CHESTER, Pa. — During one of Ernst Tanner’s final games with Red Bull Salzburg, a familiar face to Major League Soccer fans was eager to congratulate him on his appointment as Philadelphia Union sporting director.
Former New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, who recently took an assistant coaching job with Red Bull Leipzig, offered a nice message to Tanner, who was officially named Earnie Stewart’s replacement Thursday after a couple weeks of negotiations.
“There was a funny situation a week ago Sunday,” Tanner said. “We played a home game in Salzburg and Jesse was in training camp with RB Leipzig and he came to me and nobody knew, he put his hands on my back and said, ‘Hey you’re going to Philly.’ And then we had a good chat about MLS and the situation here and that really helped a lot.”
The interaction between Marsch and Tanner wasn’t the 51-year-old’s only connection to MLS. He also stopped by the Philadelphia academy as part of a trip in 2012.
During that trip, current Union head coach Jim Curtin, who was working in the academy at that time, benefited from Tanner’s visit and made a corresponding visit to German side Hoffenheim, where Tanner was employed at the time.
“I started with the youth academy and Ernst was a guy that was just passing through and showed a presentation there,” Curtin said. “I wound up actually going and watching Hoffenheim’s academy and watching how they worked, which was impressive. I got a lot of ideas from that and I learned a ton from that experience there. Not a real long relationship before, but at least we crossed paths so it’s not a completely new face.”
Although Tanner said he isn’t up to snuff with all the MLS transaction regulations yet, he thinks he’ll be a quick learner and should have everything down as soon as he permanently arrives in Philadelphia, which should be in mid-to-late September once his immigration papers are finalized.
“It’s not rocket science,” Tanner said. “I think because I’ve been in football for such a long time I’ll get familiar with it in a short time.”
When he does settle into the organization, Tanner inherits a team that is in its third U.S. Open Cup final in five years and in the middle of an Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Even though there will be a new name next to the sporting director title, not much will change on the field. Tanner will only try to improve the 4-2-3-1 pressing style implemented by Stewart and Curtin a few years ago.
“The playing style is rather identical, but I would say even we did a different job in Salzburg developing this a little bit further on,” Tanner said. “As I am basically coming out of Hoffenheim, where we had more experiences with that playing style, we continued developing it further on in Salzburg. Of course, I have some knowledge about different things and that has something to do with what you see at Red Bull New York.”
The immediate concerns surround the Union’s roster improvements, and how much they can compete with the big spenders of the league.
Owner Jay Sugarman reaffirmed his belief in building from the ground up instead of going out on the transfer market to buy a player similar to Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez or Miguel Almiron, or Portland’s Diego Valeri.
“I think one of the misconceptions is we’re never going to line up and go head to head with teams with two, three, four times the revenue model we do,” Sugarman said. “That’s suicide. It won’t work. What we need to be is really good at everything we can control and then bring something special, something that puts the other team’s strengths off to one side and lets our strengths shine.”
The something special Sugarman is referring to could come from Tanner’s connections throughout the globe. In addition to refining the style of play and academy talent, Tanner will be tasked with finding unpolished gems in the transfer market, which is something he’s done at 1860 Munich, Hoffenheim and Red Bull Salzburg.
Tanner helped United States men’s national team forward Bobby Wood get started at 1860 Munich and he signed U.S. midfielder Fabian Johnson at Hoffenheim.
Perhaps Tanner’s top accomplishment is the discovery of Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, who joined Hoffenheim in 2011.
Tanner’s reputation and scouting history bring promise to a club that hasn’t mined the markets in Central and South American like other MLS sides have.
“For a club in general, it’s important to have a good development, good recruitment and, of course, a good staff,” Tanner said. “I know that there is a lot going on in South America, even in Latin America, so recently I’ve been to Panama and they showed me what they have going on there. And I know people from Colombia well, where there is quite the good development there as well.
“We need to put it together and find the right talent, make the right decisions and we need to integrate them and develop them to what we want to play, because that’s very specific and you won’t find the players doing the same anywhere else. That is the transition we need to manage.”
Tanner’s tenure in Philadelphia, a town with few patient sports fans, will be judged at every turn. But on first glance, the Union brought in a scouting mastermind who can help the club develop an advantage by producing more top youth prospects while integrating shrewd transfers into the squad.