New Union centerback Stuart Findlay likes how the team’s playing style resembles some of Europe’s trendiest teams
Sporting director Enst Tanner helped write the playbook for an impressive and winning soccer style in his previous jobs.
New Union centerback Stuart Findlay had to make a leap of faith in coming to America, having played his entire pro career in his native Scotland and England. But he saw something in the Union that could have implications beyond just his arrival.
Findlay is a student of the sport’s tactical trends. He knows how elite clubs like England’s Liverpool and Germany’s RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach play: high-pressing defense and fast attacks that have captivated fans worldwide.
It’s been said often by now that Union sporting director Enst Tanner helped write the playbook for that style in his previous jobs at Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg — an affiliate club of RB Leipzig — and Germany’s TSG Hoffenheim. Now it’s worth saying that over the last 12 months, the style has delivered real results.
Last November, the Union won their first ever trophy. Five months earlier, Liverpool clinched its first English league title in 30 years. Leipzig reached the Champions League semifinals last season, and is now in second place in the Bundesliga. Mönchengladbach is in the Champions League round of 16 after advancing from a group in which Inter Milan finished last.
The two German teams are led by coaches whom Union sporting director Ernst Tanner knows personally. Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann was brought to Hoffenheim by Tanner in 2010. Mönchengladbach’s Marco Rose coached a Red Bull Salzburg youth team that Tanner built to the UEFA Youth League title in 2017.
Coincidentally, Leipzig hosts Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga on Saturday. Give it a look if you have time — it’s at 12:30 p.m. on ESPN+, an ideal hour for tuning in from here.
“Who wants to play passive, destructive and only focus on defending? The young generation doesn’t want to do that,” Tanner said Friday on a Zoom call with Findlay to introduce him. “If you want to be lazy, laid-back and just focusing on one part of the game, avoiding goals, maybe that helps sometimes, but it’s not particularly successful most of the time — and it’s not attractive at all to play that. And if you don’t have joy and fun to do something, you’re not good at it.”
That’s the sales pitch Tanner uses when he courts players. Findlay was convinced, and the Union paid a $300,000 transfer fee to acquire him.
“Every football team would love to be able to play that way because it’s attractive to watch, it’s what fans want to see when they come into the stadiums,” Findlay said. “To come here and know that I’m going to be playing that sort of football, it’s real exciting. You watch the top clubs in Europe do it now, and it’s exhilarating when you watch it on the field.”
Findlay admitted that he hasn’t gotten to play that kind of soccer much as he’d like to. The Scottish club he’s coming from, Kilmarnock, is stuck in a relegation battle, which means it can’t take too many risks on the field.
“One of my main attributes is the pace that I have, and I think if I play in that way and [am] pushing high up the park trying to press, that hopefully I can use my pace to cover in behind,” he said. “Sometimes when you look at squads of players you have to play to your strengths, and maybe I’ve not been lucky enough to be involved in a team that play that way.”
Findlay also did his homework about the MLS as a whole, consulting two Scottish friends who already play here: Sporting Kansas City’s Johnny Russell and Inter Miami’s Lewis Morgan. And the Union leveraged a Scottish connection of their own. Academy director Tommy Wilson worked in Glasgow at Rangers when Findlay was developing at Celtic, and knows many people on both sides of the famed rivalry,
Wilson said the Celtic staff “gave me a glowing report on Stuart as an individual.” (It was nice of them to do so after the Union spurned Celtic’s bid for Mark McKenzie.)
Coincidentally, Wilson and Findlay grew up in the same Scottish town: the Glasgow suburb Carmyle, population around 3,000. But they didn’t know each other until recently.
Everything you’ve read here comes with one big caveat: tactics and persona matter, but talent matters most. The Union had enough last season to have the MLS’ best regular-season record, then sold McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson. Findlay helps make up for McKenzie’s departure, but Aaronson hasn’t been fully replaced. While Anthony Fontana is good enough to start, he isn’t yet the big-timer the Union need to reach the next level.
Last December, Tanner said he was “probably going to bring a new No. 10.” That hasn’t happened. Will it?
“We are looking out in the market, we are having close contacts already,” he said Friday. But his work has been complicated by changes to MLS transfer windows — the times of year when teams can legally sign players, governed by FIFA — after contentious labor negotiations this winter.
“That doesn’t make it necessarily easier to get a player released,” Tanner said. “If we can’t do it right now, we are patient. We can do something in the summer as well. We can also wait on how our homegrowns and our players are developing.”
Tanner called that “a pretty comfortable situation in this moment.” It might be for him, but it might not be for fans hoping for a marquee signing. Stay tuned, then, to see if a deal gets done.