Philadelphia Union introduced Ernst Tanner as the club’s new Sporting Director on Thursday in a press conference with principal owner Jay Sugarman. Both Tanner and Sugarman made opening statements before taking questions from the press. Some highlights of the press conference follow.
Sugarman opening statement
The Union’s principal owner began by discussing what drew the club to Tanner. “The Sporting Director position is a really critical one for our club,” Sugarman began. “Their leadership, their drive touches every part of this organization from the first team all the way down to the pre-development teams. Richie and I set out almost two-and-a-half months ago, we said: ‘What are the three critical must-haves?’. And the first was someone who emphasizes a collective, connected style of play. You've heard us talk about that before.
The second was somebody who embraces innovation as a core part of our competitive strategy. And the third was someone who has successfully executed a development-driven model. Someone who can ID talent, recruit talent, can help develop that talent, and then has a successful track record in the transfer market and having other clubs recognize that talent. I'm happy to announce that our new sporting director has excelled at all three of those areas throughout his long career. As a sporting director and an academy director at some of the most innovative and most development-driven clubs in Europe. Ernst has particularly stood out in our minds with his time at Salzburg. Their success at both the youth level and the first team level is something that very much attracted us. He is the ideal person to lead the Unoi to the long-term sustained success we all want.”
Sugarman added that Tanner has not yet joined the Union since he is still waiting for the immigration process to play out, suggesting that the German will be fully on-board within the next month and a half. “Just to be clear, Ernst is still going through the immigration process so he is not an employee of the Union at this moment,” Sugarman clarified. “We've had the benefit of his thought process around what creates success, but we've not had the ability to really dig in.”
Tanner’s opening statement focused on his previous visits to the club, beginning when he toured the academy in 2012, and why he thought this move was right for him. “Some of you might ask yourself why he's coming over to Philadelphia now, and I want to answer this before we start,” he stated bluntly. “I thought after 24 years working for different European clubs, now is exactly the right time. And it was always a desire of mine, to go to the United States. And that was the main reason I took the opportunity. But above all, it's a very familiar environment I'm stepping in now. We have a lot of good people working in the club and working so we develop further on and have success in the future. So far, from my side, I hope that we have a good collaboration.”
The 51-year old German was asked about how he will approach player recruitment. Specifically, he responded to whether the Union will join other MLS teams in searching Central and South America for talent. “As far as I know, we have defined certain countries and certain markets we are looking for,” Tanner stated. “We need to know that we do not get every talent on the planet, so we need to define where we find our players. And I think they are inside this country, lots of opportunities. As well as they are in smaller countries in Europe. Lots of opportunities.
“And I don't think that nothing is in South America. I have close connections in Colombia, for instance. I have good connections to Brazil, to Argentina. And it's not necessarily that you need to spend millions to find good talent. But it's necessary, of course, to develop it.”
The future of the academy
Tanner’s history is marked by successful spells developing young players into first team contributors and valuable transfer assets. Both the new Sporting Director and Sugarman expounded on what their vision is for the Union’s academy in the future. “In a good club, an academy is like a backbone,” Tanner explained. “Not only for the players, but also for the staff. And that is, for me, mandatory to be successful. Academy, good recruitment is also very important for the academy as well as for the second team and the first team. So that needs to play together and then you will have a successful team.”
He continued, discussing his approach to handling the selling on of players when they become valuable to other clubs. “The market is globalized, so you can with modern methods recruit players all over the world,” Tanner said, “And the best get attracted from everywhere. What we need to do is do our best in development and to be as much competitive as possible to keep our players.”
Sugarman added, “The idea in the academy is to create talent we can use but also to create an opportunity to consistently upgrade across the entire roster. And generating incremental money out of the transfer market — the intention is not to make a profit for the organization, it's to create more capital for Ernst and Chris [Albright] and the staff to continue to make this team progress.
“Our goal is to be a sustainable winner in this league. We're going to have to do it a bunch of different ways.”
Building on a foundation
Sugarman also addressed the club’s level of investment in player transfers, arguing that the goal since Earnie Stewart arrived two and a half years ago has been to establish a suitable foundation on which to grow the investment put directly into the first team. “We continue on the process of spending significant amounts of money to develop as a club,” Sugarman said, “And the question really is: At what point can we direct more of those resources to the first team?
“We are probably the top spending club in terms of academy and USL team. We have been in capital mode trying to acquire as much of this campus [around Talen Energy Stadium and the Power Training Complex] as we can so we can build a soccer hub here that really stands out in the league as one of the most successful.
“And now bringing in Ernst I think you'll see us focus more and more on how to make this first team sustainably successful. We felt like we needed all of those foundational pieces to be able to go into the transfer market with the highest probability of success. But I think when you have the foundational pieces and you have the elements that Ernst talked about, the academy's helped put us in place, the investments we've made.
“I think you're at the point where this team should start to attract talent and really be able to put it into the first team in a way that we get the full benefit of it.”
Sugarman elaborated when asked about teams in the league now spending multiple millions on transfer fees. “What we need to be is really good at everything we can control and then bring something special, something that puts those other teams' strengths off to one side and lets our strengths shine,” the Union’s principal owner said. “And that's why we're focused on development, we're focused on innovation, we're focused on this collective, fully connected teamwork.
“When I first met Ernst, he showed us a tape of their young players, their second team players, and their first team players. And every one of those, the first thing you notice is the connectivity among those players. How they moved together. How they almost seemed to be in one sync in terms of how they thought about where the ball was and what their job was. And something Earnie started 2.5 years ago and Jim has really been trying to drill into the players: That we need to work as a team, everybody has to contribute.
Sugarman spoke further about why Tanner was the right person for this moment in the Union’s growth as a club. “So as we move into this new MLS, we need the kind of thinking Ernst has seen and used elsewhere,” he argued. “We need to bring that to bear. We need to tilt the field in our favor, toward our strengths, and not simply think we can copy somebody else's model. So that's where we're thinking our advantages will start to show up. They will be distinctive, they will be different, you will see the identity of the Union very distinctly. And if we do that well, we will make the playoffs regularly and we will be in every game we play in, and we will win a cup.
“And I hope the US Open Cup is just a precursor to a sustained period of success where we can look every year and say we're getting better, we're getting better, our identity is clearer, and the things we do well stand out, they are distinctive. That's one of the things I think Red Bull and Columbus have done in the past 3-5 years that we've liked. They've built identities and they've really been good at them. And you've seen the success they've had. And I think we're on the brink of that same sort of moment.
“I want to make clear,” the Union’s owner said, “We want to win. We know there is a minimum level of spending that you just have to do to stay competitive. And there's no question we are going to provide those resources as an ownership group. My thought process on that is that when we spend, we have to be right. We can't afford to make mistakes. MLS is a capped structure. You make a mistake on a long-term contract, it handicaps you for a long time. So we want to be really clear about what we need, why it's going to help this team succeed, and then we will make those resources available. I think we continue to want to build something really special here, not just think about a one season opportunity. We want to think about long-term. I think it's very similar to how Ernst thinks about building sustained success. So we probably won't go for the short-term sugar rush. We want to build something that is truly sustainable that makes players really feel like they are part of a successful franchise that will continue to be successful.”
For more on Tanner and his background, check out Philadelphiaunion.com.