It’s a good time to be a Philadelphia Union fan.
The team is coming off a successful march to the U.S. Open Cup final, just coming up short in what was arguably one of the most memorable matches in the short history of PPL Park. And with a renewed sense of confidence under interim manager Jim Curtin, the team is yet again eyeing MLS’ postseason.
Top that off with the addition of some key players and the ongoing construction of the club’s new practice facility – slated to debut in late October – there is a lot going on in and around this organization.
With that said, we felt this a perfect time to sit down with the man who oversees all, Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz. In this Q&A, philadelphiaunion.com and Sakiewicz discuss the ongoing coaching search, practice facilities, media, social media and the rapid rise of Major League Soccer as a whole.
philadelphiaunion.com: How impressed are you with the job interim manager Jim Curtin is doing?
Nick Sakiewicz: Jim’s been with our organization for a long time. As soon as he retired from playing, he started coaching five and six-year-olds in our youth academy. And he’s grown up through our system of youth. He won a Generation Adidas trophy, which doesn’t mean much at the youth level, but he proved that he can compete and win at the youth level. A couple of years ago, he got brought up to the first team and was an assistant coach for the first team and has risen through the ranks. It’s great to see Jim’s progress in the club and his recent success.
PU.com: What are you looking for out of the ideal candidate to be the permanent coach of the Union?
NS: I guess the most important thing is the relationship between the CEO of the club and the team manager – with the manager being the top soccer executive in charge of the on-field product. That relationship, in terms of good communication and being able to work together through the strategy of putting an effective, competitive team together is the most important thing.
PU.com: With the success of [Jim Curtin], a lot of people are shocked that the organization may still be searching for its next manager. You said in a recent statement that the coaching search is suspended. Is that indefinitely?
NS: I may or may not resume the coaching search. The team is in good form. We’re winning games. I’ve been very much in communication with Jim and the other staff members of the team. They all know what the mission is and what the clear objectives and goals are for the club. And that’s not going to change. If there are additions to the technical staff, they’ll only be made to add to the current situation.
PU.com: So what do you say to the rumors that a search is ongoing?
NS: People ask a lot of questions about the coaching situation. And there’s a lot of really poor information out there and misinformation that people are speculating on. The situation with our coaching staff right now is that they’re not going anywhere. They’re all on long-term contracts. They’re not changing within the organization. They’re not changing jobs or going to other teams. They’re in our organization. Their titles may change. There may be a reorganization of the technical staff – just like there might one of the front office staff. But Jim Curtin, Mike Sorber, Chris Albright, Josh Gros, all those guys are part of this organization today, and I fully intend on those guys being a part of our organization going forward. I’ve suspended the coaching search right now just because we got to focus our efforts and energy on winning games to get into the playoffs.
PU.com: Okay, let’s switch gears. The practice fields and subsequent facility. We know how big of a deal this is for the organization, but how big of a deal is it for you to see this come into fruition.
NS: We’re only five years old. It’s very different than other clubs that have been expansion teams in the league – Seattle, Vancouver, Portland – those clubs were invented in the early ’70s. I think I was 12 years old when the Seattle Sounders were established, and I’m 53 today. But, we’re only five years old and we’re evolving, and while we had an OK setup in terms of practicing at the stadium and on occasion practicing on some fields that we maintained, the practice facility infrastructure is critical for team performance and team development. We built a great youth training facility for our academy. We just needed to work through some logistics, and big picture planning, as to where exactly our first team training site was going to land. Because once you build it, you can’t move it – like the stadium.
PU.com: When swaying potential newcomers [and big names] to join the club, does having these kinds of facilities, both a multimillion dollar stadium and practice facility make that job a bit easier?
NS: It is part of many attributes to a club that players decide to accept a transfer offer, or accept a contract. But it’s one of a number of items that are kind of on a checklist for a player thinking about making a move to a club. It’s an important ingredient because that’s where that player applies his trade; that’s where that player develops and hones his skill, gets extra work, and trains every day. It’s an office, so to speak, for a player. Like anybody, they want to go to a good work environment every day.
