A View from Afar / Union

A good few days for the Union

Photo: Paul Rudderow

It’s been a good few days for Philadelphia Union.

The club announced a very credible hire as their new sporting director in Ernst Tanner, who held a similar position with Bundesliga side Hoffenheim before joining Red Bull Salzburg as its academy director.

They reached the U.S. Open Cup final with an impressive 3-0 demolition of Chicago.

And their striker situation may be getting fixed at exactly the right time — and in more ways than you might think.

Let’s talk about each of these developments.

A credible sporting director

MLS doesn’t have a good recent track record of sporting directors from Europe.

The league’s two worst teams are the only ones whose personnel departments are run by imports from Europe. (No, former Tottenham executive Darren Eales isn’t running that side of things for Atlanta without Carlos Bocanegra and Paul McDonough on staff.) Former Roma exec Jesse Fioranelli at San Jose and former UEFA official Padraig Smith at Colorado have turned their respective clubs into raging tire fires, with disastrous coaching hires from Europe and equally poor personnel imports from abroad.

There’s a fundamental difference between them and Ernst Tanner, however.

The others came from a mix of business and scouting backgrounds, never as the man in charge.

Only Tanner has ever run a club or even an academy before, as sporting director for a solid Bundesliga side in Hoffenheim. In fact, he has been knee-deep in running the personnel side for 16 years, while working lower in the technical hierarchy for another eight years before that. Much has been made about his role in helping bring some big name players through the Hoffenheim side early in their careers, but Tanner was also the man responsible for bringing the club’s wunderkind 31-year-old head coach Julian Nagelsmann into the fold.

2003-091860 MunichAcademy manager2. Bundesliga
2009-10TSG HoffenheimAcademy managerBundesliga
2010-12TSG HoffenheimSporting directorBundesliga
2012-18Red Bull SalzbergAcademy managerAustrian Bundesliga

Tanner’s move to Salzburg — a lesser role in a smaller league — was a step backwards in his career after he departed Hoffenheim after problems with the club’s board, but he turned lemons into lemonade. Salzburg was already an Austrian powerhouse and continued that by winning five straight league titles during Tanner’s tenure, but it’s another title that reflects most clearly on Tanner.

Last year, Salzburg won the UEFA Youth Championship while Tanner was running its academy. To put that achievement in context, only two other clubs have won the title in the U19 competition’s five-year history: Chelsea and Barcelona. Salzburg is the smallest and lowest ranked club ever to have made even the semifinals.

So this man has a track record, and it looks solid.

Further, it matches the Union’s identity quite well. Like Salzburg and Hoffenheim, they’re seeking to build from the ground up through youth player development. And also like Hoffenheim, Philadelphia don’t have the money to compete financially with the biggest clubs in their league. Further, each club has associated teams in lower leagues.

Tanner will have quite a bit to learn about the arcane roster rules and salary structure of MLS, but given time, any reasonably intelligent and focused person with a good analytic mind can grasp them.

Right now, on paper, he looks like a very credible hire.

Now let’s see what he can do for real.

A U.S. Open Cup title would be a big deal

There are three domestic trophies that MLS clubs can win. The U.S. Open Cup might be the least important of the three, but it’s still a trophy. Trophies matter. Winning this one would be a significant achievement.

If the Union can knock off Houston in the final on Sep. 26, it would be their first. They have looked impressive in knockout play, and this will be their third final under head coach Jim Curtin.

Houston is beatable at home, with a 6-4-2 record there, but the Union are unlikely to benefit from a dubious red card the way they did in their recent road win over a 10-man Dynamo side.

What they will benefit from is a better situation at striker, and fortunately for them, they may be on their way to having just that.

Burke a scoring dynamo, Sapong breaks his duck (for real)

Union striker Cory Burke may sometimes look like an American football defensive end on the field, a muscular and long-limbed athlete with ball control and behavior control more questionable than his athletic ability.

But he’s on quite the scoring streak when his name hits the starting lineup.

  • Burke has five goals in four MLS starts, netting in every start.
  • Burke has three goals in four U.S. Open Cup starts.

That’s eight goals in eight starts.

It’s fair to say that he’s the Union’s No. 1 striker now, and whatever the future may hold, Curtin can ride the hot hand.

But something else very important happened against Chicago:

C.J. Sapong scored a very good goal for the first time in a long time.

This wasn’t a borderline lucky goal, like the one he hit against LA Galaxy a few weeks ago.

