CHESTER, Pa. — When Philadelphia Union minority owner Richie Graham first approached Ernst Tanner about the club’s soon-to-be-vacant sporting director position, Tanner was surprised at how perfect the job seemed.
For starters, after 24 years working for different European clubs, Tanner had a “desire to go to the United States.” He visited Philly three times since 2012 and came to know the Union’s organization through a connection with Graham, who sought his counsel while when he was developing YSC Academy, the Union-affiliated private high school for the club’s academy players. And most importantly, his values were in lockstep with what the Union owners and front-office executives have been trying to build over the past few years.
“When I got approached by Richie, I told him, ‘Richie, this is exactly suited for me,’” Tanner said during his introductory press conference Thursday as the Union’s new sporting director. “He told me, ‘OK, let’s work on that.’”
What makes him so well-suited for the job, which Tanner will officially begin next month? While at German club Hoffenheim and Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg, the German native focused much of his attention on youth development, innovation and creating a connectivity between the first team, second team and youth players.
For Union majority owner Jay Sugarman, who’s been trying to grow the Union around those “three core pillars,” that quickly set Tanner above the pack during a 2 ½ month search to replace Earnie Stewart, the new general manager of the US men’s national team.
“I was surprised at the quality of candidates that were interested in the MLS and US game,” Sugarman said. “There were unbelievably good candidates but with what we were looking for, Ernst stood out very quickly.”
Calling Tanner “one of the best we’ve seen” in the transfer market, Sugarman noted that, with a growing investment in the academy, their USL team (Bethlehem Steel FC) and a practice facility, the Union now have the “foundational pieces” needed to attract more talent globally. But he admitted the club won’t be able to buy “three, four, five superstars” and try to use the same approach to compete with teams with a “bigger economic model.”
Instead, they’ll rely on Tanner’s savvy and a growing pipeline from the youth academy to continue to build off what Stewart tried to accomplish during his two-and-a-half-year tenure and be a “sustainable winner” that develops its own superstars.
“I think we have a unique opportunity to build something that can compete with those [higher-spending] clubs,” Sugarman said. “But it’s not going to be the same thing. We’re not going to line up with them person to person and say we can out-talent them. But a lot of what Tanner has proven at Salzburg and the prior clubs he’s been at is there are ways to get ahead, there are ways to outperform those teams.
“It may not be the same as everybody else but people will respect it and it will be powerful enough to make us one of the top teams in the league.”
Tanner, who recently led RB Salzburg’s academy to the UEFA Youth League championship in 2016-17, certainly shares that vision, calling the academy the “backbone” to any club and something that is “mandatory to be successful.” He also pointed to some of his connections in Europe and South America (he named Colombia, Brazil and Argentina specifically) to showcase his scouting chops, adding that you don’t “necessarily need to spend millions to find good talent.”
It might take some time for Tanner to become fully integrated with the league’s player acquisition mechanisms, laughing that he at least knows “what GAM and TAM are now” but that he “will get better in the future” at learning everything.
For now, he’s eager to get started in Philly and try to turn the Union into a consistent winner for the first time in the club’s history.
“In a professional side, success is usually measured in winning games,” he said. “But of course for people who really know about development, there’s a different approach on being successful. More or less, we need to do both.”