A View from Afar

Union fans want Sakiewicz out — here’s why

Photo:  Courtesy of Jonathan Tannenwald

Sixty-three percent of you want Nick Sakiewicz fired as Philadelphia Union’s chief executive, according to a PSP poll.

Nearly 600 Philadelphia soccer observers voted in the poll, which had some other damning findings for Sakiewicz, including:

  • 62% gave Sakiewicz a grade of D or F during his tenure as CEO;
  • 73% blame Sakiewicz for the Union’s collapse;
  • 98% believe he should have nothing to do with player personnel moves.

As the Union limp into the offseason with as many problems and question marks as they’ve ever had, Sakiewicz is the man to whom most want to affix blame. They identify Sakiewicz as the key common thread throughout the Union’s first five years, and when they observe the dysfunction endemic to the club, they point to Sakiewicz.

They’re right, of course, but only to a degree.

Has Sakiewicz made mistakes? Most definitely.

Has he done some things right? For sure.

But Sakiewicz has one major, major problem:

Many Union observers just don’t trust him.

On one day, Sakiewicz may bluntly articulate some remarkably insightful viewpoints on why familiarity with MLS is important for new MLS coaches or be the first top executive to call out Toronto FC for their spendthrift ways, and people will love it.

Then another day, he’ll say something just patently unbelievable. That’s a fairly unacceptable sin in a straight-talking, blue-collar place like Philadelphia.

Anyone who thought the buck stopped with Jim Curtin on the Rais Mbolhi signing is delusional. You don’t need inside knowledge to determine that isn’t true. What team would let an interim coach make the final call on a major signing to replace a good, young starter? None.

Hence, his distancing from the Mbolhi signing comes across as disingenuous.

Who really determines Union personnel moves

It isn’t fair to assign full credit or blame to Sakiewicz for all the Union’s signings.

The fact is that prior Union managers Peter Nowak and John Hackworth wielded a fair amount of autonomy with player personnel, and things are different now because there is an interim manager.

Nowak basically had complete control over football matters. That’s why he was able to abuse the system by allegedly trying to profit personally from transfers. What people forget is that Nowak’s pre-Union coaching reputation — he won the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield and coached the 2008 Olympic team — and early success with the Union in 2011 probably warranted that autonomy.

Nowak’s successor, Hackworth, had less freedom, but the Union’s player acquisitions were basically his moves. He constructed most of the Union team you’re watching. Cristian Maidana was Hackworth’s signing. Maurice Edu came to the club’s through his shared University of Maryland connection with Rob Vartughian. Hackworth grabbed Conor Casey after Danny Califf vouched for him. Danny Cruz was a Hackworth guy going back to his time as a youth international. And so on.

Sakiewicz had final approval on Hackworth’s acquisitions. He may not have initiated the moves, but Sakiewicz could approve or stop a deal, either by actively making a decision or passively letting a deal wither away. For example, Hackworth wanted Califf back from Toronto, Califf wanted to return, Toronto wanted to trade him, but no deal was struck. A little creativity should have solved that one. Rumor also had it that Sakiewicz vetoed Hackworth’s efforts to reacquire Jordan Harvey, but I never confirmed that to be true. The buck stopped with Sakiewicz, or at least somewhere at the ownership level.

Is that a bad setup? No, it’s not, particularly after Nowak’s abusive reign. That is basically as it should be, structurally speaking. Whether Sakiewicz made bad calls is another issue altogether.

This isn’t to say that Sakiewicz didn’t get involved in negotiations. He did, though not always in an integral fashion. Sometimes, he was truly out of the loop. When he told me in March 2013 that the Union didn’t ask Freddy Adu to take a pay cut, he was probably wrong, not lying, as many thought. (Many probably thought he lied because he was caught in some … let’s call it “creative explanation” in that same interview regarding tax payments to the city of Chester.) I was told privately that Sakiewicz simply didn’t know or remember.

Sakiewicz played a key part in closing the deal on the acquisitions of Edu and Vincent Nogueira.

With Edu, that role was very public: Sakiewicz traveled to England with much fanfare to close the deal. But Hackworth and Vartughian knew Edu wanted to come to Philadelphia before anyone else in MLS even knew he was available, and they got that ball rolling.

To lock down Nogueira, Sakiewicz and then-assistant coach Brendan Burke traveled to France to meet with the midfielder while Hackworth was at the MLS draft combine in Florida. Nogueira was no grand scouting find either. He basically fell into the Union’s lap after deciding he wanted to play in America, and the Union were smart to sign him.

