Transcript

Off-Podium: Union minority owner Richie Graham

We don’t know a whole lot about Richie Graham.

We do know that the Union minority owner is the CEO of YSC Sports and the founder of the youth academy in Wayne, Pa. He’s been with Keystone Sports and Entertainment since 2011, when YSC formally linked up with the Union. Now he oversees a burgeoning youth setup that includes the academy and the brand-new Bethlehem Steel USL team.

Graham went to a private school in Vermont that focused on producing professional skiers and now he’s replicating that idea with a different sport. He founded the local investment firm, “Striker Partners,” which branched off from his father’s business holdings. Don Graham is a self-made billionaire who built an engineering empire from the basement of a rented farmhouse.

For years, Graham has been viewed as the “number two” of Union investors, observed occasionally with former CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz. He’s played a role behind the scenes, the extent of which is unclear. He was seen, for instance, in photos with Sakiewicz and Rene Meulensteen when that courtship began in 2014. He’s connected to manager Jim Curtin through the the early days of the YSC partnership and generally seems to operate quietly. The extent of press related to his Union investment revolves around the youth academy and not much else. He hadn’t spoke in a public setting about other Union business until this week.

Graham sat on the dais for Brendan Burke’s introductory press conference Thursday and spoke off-podium afterward.

Philly Soccer Page: Were you ever interested in having more a public role or speaking in front of people?

Not really, no. That’s not why I got involved in the project and that’s not what excites me every day. Obviously, as you guys know, I’m really passionate about the youth development and the contribution that Philadelphia Union can make, in terms of pushing the American game forward. In this case, there’s so much work and energy going on right now as we’re sort of trying to build for the future. Everybody is trying to lift the weight and help out in any way they possible can. I’m excited for Earnie (Stewart) to arrive. I think he’s going to be a great resource for us. He’ll be getting here quickly and we’ll let him lead the charge on that stuff going forward.

Matt DeGeorge, Delco Times: One of things that I think a lot of us thought about when Nick was let go, was that he’s been the public face of ownership and this organization for a long time. How much of that is something you’ve sought to compensate for?

I think we recognized that someone has to speak on behalf of ownership in these situations. Jay would have been at our announcement up in Bethlehem if it wasn’t for a sort of personal situation. In this case they asked if I would help out with Brendan. I’ve known Brendan for a long time. I’m actually thrilled to have him back and be a part of the organization. Going forward I think Earnie will lead that charge. Nick did a tremendous job in terms of communicating from our perspective. I want to see Nick land on his feet and be successful in what he does.

PSP: The addition of Earnie, and the Sporting Director search, and some of the bigger decisions that have been made over the years, can you tell us how much of a role you played or if you were involved in that?

I’ve been involved in discussions, actively involved in Sporting Director interviews and the search process along with Nick and Jay. After Nick left I went to Jay to sort of provide any assistance possible.

PSP: We asked Jay publicly, he came up here a couple of times and spoke about the idea that you’re not going to spend 5 or 6 million dollars on a player. He reiterated that a lot of money has been put into the academy and youth development and whatnot. Are you comfortable with the financial situation right now and how things are being distributed?

Graham: Yeah, you know, I think we want to be a “build” versus “buy” type of club. That’s not to say that if the right player comes along that we’re not going to be able to make that move. But we also believe really strongly in the model of developing talent. I think the thing to keep in mind is that we’re really only in the third year of the academy. When we’re talking about players moving to USL or moving to the first team, you know I’m looking at this crop of those 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 year olds, and the talent that’s in this area is incredible. We have to do a better job of capturing, maximizing, giving those kids a chance to maximize their talents. But why not have the Philadelphia region be a place that can produce ten Landon Donovans? Why not? So you give those kids a good environment and see how we can develop them. I think there’s a lot of upside for this region.

DeGeorge: We’re standing here a few hours after LA is eliminated from the playoffs with some of the highest paid players in the league on their roster. Does that help to reinforce some of the things that you guys are trying to do here, the idea that you don’t have to spend all of this money to compete?