PU.com: You have NYCFC and Orlando City joining an already competitive Eastern Conference in 2015 and there are additional teams that will be added to the fray undoubtedly with big names in the next few years. Where do you think Philadelphia fits overall and will this club also need to upgrade to remain competitive?
NS: It’s a dynamic, changing environment as we’ve seen over the last six, seven years. Most of the dynamic changes occurred since we entered the league in 2010. So as we sit here today, the Philadelphia Union are in the upper echelon of teams performing in the league – on the business side – in terms of average capacity of stadium, stadium environment, we have one of the best at PPL Park. Our fan base and relevance in the marketplace, season ticket base, TV ratings, local TV ratings, merchandise sales. All those metrics on the business side, we’re in the upper echelon in the league. Now on the competitive side, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Second year of our existence, we made the playoffs. But we haven’t made the playoffs for a couple of years. Now, we’re starting to regain some good form and competing with the best in the league. We respect everyone in the league in terms of on field performance, but we don’t fear anyone. We think we have a team that’s competitive and able to compete this year. We were in our first Open Cup final championship. After five seasons, we’re in the playoff mix again. But on the field, that’s not good enough for us. We’re an ambitious club. We want to win championships. We want to deliver exciting, good football to our fans every game, every season; year-in and year-out. And that’s an area that we got to really put our full focus and attention on what goes on inside those white lines in preparing this team to be competitive every year.
PU.com: Obviously capturing the U.S. Open Cup title would have been ideal, but the team played one of its best games ever chasing. Are you satisfied that the club made it to a title match in only its fifth season?
NS: You’re never satisfied until you win it. And frankly, even God willing, we were fortunate enough to win it, we’d want to win another one. It’s something that you just really have to be very focused on, season-in and season-out, to be able to deliver that because it’s not easy competing in this league.
PU.com: Say the team did win and now you’re looking at CONCACAF Champions League matches added on to your slate of matches. Were you thinking about much harder it would be to compete overall?
NS: We’re absolutely thinking about that. Regardless of whether we’re in [CONCACAF] Champions League or not, there are two aspects of this league and what’s going on in North America with regards to soccer that it is getting harder every year. On the MLS competitive side, in the league competition, it gets tougher every season with two more teams coming into the league next year, more teams on the way in future years – it’s getting very competitive and harder and harder every year. So the stakes are getting raised in the league, regardless of whether or not we make the Champions League. If we do, that’s another aspect and dynamic where it gets harder because now you have more game, more mid-week games, you need a deeper roster, you need better players to compete. All the stakes get raised if you make Champions League. But the stakes are still rising because the league is getting better.
PU.com: Nick, we know you’re a guy that likes to read everything that is going on about the team, but with much of the news in today’s society largely funneled through various social media channels, and allowing fans to engage and have a voice, where you think social media fits as a viable tool to get your team’s message to the masses?
NS: Everything is transparent now with the consumers and the fan base – and that’s a great thing. It helps you engage more intimately with your fans and your customers, and your constituents, and that’s a real important thing. We’re pretty lucky here at the Union because from Day One, we engaged right away with our fan base. Our fan base helped us design our logo. Our fan base helped us decide what colors of this team were to be. We were engrained from day one, with or without social media. So it’s kind of in our DNA to be transparent with our fan base and social media just plays into that.
PU.com: Last question, going back to the technical staff. Are you surprised that you are having this much success with a staff as young as this one led by Curtin at the helm?
NS: Age doesn’t always matter in that situation. It’s really the quality of the individuals more than anything. They do need experience – there’s no question they are young. Chris was playing at this time last year. Jim, arguably, should still be playing if he didn’t retire early. And they are young, they don’t have decades of experience under their belt – which counts, that’s important in football and especially in management. But it’s only one of a number of ingredients that people need to have in order to be successful. And obviously they’re having success right now.
What are your thoughts on Sakiewicz’ comments? Leave yours below.
Contact Union digital editor Kerith Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org