Interview with Ernst Tanner (Philadelphia Union): SuperDraft, Academy and young talents

A freshly won Supporters’ Shield in MLS 2020; two excellent sales in Europe such as Aaronson to Salzburg and McKenzie to Genk, two companies that are a certainty to grow and make talents blossom in the Old Continent. Then a young and competitive team in MLS, the result of the patience with which the talents of the Academy and beyond are growing. Philadelphia Union is rapidly transforming into a model to follow in MLS and much of the credit also comes from the work of sports director Ernst Tanner, an executive who has shown the way and uses the resources to grow the talents of the future rather than investing them in Designated Players or guys from SuperDraft.

Our exclusive interview with Philadelphia Union sports director Ernst Tanner began precisely from the declared and shared choice not to focus on the best talents in college.

You explicitly have zero interest in the MLS SuperDraft (I personally agree, but I’m Italian so I can’t judge American culture of Superdraft). Could you explain us your position?

It all started when I came over to Philly and evaluated our squad and then I saw a couple of players who were literally not good enough to keep and catch up with the others in our roster, I asked our guys and coaches “who are those players and why they’re here?” And the answer was “yes these are our draft picks” and I told them “it doesn’t make sense to have these players on the roster, I rather take a couple of young players we were having in the second team in our U19 because they have more potential for development”.

That’s the whole thing began and then we went to the Combine in Orlando, we watched the competition there, which is going on, and I asked the next question “If you would put Brandon Aaronson and Mark McKenzie, in this environment, which draft numbers would you rate them?” And they told me, probably 1 and 2, and at that point of time they were 3- 4 years younger than everybody. There were only the generation adidas player who were young boys. But we had the 13th pick at the time and there were like 8 or 9 generation adidas players so the chance to get one of these was on the zero, that was the reason that we tried to sell our picks, and luckily we found Cincinnati, among those five, most ended up in USL or not playing at all.

Do you think MLS SuperDraft will last just a couple of years or it will remain a long, I mean I see is like the Union or Dallas, they have the Academy today where you have the next level in at 15-16 years old and not at 21-22 as in the SuperDraft right now and they might be too old to get there. I know it is brutal to say that but the thing is is more marketing for the colleges than actual quality of the players right?

Thank you, you’ve already answer! With every draft player I pick, I can count on my own players developed in the academy, plus every pick it costs you come allocation money: to fly them in, have the tests and then we talk about human side, if they are not good enough to send them away again or you send them on loan and I don’t want to destroy this hopes. We are clear with them, we have a good development, we try to bring them as early stage in order that they can decide if they forfait or if we are not sure we recommend them to do the college pathway and we are collaborating with some Universities where we know the coaches for their similar programs as we do.

There is always a chance to take a boy out when he’s more mature in term of his college development and continue as a pro but he still can do his college degree that’s very important for the future. We talk about young people and young players because you know how quickly can be over, even with the boys that goes pro, with the distance learning they have the chance to get a degree. It’s very important to get a life after a pro career. That’s the Union way, in the last 3-4 years and for the next.


Could you explain to Italian fans what’s the Philadelphia Union’s project? We see you from here as a club that invest a lot in young player to develop. Your main goal is to have a competitive team without salary cap rules or to develop players and give them the chance to go to Europe (as Aaronson, McKenzie etc…)?

I’m very lucky to formally work with the coaches in the academy and knows about the development process, but it’s also al learning process. We always had young players on the roster, at the same time we were signing a lot of experience players. I mean this is also some sort of a culture we have been developing over there in the past couple of years if you compare it to Europe you have play competition, where you’re criticized if you’re not doing well, where you will you fight in the top place, you fight for championship qualification, for the European competition or more or less for relegation, here it’s a different system of different culture but events are you can you can do both if you do the right development if you have the right people on board and you if you are convinced and trust in your players.

We are seeing more clubs in Europe to follow MLS and American players. In Italy we have McKennie and (maybe) Reynolds, you sold Aaronson and McKenzie, then Richards at Bayern… Are a partnership (as Dallas-Bayern) a plan in Union’s future? Did you have some contacts about that from Europe?

We had some requests about it, like I told you, I’m a fan of diversity I don’t want partnership with just one club, because limits you down to club and there you know and I told all the guys wanna go over it with and we can have multiple partnerships with different players. Frankly we do not need the knowledge transfer, so it’s something like that we do not need somebody over in Europe to sell out players, we prove that we can do that. Its’ much easier to have multiple partnerships and sell players to multiple teams.

US sports centers are among the best in the world. What is the importance of Power Training Complex for the U’s Academy and for the city of Philadelphia?

A good infrastructure its key. First of all you need to represent your club in certain environments. Secondly if you want play that sort of football at that style, you need good pitches, good infrastructure where you can work. We are planning to extend the training complex, really we are more likely to bring down the U15, right now were training the first team, second team, part of U17, I wanna also have the U15 it would give us a massive advantage in terms of being in the same place following the same strategy in training in also we have good school which is very unique and in terms of high-performance will be at this stage, outstanding, one of the best in the world, we are just trying to find space for the boys in this building.

Is the USL Academy project something that the Union is interested in?

We have to differ the USL and the MLS two different organizations, we decided to drop out with our second team from USL for multiple reasons, first the MLS is working on a different project that makes sense. You know I am between USL and MLS we have different barriers, in form of rules, so I cannot just transfer or change or commit a player to play us now, we have a different problem with covid that a player cannot got from the pro to the second team, which will be solved, but I cannot really let player coming to play in between the first and second team, once the second team plays in USL, it’s not allowed, it’s a mess. Theoretically if a player does preseason the first team and we want to play him in the second team in USL, we have to loan them down for the rest of the season, can you imagine?! Formally we can do short term loan and he can come back but it’s not possible anymore. It’s a mess! There will be changes and development from the MLS, that will be out soon.

Will Paxton Aaronson debut in MLS 2021? Is true that he’s potentially better than his brother?

That what it makes difficult to answer your question. Paxton is a different player, if you ask Brendan, he will say “Yes”, they are both talented and Paxton is a year younger than Brandon when you step into the first team. Paxton is more a number 10 and Brandon is more box-to-box player. There will be a chance to see him debut in the middle of the season.

Let us dream a bit: what about to sign an Italian DP? Did you have some contact in the past with some italian players or there is an Italian footballer you would love to sign if you can choose (current or past)?

We are not likely spending for DPs but spending our money for the academy and development. It’s also not easy to put a guy with multi million contract in the locker with someone making 70k a year. There were a couple of interesting players in the Juventus U23, but right now we have problems with the foreigns, since the pandemic started the green card process almost stopped. And now that we lost 2 highly talented American players is difficult to replace them

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