It was cloudy and windy as a brief shower had just rolled over the Wharf Building and the cold raindrops from the unwelcome precipitation dampened the ends of my notepad. I was escorted through the Philadelphia Union offices up to a meeting room overlooking the Delaware River.
Ernst Tanner sat at the head of a conference table, surrounded by loyal fans who most likely left work early in order to hear his vision. In a moment of candor, Ernst began to lay out a general statement on the Philadelphia Union. “My friends told me, if you wanted to see the Philadelphia Union at the top of the table,” Ernst picked up his phone and motioned as if you were checking on the MLS table with your phone. “…you’ll have to turn your phone upside down.” He flipped his phone upside-down with a smile.
The reaction from the fans, who have sat through 10 years of mediocrity and false hope, was one of release. Finally, they had been be able to share that same sentiment with the team often viewed as so out of touch.
On a Sunday afternoon in March, the Philadelphia Union lost to Sporting Kansas City 2-0 and their best player and biggest signing in team history would also miss the next game due to a red card acquired in that loss. After accumulating the most points in team history the year before and new promises (always new promises) of a different and improved roster, the team just felt exactly the same. Nothing had really changed, just the people carrying out the standard operation procedure: Be good enough to generate some interest only to fall flat when it counted.
I woke up the next morning and felt inspired to get back into writing to remind everyone one thing that everyone felt, but no one said: The Union were still just that mediocre team. I fully expected them to have their early summer revival only to fade as the season progressed. I was completely void of expectation for the Philadelphia Union. That apathy was overwhelming (if apathy can be overwhelming). There was no point to the Philadelphia Union season as we had all seen the movie before.
We all know what has transpired since March 10. The Union have been fantastic and played perhaps the best soccer in their history on the road to their best start in franchise history.
On my way into the Philadelphia Union headquarters, I joked with myself that this round table with Ernst Tanner was all an elaborate ruse in order to get me to answer for my article earlier in the season. I expected Ernst to chant, “Shame!” at me as I walked through the halls of the Union offices and the Union marketing department threw stale Union Dog buns at me in a scene out of Game of Thrones.
The affair was much more low key and I began to anticipate a standard PR event where Ernst reiterates many of the talking points he’s said before. Certainly, this roundtable wasn’t going to be a suggestion-fest as none of the Union fans invited likely had worked in the Sporting Director field. As Ernst began to talk, opening with the aforementioned jab at the team of which he was at the helm, I began to feel a certain aura of understanding.
Ernst covered topics from identifying what success looks like for the Philadelphia Union, to scouting philosophy, and how he views the academy. As quickly as I took notes I realized the answers weren’t the overarching value of this round table, but it was something else. Something more real.
Ernst Tanner explained that team success was difficult to measure. As a minimalist, a playoff berth would suffice. In the larger picture, Ernst didn’t give a clear answer, only acknowledging that finding a definition of success is still a work in progress because of the different types of team ownership around the league. Basically, owners with money and owners without money (my words, not his). They knew they would find out what the definition was sooner rather than later. Despite this non-answer, he mentioned the culture in the locker room was excellent and that having options in every position was pushing the competition in training that lead to higher quality in the squad. Ultimately, however, the team continued to push because they believed they had questions to answer every week:
Are we really this good? Can we prove we’re this good?
The topic shifted from team success to scouting, Ernst met face to face with a longstanding criticism of the team. When asked about the lack of a robust scouting department, Ernst admitted that the scouting department was not large, but believed that it was actually a better scenario. His goal wasn’t to cover the most ground, but to be the most efficient at covering ground. He revealed, although no specifics, that they were working on creative solutions to maximize the value of their scouting with the information/video they received on certain players. Rather than attempt to outspend other, more funded scouting departments, they would outwork them.
With the academy being the most applauded part of the Philadelphia Union organization, it would be fair to expect Ernst to rest on the laurels of that foundation. Ernst, however, took a foundation that was already solid and built upon it by stressing the importance of showing academy players that the Union are a destination to be desired. He expressed the seriousness of illuminating the path to the first team because losing academy players to the academies of big clubs in Europe was unacceptable. There was inherent value of fielding academy players in Bethlehem Steel games as this was a direct path to MLS and first team soccer.
These details didn’t strike me as anything extraordinary on their face. They were agreeable ideas, but it goes again back to the opening moment of candor. There may not have been any earth-shattering knowledge in Ernst’s vision, but there was a vulnerability. Finally vulnerable, the Sporting Director of the Philadelphia Union sat in front of fans and not only let them in on the truths of the club philosophy, but also met the fans on eye level and stopped talking above them. The goal was to win, sure, but the tackling the obstacles at hand was no longer a classified subject. Even as Ernst danced around revealing in detail new solutions to ongoing problems, he joked about being happy in economy seating when flying to away games. He deadpanned about being unable to turn off his desire to win even when he plays in pickup games against the assistant coaching staff. When one of the fans mentioned to him that he heard Brenden Aaronson’s little brother was quite the player also, he kidded around dryly that he had already had him in his office.
Walking out of the Wharf Building, the still surprising late sun was just starting to set and the warmth from earlier in the day had returned. With the weather metaphor getting old, there was new hope in Chester. The stereotypical fog had lifted and it was becoming clear that a gap, once the size of the Delaware River, that existed between the Union and their fans was closing. Starting to believe again, I asked myself one last time, “Did Ernst Tanner just brainwash me?”
No, Ernst Tanner just turned his phone upside down.