CHESTER, Pa. – Somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean’s blue waters off Cape Verde – a set of islands near the West Coast of Africa – Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner was manufacturing fleeting moments of leisure in a job that requires you to be tuned in all of the time.
Tanner was just in from kite-surfing, a variation of wind-surfing, with an excursion to an even more remote island planned, too. No snorkeling this time, though he does have his scuba diving license. It was the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, and he escaped the Philadelphia winter for a tropical reprieve.
Between those activities, Tanner finalized negotiations with KRC Genk over the transfer of Mark McKenzie, a record-setting deal for a center back in MLS. The homegrown turned US men’s national teamer was heading to Belgium.
Then he went back to kite-surfing.
“That was not the first time, you know,” Tanner told MLSsoccer.com from his office at the Union training facility, reflecting with a smile and a laugh. “I think in 2011 I did an entire transfer window from Cape Verde. I brought a printer, I had an old fax machine. You cannot imagine how it was.”
It’s not the only time he’s carved out time to make a deal in abnormal circumstances. Tanner had AirPods in his ears while discussing a loan deal for striker Cory Burke a few years ago. There was irregular background noise, the folks on the other end of the phone call were curious. They weren’t able to guess correctly that the AirPods were behind goggles as he was skiing down a mountain.
The German-born 57-year-old left behind a career in Europe to take charge of the Union technical staff in 2018. Wanting to experience a new country and league, he was attracted to the idea of MLS, navigating a salary cap and relative parity, as well as building a project in Philly.
Now, in his fourth full season, the Union have advanced to their first-ever MLS Cup Final, traveling to Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC for Saturday’s all-decisive match (4 pm ET | FOX, Univision in US; TSN, TVA Sports in Canada) after topping the Eastern Conference.
“I’d say this is among the top projects I’ve had in my career,” Tanner said. “The system is totally different. When you’re successful and you can harvest the fruits you planted, that’s always more fun. We’re not doing this on the basis of big money. That’s what I also appreciate. We need to be creative and find different solutions. That’s the fun part.”
“I mean, going out and buying players for $15-20 million, I don’t know where the fun is,” Tanner said. “That’s never been my goal.”
"MLS is more and more attractive"
Finding different solutions, as Tanner put it, has been the Philadelphia Union’s hallmark over the last half-decade. Along the way, they’ve re-written their club record books and a few for the league.
The Union set new transfer records and benchmarks for an ever-evolving MLS market. Despite routinely being among the lowest-spending clubs, Philadelphia have been one of the best teams each MLS season and won their first-ever trophy: the 2020 Supporters’ Shield. Last year was their first-ever Eastern Conference Final, and this year is their first-ever MLS Cup.
“When I came here, we did not have this squad that we have today,” Tanner said. “The philosophy and playing style was different. We changed other things, we got better year by year. It’s not an accident that we’re amongst the top clubs.”
Longtime head coach Jim Curtin remains at the helm, as well as first-team incumbents like captain Alejandro Bedoya, three-time Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Andre Blake and defensive stalwart Jack Elliott.
Tanner quickly made a name with value signings, like Kacper Przybylko (free agent) and Kai Wagner (around $200k from Germany). Over the next few seasons, Jose Martinez ($325k from Venezuela), Jakob Glesnes ($375k from Norway) and Leon Flach ($200k from Germany) all arrived. Those signings involved different levels of the European market, not necessarily brand-name teams.
The Union also broke their own incoming transfer record a few times, with Mikael Uhre (from Brøndby in Denmark) and Daniel Gazdag (from Honvéd in Hungary) leading the attack heading into MLS Cup, as well as Julian Carranza (trade/transfer with Inter Miami CF). Players of Uhre and Gazdag’s profiles have historically gone elsewhere in Europe. These days, it’s commonplace for MLS to be a real option.
“We’re in a situation where MLS is more and more attractive,” Tanner said. “When I arrived, MLS didn’t have the same reputation. When you went to Brazil, for instance, all the players wanted to go to Europe. But over the years things change, now they listen.”