Sakiewicz deserves credit for his part on those two deals, but only part. They were team efforts.

Why blame Sakiewicz for Mbolhi and the Union’s collapse?

So why does he get blamed more for Mbolhi?

Because no interim manager wields enough clout to sign a player like that six months after you trade for the top pick in the draft to acquire a goalkeeper and when you still have a third guy who is your deserved starter. This is doubly the case when you consider that Mbolhi said he had been talking with the club since January. Was he talking to Curtin? Doubtful. Sakiewicz is the point of continuity there, although Mbolhi obviously could have been talking to Hackworth too.

But really, Sakiewicz gets blamed for the general malaise surrounding the team and the dissatisfaction that they are not a major club on par with Seattle or Los Angeles.

On the field, it’s not Sakiewicz’s fault the Union started the season so poorly. He and the team’s ownership gave Hackworth the leeway to build a talented team, and Hackworth did. The key points of failure came on the field, primarily in the team’s failure to hold leads late in games. But Mbolhi’s arrival definitely didn’t help matters, and his howler against Chicago will remembered for a long time because it began the collapse that was completed the next game against Columbus.

Off the field, fans are just tired of losing. They’re tired of unnecessary drama, like the Nowak controversies, the unnecessary and misguided benching of Zac MacMath, and the likely impending departure of fan favorite Amobi Okugo. They just want a team they can like in all facets, complete with players that they like, just like they did before Nowak savaged that innocent love for the brand new home team. They want their favorite players to stop leaving. They lost Brian Dawkins well before they should have, and now you’re going to take Amobi Okugo too? It’s not fair, they think.

Sakiewicz knows enough about MLS to be a very good executive. He’s smart and well-spoken and understands the sport and league.

What he misses now is a charismatic front man like former Union president Tom Veit, who recognized it’s equally important for your fans to actually like you and your team.

33 Comments

  1. I didn’t read the entirety of this, I’ll be honest. I just want to voice my belief. The Union will not be a “successful” club until Sak’s hands are off. He’s like Tommy Boy squeezing his baby too tightly. With Sak’s involvement this team will struggle on and, more importantly, off the field. We see it play out in front of our eyes but who knows how toxic his presence is behind closed doors. Sak is not solely responsible for the team failing again this year but only a fool would accept his comical deflections of blame.

  2. The Chopper says:

    Sak’s biggest problem is Sak. His need to act with a Mark Cuban or Donald Trump style personality calls attention to his every move and puts his face on everything Union whether it is deserved or not. The bluster at the slightest hint of criticism only makes matters worse.

    If he could keep his mouth shut, let a team spokesperson do the talking, his plight would probably be much different.

  3. James Lockerbie says:

    Yes! Bring back Tom Veit. My brother Rob and I went down to the Dc United game on the Sons of Ben bus trip in 2010. Mr Veit came down to the parking lot and talked to members of the Sons of Ben during the tailgate before the game. He was approachable and represented the Union Well. He could be the Press secretary for the Sakiewicz. –

    What Happened to Mr. Veit?

    • The Chopper says:

      Forgot about the first team President. Not sure his role was ever really filled after he left. Another structural defect where more responsibility probably ended up on Sak’s desk.

      I know Mr. Veit is back in Florida, He was very much a Florida guy and had worked with the Tampa MLS club. Maybe he is doing something with Orlando. Not sure what lead to his leaving initially, perhaps he just wanted to get back to Florida.

  4. old soccer coach says:

    I do not remember where I read the story, and for that omission my 65 year old mind apologizes. Someone somewhere last winter had had inside accesss to the Union’s draft-day team, and after the dust had settled, wrote the story of how the deals were done. The article did not detail what the guidelines of the access agreement were, so we do not know the degree to which the club may or may not have exercised editorial control over the final product. In either case, it was an inside look at the process. It answered a lot of questions and created a sense of authenticity.

    The union would do well to follow that example more frequently. All of us understand that in the moment of ongoing processes of various kinds there is a legitimate need for operational secrecy. At the same time, especially for Americans and especially with regards to sports, there is a sense of being entitled to know. Our society has not had much experience with censorship in the first place, and our history suggests to us that transparency in the longer term is the more effective way to conduct affairs. The degree to which MLS and this particular subset of it, Philadelphia Union, deliberately avoid transparency damages them significantly. At times they try to be transparent, witness some open meetings with the Sons of Ben membership. But sometimes the explanations offered severely strain their credibility. They badly need this winter to somehow tell the full story of Zac MacMath and Amobi Okugo, whether either, or both, goes or stays. Once the two situations resolve as far as association with Philadelphia is concerned, full explanations need to emerge. Surface appearances do not make sense now prior to such resolution, and the lack of understanding by the general fan base is harming the club by undermining trust in it.

  5. I’ve had mixed feelings about Sak in the past, and certainly haven’t agreed with some of the club’s decisions, but I’ve never felt that removing him would be the answer to all that ills the club.
    .
    HOWEVER, #tifogate (as trite as that monniker sounds) has changed my opinion. Absolutely shameful to remove banners of dissent, and even worse to blame it on an arbitrary rule clearly designed to prevent abusive behavior, not stifle that voice of the most ardent club supporters.

  6. OneManWolfpack says:

    I think the end of the article nailed it. The amazing anticipation, joy, excitement, etc. that we all had when this team started playing, just five years ago, is gone. Yes, some of that goes away naturally. Now it’s all been replaced by anger, mistrust, disgust, and even some hatred. We as sports fans in Philly are smart. We know a bullshitter when we see one. We know crap when we see it, and even though some guys never got the respect they deserved, we know greatness when we see it. The soccer history and culture in our area runs deep. We finally got a team, a professional team, in a professional league on the rise internationally… and we get this. This FO, this drama, this crap.
    .
    Best thing for Sak to do is shut his mouth, hire a PR man (or lady), and slowly fade into the background. This way he can truthfully blame the people who make the decisions, instead of lying through his teeth while he does it now.

  7. Aside from giving Sak the sack, a critical review of this season would begin at a lack of depth. A few good initial signings (Nogs, Chaco, Edu) did not cover over the great lack of depth the team had from the prior season. Hack attempted to create a ball playing culture, it was obvious it would take time to gel, and a slow start caused Sak to panic – when the lack of depth and quality remained. The lack of depth was exposed throughout the season and seems to me the main reason for the slow start and the bad end. The fix is more quality players. The FO seems to lack a commitment towards investment in the team – this is not just on Sak (except to the extent he is one of the owners – a minority one from a cash POV probably) but on all of them. How come we couldn’t pay the City taxes? Why couldn’t we find a place years ago for a training facility? Why are we building it now right next to the stadium? Is it because the land is already under control? why hasn’t the area around the stadium been improved? Why did it take so long after the WC to close the Valdes and Mbolhi deals when we started working on them well before the WC began? Sak counsels patience and claims we don’t know the full story. My guess is the full story is worse than what we know. #sakout #spendorsellsugarman

  8. Who let Nowak get out of control in the first place.
    Whose idea was it to bring in Adu? Nowak? Really?
    Who brought in Oka Nikolov?
    Who is always undermining his coaches and teammates by either self promotion when things are going OK and undermining the team when they aren’t?
    Who was the face of the franchise when the team single handedly eroded the trust between the fans and front office?
    Who never addressed coaching problems like no a razor thin coaching staff like having no dedicated goalkeeping coach? Who is saying Jim Curtin he wants Jim Curtin to be the coach but hasn’t hired him? Who hires and fires coaches? Sak? or some hellish ownership committee?

    • James Lockerbie says:

      BINGO!!!!

    • The Candy Man, maybe?

    • Ok I fired this off really quick at work and damn I killed the grammar on that one.

    • Good questions. Good enough to be worth trying to answer.

      1) You could blame Sak, sure. But this isn’t the sort of thing American sports executives ever have to deal with. Also, it’s just like crime: People who want to break a law, particularly white collar, will typically find a way to do it. Nowak did. He got fired after five months of madness. Had the Orozco Fiscal situation come to light earlier, Nowak would have faced pressure much earlier. (That doesn’t mean I would have done things the same. Nowak shouldn’t have gotten a contract extension.)

      2) It was portrayed at the time as Nowak. I never heard anything different that was reliable.

      3) I think Kevin Kinkead put this one on Sak recently. I hadn’t heard that previously, but Kevin has good info, so I’m inclined to trust that.

      4) That would be Sak.

      5) That would be Nowak.

      6) Sak, with this caveat: They’re not addressing the coaching staff because the ownership group isn’t dedicating enough money to it. This has always been the Union’s problem.

      • 5. is a lot on Sak too or at least Sak and the ownership group. How they dealt with Chester went a long way to me saying fuck these guys.

      • I think Nowak did much more damage, but you make a fair point.

      • Add/edit to this:

        One of the PSP guys heard from a few reliable sources that it was a Sak move. So, qualify my statement re: Adu with that.

  9. I don’t fully blame Sak for everything. It was coaches (nowak and hackworth) and the players need to shoulder some responsibility too. However, I hold him accountable for the MBohli/MacMath fiasco.

    The thing that bothers me most is his delusions and apparent disconnect with the fanbase. He thinks we’ll blindly follow and accept mediocrity just because the club is young.

    I also think he really doesn’t understand how knowledgeable the fans are/ are becoming. That is way worse than any player move he could ever make.

  10. This just in: “Harrisburg, PA: Gov. Tom Corbett’s campaign, still trailing by over 15 points in his race for re-election, points to this PSP poll & announces the new slogan in a Philadelphia area media blitz: “Hey! At least I’m more popular than Sakiewicz!”

  11. In the words of your about – to- be – no- longer – interim -coach -when – I -decide- you- should -know – thinking – of- joint -congratulations – to -Rais – on – becoming – a – dad- maybe coach, Jim Curtin, “You are what your record says. ” And yours, Little Nicky, at 0 playoff wins in 5 years, screams ” LOSER!” Run, Jim, run.

  12. “Sakiewicz knows enough about MLS to be a very good executive. He’s smart and well-spoken and understands the sport and league.”

    I would love to see some evidence for this. Let’s look at where the Union come up short from an organization standpoint.

    1) Marketing. The Union marketing is terrible. It’s terrible quality, it’s uncreative and it’s borderline non-existent. Other than people who are already fans, nobody knows anything about the team. Case in point: US Open Cup Final.

    2) PR. It’s terrible. You have Hack essentially saying the team is playing bad because the fans are booing him, now you have Sak saying the fans are “wrong” for thinking he’s the problem. Welcome to Business 101, the customer is always right. Their promotions are generally terrible as well. They never legitimately make good on loyalty points and constantly have problems like running out of beer at pre-game fan events. He also gets caught lying on a regular basis, so there’s that. And no paved parking. Oh, and the Chick-Fil-A (heterosexual) family 4 pack idea wasn’t timed especially well.

    3) Personnel. You may not be coach or GM Sak, but you HIRE THEM. They have generally all been disasters so far. I don’t get why this is so hard to understand. He also gives them the power to make decisions, so their decisions fall on his shoulders. And Kerith Gabriel is pretty much the worst social media manager I’ve ever seen in my life. What type of social media manager talks shit on the customers ON SOCIAL MEDIA. There is no way he’d ever get a job doing anything at any company that actually knows a single thing about social media.

    4) Finance. All that bullshit with the taxes is all I think I really need to put here. I’m not a finance guy but Jesus.

    5) Overall business direction. I think this is what really is the problem with Sak. He has ZERO concept of customer lifetime value (CLV). He’s won executive of the year twice for his job at acquiring sponsorships, but then the teams soon folded and were sold.

    He hasn’t established a successful brand in his entire career and there is nothing to suggest he is on the way to doing that now. He tries to squeeze all the value out of his customers up front. He’s like a farmer that over-farms all of his fields every year instead of rotating to plan for the long-term. You get more up front, but in the end you will have nothing. Evidence of this? Just look at YoY attendance since inception. Down, Down, Down.

    • My Liege!

    • This. Scroll down to the section where there’s a very long quote from Sakiewicz. That shows he is smart and well-spoken enough — and understands the league enough — to be a good executive. I didn’t say he actually is a good executive.

      Also, Kerith is a good dude who understands media very well. He was also a good reporter. He calls it like he sees it as much as he can.

    • the marketing and PR points are well taken. about two months into the season the club let its director of communications go and didn’t replace her – just kept the existing internal people. most promotions I have become aware of are hardly utilized and often not supplied. Case in point – a 4 pack promotion included special tshirts. come the game, the tshirts were not available because the club didn’t produce them (and they looked like they would be cheap to produce tshirts based on the one in the ad). excuse was not enough people used the promotion to produce tshirts (except for the people who did use it). skip the player stuff – this type of stuff is ultimately Sak’s responsibility and it is apparent if you are in Sak’s local soccer circle, you get much better treatment for this type of stuff. if you aren’t, too bad. not sure what management text this approach comes from …

  13. I happened to run into Jay Sugarman. I complimented him on the US Open final. His response was we should have signed a striker. I didn’t even prompt him with a question.
    I don’t blame Sak for the early years of Nowak and Hacksworth. I am sure they see the benefit of having a GM. Hopefully this off season one will appear.

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