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Tanner brings impressive experience, but will he thrive on a Sugarman budget?

Ernst Tanner appears to be a good fit for the Union, but questions linger after his introductory press conference

Matt Ralph

There was plenty of name-dropping and heaping praise to go around at Talen Energy Stadium last week for the introduction of new Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner.

For good reason.

On paper, Tanner looks extremely impressive: more than two decades of experience in Germany and Austria at clubs the Union have tried to emulate in terms of youth development, innovation and cohesion not to mention a long list of big name players he’s either scouted, developed signed or sold.

An introductory press conference isn’t really the time to size up a man who will become Earnie Stewart’s successor when his immigration paperwork clears some time in September. His resume pretty much speaks for itself at this point.

But the person who will impact Tanner’s tenure more than any other is a different story. That would be Union chairman and majority owner Jay Sugarman, who did little to instill confidence that much will change under his new sporting director.

Instead, there was a lot of talk about building on the foundation Earnie helped build. A lot of talk about developing young players and keeping them, leaning on contacts around the world to mine talent without many details of how a guy accustomed to a European-sized budget and an open market system will navigate complex rules in MLS that dictate how you can recruit players to your academy and acquire players both domestically and on the global market.

“It’s not rocket science,” was Tanner’s response when asked about adjusting to MLS with its myriad of rules designed for parity but too often adjusted on a whim to fit the will of certain clubs’ marketing potential.

He said he’s up to speed on the league’s wonderfully awful GAM and TAM acronyms (those of course being general allocation money and targeted allocation money) but there will still be a learning curve.

Tanner first visited the club in 2012 when the academy was still in its infancy and came back to visit again three more times so he’s already somewhat familiar with the organization and its culture.

How he adjusts to the demands of the fanbase and speaks to them through all the ups and downs — not talking about goal differential after another season not making the playoffs would be a good start — will be interesting to watch. In his comments Thursday, he talked about winning and success in a matter of fact way without introducing too much nuance about internal metrics and benchmarks so that was a welcome sign.

Still, the nagging skepticism in all of this comes not from the new guru with 24 years of experience in Europe but from the man at the top. The one who spent much of the press conference talking about how they can’t compete through traditional means with the NYCFCs, Atlanta Uniteds and Toronto FCs of the league like he was a history professor.

“You have new teams entering the league with 30, 40, 50-thousand seat stadiums,” Sugarman said. “And they have certain strengths that we should not try to compete with. I always talk about this Waterloo example of, we should not line up with our muskets and our men against their muskets and their men and see who wins. If you play on their terms, you’re going to have a hard time beating them. We have to find ways to play that are unexpected by them, or aren’t trained by, or put them at some level of unease.”

He went on from there — about the money invested in training fields, land acquisition to transform the campus into a soccer hub, etc. — but the underlining point is that the direction of the club isn’t changing.

Sugarman did mention making the most of the budget, something that has really dogged this team. As has been well documented, far too much money has been spent on mediocrity.

Earnie Stewart’s legacy with the club has its share of money not well spent even though his last big acquisition, on-loan playmaker Borek Dockal, has been a resounding success (though somewhat canceled out by David Accam’s difficulties and another disappointing season for a certain London-born player who is being paid $600K to not even make the 18).

If Tanner can limit the head-scratching mistakes, show that he is holding people in the organization accountable — firing Jim Curtin or others on the technical staff if necessary — and goes light on the tone-deaf spin he’ll have a less bumpy road than his predecessor.

Unfortunately, the ceiling on his success still feels like it’s capped right around the line to get into the playoffs that all the buzz words about innovation, methodology and #playyourkids mentality will do little to change.

Welcome to Chester, Ernst, and good luck.