Outbound, the Union became major players in the transfer market. Before the McKenzie deal, the Union agreed on a package to transfer homegrown attacker Brenden Aaronson to Austria’s RB Salzburg for an initial $6.5 million fee, plus add-ons and a future sell-on clause. All the bonuses triggered and then Aaronson made a $30 million move to Premier League side Leeds United this past summer, around $5 million of that going to Philadelphia.
Tanner joked the key to the Aaronson deal – what he dubbed “probably my best-ever transfer” – was being able to curse in German with his former colleagues during negotiations.
"I’m not a glamor guy"
Tanner originally came to Philadelphia with the hope of discovering a new experience.
He spent years as RB Salzburg’s academy director. Dominik Szoboszlai, the Hungarian wonderkid who quickly jumped from Salzburg to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga, was among the many academy products who graduated to the first team.
“For me, my project at Salzburg was finished,” Tanner said. “I built up the academy. We won the youth league, but we could not produce any more players for the first team. Look at their first team now, three starters in their first team came from the academy that was personally fetched by myself. I mean, you cannot do more.”
Before his time at Salzburg, Tanner was sporting director of Hoffenheim, where he brought now-Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino to European soccer from Brazil. While at Hoffenheim, he met and developed a connection with Richie Graham, one of the Union’s minority owners. Graham floated the possibility of coming to Philly in the early 2010s, but Tanner passed.
In 2018, Graham reached out again asking if Tanner had any candidates to replace Earnie Stewart in Philadelphia when their sporting director was leaving for a role in U.S. Soccer. Tanner sent a name, but the parties didn’t align. Then Richie called and asked: What about you?
After Graham got the green light from Salzburg to have formal talks, Tanner flew to Philly. Before he set foot back in Austria, he had a decision to make.
“By the time I landed, I already had the offer,” Tanner said. “I thought, ‘Oh s--t, it’s real now.’”
Tanner believed the quality of the league had improved drastically even in six or seven years. He liked the idea of helping build out the Union, like he did in Salzburg with the academy. The timing was right, so he jumped on the chance.
“I always wanted to go back to a place where I could develop something and take on the decisions myself,” Tanner said. “That was the brilliant opportunity here. From the first day, I was involved in every decision. That was very good.”
Culturally, it’s been a great fit.
“What I heard of Philly before was basically a blue-collar environment, no glamor, tough people and hard-working,” Tanner said. “That turned out to be completely right and that’s what fits me. I’m not a glamor guy. I don’t want to be in the first row, I’m not on social media. I don’t have Instagram or Twitter, I don’t need that s--t. I really enjoy life here.”
Another attractive aspect of MLS is the parity and salary cap. It levels the playing field. While teams outspend each other, there isn’t a gulf like that of Paris Saint-Germain to the rest of France, Bayern Munich to the rest of Germany, the top handful of clubs in England with the rest.
“That was one of the reasons I thought it was good to go here: If you do your job right, you can be successful,” Tanner said. “Here, you can win. To be honest, I like winning. A lot.”
One day, he admits, he’ll be back in Europe. But not yet, despite clubs inquiring about his availability last winter.
Tanner quickly rejected overtures from clubs abroad, just as he rejected overtures from FC Cincinnati for Curtin last winter. Both were happy to oversee the project.
“No, there was never a thought to leave,” said Tanner, who signed a multi-year contract extension in July 2021. “I’m loyal to my clubs, I always have been. I don’t want to jump from tree to tree, it’s not my nature. When I finish here one day, I probably won’t be an employee in the daily routine anymore. I’ve done it for 30 years; that’s a long time in this crazy business. I’m very relaxed about this.”
Like anything in this sport, in particular, it won’t last forever.
“One day I need to go back to Europe,” Tanner said. “I have family there, my father died two years ago, there are things to do. So one day I have to go back, I have no choice. But when I prolonged my contract, it was clear to me our project was not finished. Something is missing.”
One thing missing from the club is an MLS Cup trophy, which begged the follow-up: If Philadelphia win MLS Cup, would the project be finished?
“Maybe it wouldn’t be finished,” Tanner quickly said.