
The Union took big strides under Earnie Stewart, but the goal of reaching the postseason on a continual, year-after-year basis, has remained elusive. “To come there, evaluate what is there, see what we can do, what opportunities we have, and develop it into the first team,” Tanner responded when I asked how he would help the Union become a consistent playoff contender. It is a typically reserved response from the German, but then again he is a man of work, not words.