The offseason began by securing their coach.
It continued Friday morning by naming Rene Meulensteen as a consultant. Meulensteen spent 12 seasons with Manchester United and will advise Union ownership on all soccer operations.
One week after removing the interim tag from Jim Curtin, the Union continued with another major announcement. They’re still pursuing a permanent sporting director but adding Curtin long-term and naming Meulensteen are two huge moves for the Union, who will begin their sixth season in Major League Soccer in 2015.
There is so much to be done before next season but clearly, the Union are poised to take the next step forward.
“Look, this is a new franchise,” Union chairman and majority owner Jay Sugarman said at Friday’s press conference at PPL Park. “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.”
Sugarman believes in the financial health of the Union for next season and into the future. He’s fully confident that the club can compete and win consistently.
“I’ll say a couple things on that topic,” Sugarman said. “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.”
Meulensteen has paid close attention to MLS and understands the challenge. He’s also excited about the challenge of assisting the Union.
“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,” Meulensteen said. “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.”
Sugarman has big expectations for next season and is ultra-competitive in every way.
He’s constantly looking for ways to improve the club and wasn’t shy in expressing his opinions.
“It’s a two-hour drive home for me and when we lose games, it’s a miserable ride,” Sugarman said. “And I think, ‘How can we be better?’ I’ve spent the first five years studying, watching and I’ve shared some of my ideas with our coaches and I think they are amused by my ideas but I tell you that there are things that an outsider can see that may be taken and I want to take a more active role and start to say look, ‘We are David versus Goliath.’ There are lots of businesses that succeed using a strategy where we don’t spend the most money. And we don’t have maybe the biggest footprint but that gives us the freedom to try some things that maybe others won’t or can’t. The thing to do now is not adopt the theme that this is not a war of money or of talent. How do we do this better?
“I can tell you that I’ve seen things that we can probably pick up three or four possessions a game just using some simple ideas on throw-ins. We’ve looked very hard at ties. I hate ties. Ties are two-thirds a loss. It’s not a 2-1-0 point system. So a tie is two-thirds a loss. We’ve done analytical studies using Opta that suggest teams that go into the last fifteen minutes of games tied back up and actually score less and give up more goals than teams down by a goal. What does that tell you? It tells you we need to instill a thought process from our junior kids all the way up to our first team. Guys, we don’t want to tie. I don’t mind if you lose. I’ll take that drive home if I see time and time and time again that we went for the win in the end instead of potentially going into a shell. I’m just sitting here testing ideas and theories and look for data that suggests is there a way to win? Is there a way to tilt it a little bit in our favor? I don’t know soccer like these guys. They know it far better than I do. An outsider’s perspective is helpful and that’s what I look to bring a little bit more in the next five years to really challenge some of the conventional wisdom and say can we have an impact in a different way than just buy the best players?”
Meulensteen has been impressed with the Union roster and noted that some tweaks here and there will enhance the club.
“If it doesn’t hit the post and goes in, we’d have won a trophy (in the U.S. Open Cup final), which is the most important one to win,” Meulensteen said. “But the biggest benefit is they’ve proven they can get to the finals. Some of the negative outcome of that might have dripped down as they just missed out on the playoffs. If they hadn’t had that focus on the Cup final, they probably would have had a better chance at the playoffs. That’s bye-bye. That’s gone. That’s in the past. Looking forward, the roster is strong to compete with the best. My advice to them is to just add some quality that makes that extra difference at certain positions. I think they’re going the right way. For me, it’s how to create an elite, high-performance climate and environment. That’s the most important thing. We’ve made it very clear that we’re not going to bring in these million dollar designated type players. I agree with that and that’s one of things that attracted me in coming here. You want to spend it smart. You want to invest. That takes time. What I’ve tried to help with is to create an environment around Chris (Albright), Jim (Curtin) and Mike (Sorber) that is top professional. There is room for improvement. Let’s see what we can do in the next couple of months.
Contact Union writer Andy Jasner at firstname.lastname@example.org