Yeah, look at the Red Bulls roster right now. I think it’s important to have players that can be leaders and that can help mentor and shape some of the younger players that are coming through, without a doubt. The answer isn’t all youth. But certainly it’s not, in our mind, to go and spend money on a bunch of Designated Players that may not be interested in giving everything they can for the badge. If kids are growing up in an environment where the badge becomes a part of their culture and means something, the fight they’ll give you in the last 10 minutes of that 1-1 game is completely different, and that’s something we think is critical for long term success.

PSP: Where would you say this interest and passion in youth development came about? Was this just something you were always interested in?

Yeah. I grew up in another sport and was involved in sort of an elite youth development environment. Then also as a soccer player, that inspired me to look at what we’re doing here in the U.S. I’m thinking, you know, can we do it better? We have all of these ingredients to be a future powerhouse in the sport, and without a doubt, locally. What can we do in terms of changing our environments to maximize the potential of the American player? I got interested in that and was aligned with MLS in terms of their thinking about what they wanted to do with their product.

7 Comments

  1. el Pachyderm says:

    I appreciate this piece Kevin. I’ve more recently had the pleasure of meeting Richie Graham~ truth be told he actually walked over to me and introduced himself at YSC~ as though I mattered~ which I do as 2 of my young kids play up there session after session ~ thereby contributing in a small, small way financially to the Academy. I actually don’t mind contributing as I feel part of something bigger~ one small drop in the pay to play bucket that matters. I find Richie to be kind and generous even when I am going on and on about ‘stuff’ as I did once or twice when we have talked.
    .
    Here is my goal then with my infentesimal fractional contribution to this Union. My goal is to build a culture of clever. My great hope sirs… is to create imaginative players that are skilled technicians on the ball that play with a sense of condescension and arrogance.
    .
    The culture of clever…
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    The expectation of World Class.
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    There is only one Messi and Ronaldo ~ we can’t possibly hope to create a Messi or Ronaldo as they create themselves….what we need however are 3 sigma players and I’m asking you to create them…. because that is doable. That is the great US Soccer race – a race to the first 3 Sigma World Class player and it is a race I’m asking you to win Mr. Sugarman, Richie, Earnie, et al.
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    My hopes are the new sporting director looks very closely at the academy and institutes a vision worthwhile of my request and fills in the necessary gaps to accomplish this mission as the 8,9,10,11,12 year old begin to mature.
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    Oh and one more thing… if you want a richer crop – build more of those petrie dish futsal courts and send out a scout or two to host drop in pick ups on say a Friday night… age group them out 5-8, 8-11, 11-15… put them in the city. Put them in the suburbs…most importantly put them in the elementary schools.
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    I promise you in about 5 years the reaped rewards will be worth the outlay of money.

    • A wealthy benefactor needs to build futsal courts in the impoverished areas of Philadelphia. It doesn’t take much sense to consider the crop of athletic talent who gave up on basketball, the only free sport available to these kids in their neighborhoods. If someone came in (and I don’t intend to sound like I know the logistics or legalities of building public parks) and built an unbreakable court (hardy surface, no-net cage goals), kids would eventually flock to it. If someone came by every month or so and dropped off old balls they would certainly get used. There are thousands of kids who can’t compete on the basketball court who could excel in another sport. They just need the slightest bit of infrastructure.
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      OR, the grand old Union should build a facility in West or North Philly. That will never happen but a man like myself can dream.

    • I know Richie from YSC as well when my kids played and spent many hours there. They now play in College so I no longer frequent YSC but it was always good to see him there and talk to him.
      .
      Philly Futsal is doing great work in the city. My youngest played on one of their teams that won the Regionals multiple times. Futsal definitely developed his skills big time which made him a much better player as he grew up. PSP should show these guys a bit more love (and not just concentrate on YSC). See http://www.phillyfutsal.com/

  2. Quite honestly, after reading about and listening to all of these other Union voices, it’s almost unreal that Sakiewicz was a part of this organization.
    .
    The lack of arrogance is so refreshing. The future wreaks of optimism and hope.

  3. This interview has me pumped and so does the first comment on this article!!! #doop

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