Jay Sugarman: I know all of you aren’t used to seeing me up here, but we’ve been studying ways to make the next five years pretty exciting ones for the Union. I want to directly share those thoughts with you.
First, I want to ensure to all the fans our commitment to building a winning club. Everybody involved wants to win. Everybody involved hates losing. And we’re very focused on taking positive steps to create a clear path of success for this team. And that path forward for us is really based on achieving two key goals. One, we need our first team to consistently play to its full potential, week in and week out. And two, we need to continue to develop one of the top academy systems in the United States. And to do that, we need to create clear responsibilities and clear goals throughout the Union organization. And with me today are members of our team that are working with their talented staffs to help lead us forward.
So let me start with [CEO and Operating Partner] Nick [Sakiewicz]. Nick and his team will focus on building a business that has the resources to compete as the league gets stronger and stronger. We will continue to invest in our relationship with our fans, with our corporate partners, and with the community. And continue to build something we can all be proud of.
Jim Curtin is our head coach. Jim and his team’s job is clear: prepare our players so they can play their best every week. We want to start building a winning tradition and a winning mentality. We know Jim will put his heart and soul into that and bring an insider’s knowledge from his years of success in MLS.
Tommy Wilson heads up youth development and leads our expanding YSC academy program. Tommy and his team’s job is to build a system that will deliver talent to the first team on a consistent basis. A cornerstone of our strategy is to rely on developing and building talent internally, more than buying it on the market. And we think we have a strong foundation in place for that strategy. Boosted by the best-in-class school that our partner Richie Graham has started, we will continue to spend significant money and significant management resources to create a top MLS academy.
And there’s also one more important piece. We plan to augment on management team with a permanent sporting director to help both take our youth development and our first team performance to a higher level. We’re going to seek a sporting director with deep experience in player development, player evaluation, and player performance — at both the youth and the championship levels — who can oversee and elevate all of our soccer operations and who will report directly to ownership. Now we’re going to need some time to properly fill that role, but we’re not going to sit still in the meantime.
And to help us right now, to my right, we’re happy to announce we’ve engaged Rene Meulensteen’s partner in sports practice to consult with us on many of our key decisions over the next several months. We expect to significantly benefit from his exceptional success in both player development and first-team performance during his decade of work at Manchester United. Now, Rene has already hit the ground running, and I know Nick, Jim, Tommy, our team of coaches, as well as our academy staff, will welcome Rene’s insights and experience as much as I do. So that’s the plan. Now we’re going to go out and execute.
Specifications of Rene’s job
Sugarman: Long-term, we want a sporting director for the structure in place. Really to help with both our youth development and first team side to bring us a global perspective, as well as a way to really elevate the entire soccer operations at the Union. We’re fortunate that despite his other commitments, Rene is available to us right now as a consultant to help analyze, advice and to look at everything we’re doing and help us really set a path for the next five years. He’s on the ground. He’s with us right now. But obviously we’re going to spend a lot of the time over the next couple of months making some key decisions for the coming years and we wanted a top-tier talent with us when we’re making those decisions.
If Curtin and Albright will make personnel decisions, or if anyone else will have a say
Sugarman: Absolutely. Jim and Chris will make that final decision. But you can never have enough great advice. Rene’s got an international perspective that we think is unmatched. Jim and Chris have a great perspective on MLS from their many years in the league. We think that combination was pretty darn powerful.
If Sugarman speaking publically is a byproduct of a new focus for 2015
Sugarman: Look, this is a new franchise. We’ve made a ton of progress in lots of areas, but we’re always learning. In particular, I study and analyze and think about things we can do better. Five years is kind of a natural cutting off point to look back and say ‘what have we done right?’ and ‘what can we do better?’ The next five years need to be great. They need to be exciting. They need to put us on this path to success that we all want. Thing we can do that will make us better, we’re going to do. Candidly, we still believe in the youth academy system as the long-term way to keep the Union competitive against the teams that will possibly have greater resources than we will. But there’s no doubt in our mind, based on the things we see today, with the talent we can bring aboard like a Rene, that we can turn our academy into a pipeline of great talent for the Union.
On the financial health of the team
Sugarman: I’ll say a couple things on that topic. There are certainly going to be teams with greater resources than the ones we have. That’s not a surprise. I think that’s true in all leagues. But there’s no question we can win in this league. From ownership’s perspective, we invested over $100 million in private capital and we continue to invest. We’ve never taken a dollar out of this team. I don’t see that changing. So this is about investing. It’s about building a great franchise. We have been adding local investors that we think will continue to bring new ideas and local connections to the team.
The team is in very strong hands. I’m not going anywhere, you’re kind of stuck with me. I will keep committing resources to plans I really believe in. That’s part of this exercise is to look back, figure out what we can do better, commit the resources there and not be in the position where the teams that spend more, win. This is an interesting league; if you can outcoach, outsmart, outdraft, outsource players, the difference is very small. Jim said it best last week: it’s just a few inches, it’s just a few games, it’s just a few points that are the difference. I don’t think we need to spend our way to a different plan. What we need to do is be very clear, very direct in how we’re going to compete. I think right now we’re in a good place where we need to be better.
On what Rene knows about MLS and what his challenge is
Rene Meulensteen: First of all, I’d like to thank Philadelphia Union, Jay Sugarman, it’s great to have the faith and trust of being brought on as a consultant. I have been in the United States for many, many years before. I’ve kept a close eye on the development of soccer, including the MLS. And it’s a growing league – it’s an emerging league. It grows from strength to strength, year in and year out. And to be given the opportunity to join a franchise like the Union on a consultant basis is a very exciting one.