Rather, it was the sort of goal Sapong scored regularly last year, putting himself in good position with a well-timed run and then efficiently finishing from the doorstep.

That is the Sapong that this team has missed this year.

Only one player in MLS has underperformed his expected goals this year as much as Sapong, and his problems have often looked more psychological than physical.

The Union have been creating chances all season, and they’ve only gotten better and prettier at it as the center midfield has gelled more since Borek Dockal’s arrival. What they have been missing is the finishing.

If Sapong’s performance heralds a renewal of confidence and finishing touch and Burke comes even close to continuing his recent goal-scoring form, come playoff time, the Union will be a team nobody wants to face but everyone wants to watch.


  1. Eric Stencovage says:

    I disagree highly with Open Cup being the least important.

    • Same here. The Supporter’s Shield is absolutely meaningless to me.

      • Same here.

        Honestly I expected better from Dan than to consider the Supporters Shield worth anything with the unbalanced schedule and non-Single table MLS has.

    • That’s pretty interesting to hear from you all. I hope you’re right. I personally feel it SHOULD be the second most important, but I definitely don’t think it’s widely viewed that way.

      • pragmatist says:

        It’s the least-heralded. I think that’s a better description than “Least important.”

  2. Peanut Gallery says:

    This got my attention: “Last year, Salzburg won the UEFA Youth Championship while Tanner was running its academy. To put that achievement in context, only two other clubs have won the title in the U19 competition’s five-year history: Chelsea and Barcelona. Salzburg is the smallest and lowest ranked club ever to have made even the semifinals.”

  3. This is all kind of through Rose Colored Glasses, but maybe we need some of that. The Open Cup run is a great thing, and maybe legitimately be all this team has to hold on to for a long time. The sporting director looks like a good hire, and he can’t be held accountable for the terrible terrible union ownership.
    One thing I asked from him, please be more communicative and open with the fans and don’t speak to us as if we’re stupid. ES was weak in that regard. Oh, and please bring in some players.
    Striker position is not solved FYI, but it is solved as much as is possible with this team this year

    • Exactly what are you expecting from the striker position that you aren’t getting from Burke?
      You can spend all of somebody else’s money you want, but it’s not going to get you anything better than 8 goals in 8 starts. I’ll take Burke’s performance (which also opens the offense up for others much better than CJ has) over any guy that costs multiple times more in this league.
      Also, Dan, I have to respectfully take issue with your inferring that Burke has ball control issues. He’s loads better with the ball at his feet than CJ, and pretty damned good in traffic from what I’ve seen.

      • I don’t mean to come off as disliking Burke. Quite the opposite, and you’re right his touch is way better than CJ. Striker is one of the highest paid, highest sought after, most important positions, and if you think Burke is as good as some of the top strikers in the league, I don’t know what to tell you. He is on a great run right now for sure, but he is far from complete.

      • whit beverly says:

        Even if Burke is good enough to be the #1 guy, things still are not solved at striker. There still needs to be some scoring firepower off the bench. When I passed the bench on the way to my seats I took one look at it and thought – I sure hope we score first and are leading at half because there are no game changers sitting there. Even an older Connor Casey type legit threat but good for only 30 minutes would help. Yes CJ has tapped in two and scored a PK, but he hasn’t actually scored on anything we would call a shot on goal this year.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        Burke is on an excellent run of form. He’s seizing his chance. Full compliments.
        He has poor touch and often needs to correct it
        too though. The author is spot on. Just the truth.

      • Touch evolves with playing time. He also appears to have temper issues. I won’t be surprised if there is another red card this season.
        But this team needs a fighter

  4. Tanner looks good from a small club mentality/youth dev perspective. I think the only disappointment here is the worldwide search is again just a “I know a guy” way of finding talent. Richie Graham started talking to him awhile back. Is that part of a formal process? Is Graham working outside the club decision making protocol on his own? Is it because Jay still doesn’t have a clue so the ones who care try to get creative? Who were the other candidates? Earnie came in with an eye to use this gig as a stepping stone. Is Tanner looking to do the same and step up to Leipzig in a few? Will Jay (or more likely Graham) put in some succession planning to game out the continuity (though maybe continuing this way isn’t desired)?

  5. I’m sure Burke will improve. I chalk the temper up to youth. Fire in the belly is not a bad thing. El Packy has a favorite player in MLS who was/is loaded with it. A.O. had better control of it,was older also. I like to give Tanner till this time next season befor making any real judgement. Who knows. He could impress by the time training camp opens. Here’s hoping!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *