Commentary / Featured

Jay Sugarman finally steps up

Photo: Earl Gardner

There was a Jay Sugarman sighting today.

No, he was not hanging out with Bigfoot. There were no known UFO sightings either.

It was just Sugarman.

In a Philadelphia Union news conference.

For the first time in — ever?

The Union’s publicity-shy owner stepped out of the shadows Friday to overshadow the anticipated news of the day, which was the hiring of former Manchester United assistant coach Rene Meulensteen as a temporary consultant for the Union. Meulensteen was small stuff compared to the main event.

Jay Sugarman. In the flesh. Speaking to be quoted. After five Union seasons, finally.

Wow. Just … wow.

Now that we got that out of the way …

Sugarman sounds like he has a clue.

In taking his turn at the microphone, Sugarman outlined a clear vision for this club on the technical side.

First, he plans to hire a sporting director with experience working with youth development and first teams. It likely won’t be Meulensteen. It will likely take a few months.

“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 been asked to do many many many jobs,” Sugarman said. “So when we look at the best in practice teams out there, the ability to sout, the ability to evaluate, the ability to train — it’s very tough for a first team coach to say I’m responsible for all the youth team development, I’m responsible for getting my first team players to play their best, i’m responsible for figuring out that USL PRO piece, and by the way, I also have to go scout and figure out how to bring in talent to the team. That’s a tall order for anybody. So we think that really creating clear lines of 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 attention and patience to really focus on that part of the soccer operations. Tommy (Wilson) has been doing a great job. Jim (Curtin) will do a great job. Nick (Sakiewicz) will do a great job. But there is a role, a very senior role for somebody else, and we saw that need come pretty clear over the last couple of years.”

Second, Sugarman believes in sticking with the basic concept of building the franchise through its academy.

“A cornerstone of our strategy is to rely on developing and building talent internally more than buying it on the market,” Sugarman said. Later, he added, “Candidly, we still believe in the youth academy system as the long term way to keep the Union competitive against teams that, you know possibly will have greater resources than we will.”

He identified two major priorities for the club: Building the academy up, and establishing a consistent first team that plays up to its potential. The implication was clear: He recognized the 2014 team fell short of the latter.

The sporting director is key in that.

Most successful MLS clubs have a full-time general manager. Sugarman labeled it a best practice, and he’s right. It’s difficult to do the job of coach and general manager. Curtin’s predecessor, John Hackworth, was a very good general manager, but critics will say he didn’t have the on-field coaching part down.

Meulensteen doesn’t appear to be that guy, but he sounds like an interesting bridge to whoever it is. Sugarman indicated that other commitments would keep Meulensteen from sticking around more than a few months. I’m not sure what other commitments those are, because he hasn’t held a professional coaching gig since Fulham fired him in February, but chances are he’s holding out for a European managerial post. Fair enough.

It sounds like he’s already had an impact on the Union.

“In his short time here,” Curtin said,  “day one, he met with my technical staff and implemented his way of targeting and judging players and a clean cut clear way of whether that player is an academy player or a first team player. And it’s used now.”

Think about that for a moment. On day one, Meulensteen laid out a player evaluation method that the Union adopted.

Where’s this team going? I’d say nobody knows (and you’d say, “Down the tubes!”), but Jay Sugarman seemed to think he did. The hiring of a sporting director sounds like just one component of the structural changes taking place. Sugarman seems to have an actual vision for the team, or at least how he wants to restructure its management. Most of us were wondering if he was even paying attention.

But don’t expect this again anytime soon. Sugarman closed his press with a broad smile and a quip, “”See you in five years.”


  1. Alexander Schaefer says:

    RSL GM is out of contract….

  2. James Lockerbie says:

    The way I see it. Mr. Sugarman was not comfortable at the mic, but you could tell he wanted to explain himself and demonstrate to the fans and the media that he in fact exists and cares.
    I think he wanted the fans to hear a different voice anyone other then Nick. I personally respect Mr. Sugarman for taking the microphone and laying it all out on the line. Yes, he kinda confirmed what many of us were already assuming about the resources our team has available. I think that is a healthy acknowledgement from the Owner. Better to know what we are and how we should manage our team’s future. Instead of denying it and trying to keep up with the Jones and then fall on our faces and loss the team to bankruptcy.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Maybe I’m a little cynical, but I’m not sure Sugarman speaks today without some of the noise created by websites like this, and by fans like us. I mean it’s good that he did, and I respect him (a little more) for it, but would it have happened on its own?
      I hope this new structure is implemented in truth, and people are allowed to do the jobs they are hired for. I’m still a little (a lot, really) confused as to why one of the largest sports markets in the country, with a healthy history and base of soccer fans and support, is one of the “poor clubs” in MLS? It is obviously by choice, and that ticks me off.

      • No, of course he doesn’t speak publicly if nobody is making noise. This was absolutely a response to fans and critique. As for the Union being a poor team … they’re not a poor team. They’re just not a rich team. They’re firmly settled in the middle class, in the same grouping with other clubs in markets with four major pro sports teams (Chicago, Dallas, maybe even Colorado).

      • Agree. The Union are not a poor team and for what we know (?) Are above average. What pisses me off is the appearance of impropriety and mismanagement and treating this market like some 2nd rate outpost,and quite frankly Sakiewicz. To me this appears to be all hands on deck to cover some very exposed behinds and trying to placate an ever angry growing fanbase. If this means doing the right things finally (after 5 years) great. However I doubt the sincerity of these people until results are shown. Why it takes 5 plus years to clearly define roles is still sketchy to me. Until these people show otherwise it’s still BS.

      • Kudos to PSP. This site makes a difference.

      • Another cynic chimes in. What I read from this is that the organization finally woke up and realized that this franchise has been run by a bunch of amateurs for the last five years and will put in place checks and balances to build up a winning team (on the cheap). What I want to emphasize is that this restructuring of the FO and coaching staff doesn’t buy the Union another 5 years of fans patience to watch a mediocre product.

      • + 1.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Better late than never I guess

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