And most importantly is the philosophy these people carry. Jay said it very clearly, we don’t want to spend our way to the top, we want to build our way to the top. And I can honestly say what I’ve seen so far in the MLS, of the team to get the Open Cup final is a big, big achievement. Do not underestimate that. It’s a fantastic achievement. But what I’ve seen from the academy level over there is very, very good. The foundations are firmly in place and it can grow very quickly.
What is the No. 1 priority for the team right now
Sugarman: Well I think as we look back at not only the last year, but the last five years, it’s to really build a team that we’re going to go forward with. I think the coaching decision was critical. Jim had an extended trial period, but we were pretty sure about the qualities he brings to this are what we need to succeed in the league. but we also saw the need to bring in a sporting director to really take some of the onus off of the internal team that so far has to do many, many jobs.
So when we look at the best in practice teams out there, the ability to scout, the ability to evaluate, the ability to train is very tough for a first team coach to say ‘I’m responsible for all of the youth development, also for getting the first team players to play their best, for figuring out the USL Pro piece and by the way, I also have to go scout and figure out a way to bring talent into the team.’ That’s a tall order for anybody. So we think recreating clear lines and responsibility and saying ‘here’s the job, here’s the metrics of success, go do that really well’ really led us to believe we need a sporting director who has the time and patience to really focus on that part of soccer operations. Tommy [Wilson] has been doing a great job. Jim [Curtin] is doing a great job. Nick [Sakiewicz] will do a great job. But there is a role, a very senior role for someone else.
Having someone with Rene’s experience is going to be a tremendous help. We have to adapt as the league adapts. I’m not going to sit here and tell you ‘this is it, this is the only way.’ But I’m telling you right now, we feel pretty confident in the path forward and we’re really looking forward to an offseason with Jim with a full-time effort of how to make the team better. Where Nick can focus on business issues that will make us better. Where Tommy can focus on how to make the academy better. I think you start with a process you believe in, you give it the resources to grow – and there is some patience involved – if we get those right, I feel pretty good about where we’re headed.
Nick Sakiewicz: I eluded to this last week when we announced Jim, that developing the very best, world class structure for our technical staff to first team and academy is a top priority. And this is another step toward that. And getting a proper sporting director structure in place can laser the focusing on the first team and what all needs to be done in the next few weeks with drafts, to ensure that the first team continues its success that Jim started over the summer, and that Tommy really continues to build upon what’s been built at the academy. I think we’re at MLS 3.0 now, over 20 years, you need to build a structure to compete in 3.0.
Time frame on adding a permanent sporting director
Sugarman: Right person for the position. When we find it, we’ll know it and we’ll bring it aboard. I’ve committed significant resources to that search and to the position, so we’ll have that position as soon as it’s available to fill the role.
If he’ll keep Rene when that decision is made
Sugarman: Given his other obligations, Rene has given us a period of time where we can have the majority of his insight and wisdom. I can’t imagine something happening sooner that that. But we need to get through this offseason and be in a position where Jim knows what he’s got to work with and move forward with it. But we’re on the search and we certainly have a strong viewpoint of what we need.
What the timeline is, weeks, months, years?
Sugarman: It’s certainly not years. And it’s not weeks. So I’ve narrowed it down for you.
How it plays into future decisions for the academy
Tommy Wilson: It’s interesting when I worked at a previous job, Rene was one of the guests we brought in to share his knowledge and expertise. And here we meet again in the U.S.A. So I’m just looking forward – he spent 12 years at Manchester United and I spent 6-7 years at Rangers – to share the knowledge that we have, how do you develop players, that’s the sort of thing we’re interested in. So anything he can bring to the table – and he’s already done that in the few days I’ve had to meet with him – can only benefit what we’re trying to do here.
Jim Curtin: My first time I sat up here I think I made a bit of a joke if Alex Ferguson descended to take my place, I would be OK with that. We got his right-hand man so it’s a resource that I have right now. It’s a tremendous one. Selfishly, I can think of the ways I can utilize it and on the field, in the training sessions. In his short time here, he met with my technical staff and implemented his idea of a way of targeting, judging players and a clean-cut way of determining if he’s an academy player or a first team player. So it’s something that we want to use now. He’s hit the ground running, and has had positive feedback. He’s a resource that we have now that is connected internationally, knows players, knows the network, is learning our league quickly — we threw a ton of information at him and it can be overwhelming explaining what the Chivas dispersal draft means. Again, though, a resource that I will use every day. And it’s a very good one.
Rene’s thoughts on the MLS offseason
Meulensteen: It’s challenging for me and it’s given me great insight and the complexity of how the MLS is run with all the rules, regulations, setting up the rosters. It’s challenging. It’s not as easy, it’s not straight-forward. You have to be very clever in which players you want to protect. And gamble in other areas. I think the expertise is here in the room. My main assistance is where to look for new targets, players maybe we want to bring in for me to evaluate him and to say ‘that’s a good player, go for him.’ Or ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ But we learn as we go along. I knew that right from the start. But let me say the MLS is a growing, emerging market. I’ve seen it for many years to come. For me, it’s a great opportunity to learn so much more and how to help the Union and make the next steps to see where we go from here.
If this was about bringing in someone to help in addition to defining responsibility
Sugarman: It’s a little bit of both. I think we’re learning as we go. We’re seeing what works, taking from what’s the best the things we do and trying to get better at the things we have issues with. We think we have a tremendous technical staff in place, but we can be better. I think this international component – we have tremendous domestic and MLS knowledge in our staff – but there’s also an evolving market out there that we want to be able to tap into. And we always want to compare how we’re doing things against the very best.
Certainly Rene’s time at Manchester United has given him real insight into where’s the top, how can you really do things great? I think their youth academy has generated first or second most players that playing in the top five leagues in Europe. So they were doing something right. We want to learn from that. We want to benefit from that. Adding resources will make us better, I don’t think it takes away anything from the skills and talents that we already have in place.