Press Conference

Transcript and video: Jay Sugarman and Rene Meulensteen press conference

Editor’s note: Questions have been paraphrased. Press conference begins approximately five minutes after the start of the video.

Opening remarks from Philadelphia Union chairman and owner Jay Sugarman

Good morning, thank you for joining us today.

I know you aren’t used to seeing me up here, but we’ve been studying ways to make the next five years pretty exciting ones for the Union, and I wanted to directly share some of those thoughts with you.

First, I want to assure all of our fans about our commitment to building a winning club. Everybody involved wants to win, everybody involved hates losing, and we are very focused on taking positive steps to improve in creating a clear path to success for this team. And that path forward for us is really based on achieving two key goals. One, we need our first team to consistently play to its full potential, week in and week out. And two, we need to continue to develop one of the top academy systems in the United States.

To do that, we want to create clear responsibilities, and clear goals, throughout the Union organization. With me today are members of our team that, working with their talented staff, will help lead us forward.

So, let me start with Nick. Nick and his team will focus on building a business that has the resources to compete as the league gets stronger and stronger. We will continue to invest in our relationship with our fans, with our corporate partners, and with the community, and continue to build something that we all can be proud of.

Jim Curtin is our head coach. Jim and his team’s job is clear: Prepare our players so that they can play their best every week. We want to start building a winning tradition, and a winning mentality, and we know Jim will put his heart and soul into that, and bring an insider’s knowledge from his years of success in MLS.

Tommy Wilson heads up youth development, and leads our expanding  YSC Academy program. Tommy and his team’s job is to build a system that will deliver talent to the first team on a consistent basis. A cornerstone of our strategy is to rely on developing and building talent internally more than buying it on the market, and we think we have a strong foundation already in place for that strategy. Boosted by the best in class school our partner Richie Graham has started, we will continue to spend significant money, and significant management resources, to create a top MLS academy.

And there’s also one more important piece.

We plan to augment our management team with a permanent sporting director to help take both our youth development and our first team performance to a higher level. We’re going to seek a sporting director with deep experience in player development, player evaluation, and player performance at both the youth and championship levels who can oversee and elevate all of our soccer operations and who will report directly to ownership.

Now, we’re going to need some time to properly fill that role, but we’re not going to sit still in the meantime. And to help us right now, we’re happy to announce we’ve engaged Rene Meulensteen’s Partner in Sports practice to consult with us on many of our key decision over the next several months.

We expect to significantly benefit from his exceptional history success in both player development, and first team performance, during his decade of work at Manchester United. Rene has already hit the ground running, and I know Nick, Jim, Tommy, our team of coaches, as well as our academy staff, will welcome Rene’s insight and experience as much as I do.

So, that’s the plan. Now we’re going to go out and execute.

We’re happy to take any questions.

Question to Jay Sugarman: Clarify Rene Meulensteen’s position as a consultant:

Long-term, we want a sporting director and structure in place, really to help on both our youth development and on our first team side, and to bring us a global perspective, as well as a way to really elevate the entire soccer operations of the Union.

We’re fortunate that, despite his other commitments, Rene is available to us right now as a consultant to help analyze, advise, and to look at everything we’re doing and help us really set a path to this next five years. He’s on the ground, he’s with us right now, but obviously we’re going to spend a lot of time over the next couple of months making some key decisions for the coming years, and we wanted a top-tier talent with us when we’re making those decisions.

Followup question to Jay Sugarman on whether offseason player decisions will be the responsibility of Jim Curtin and Chris Albright, or will Rene Meulensteen, Nick Sakiewicz or anyone else have a say in that.

Absolutely. Jim and Chris are the front line, will make that decision. But you can never have enough great advice. Rene’s got an international perspective that we think is unmatched. Jim and Chris have a great perspective on MLS from their many years in the league. We think that combination was pretty darn powerful.

Question to Jay Sugarman: Are you speaking publicly because of a new focus on 2015?

Yeah, look, this is a new franchise. We’ve made a ton of progress in lots of areas, but we’re always learning. In particular, I like to study, and analyze, and think about things we can do better. Five years is kind of a natural cutting off point to just look back and say, “What have we done right, 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 we all want. Things that we can do that are going to make us better we are going to do. Candidly, we still believe in the youth academy system as the long-term way to keep the Union competitive against teams that possibly will have greater resources than we will. But there’s no doubt in our mind based on what we see today with the talent that we can bring aboard like a Rene that we can turn our academy into a pipeline of great talent for the Union.

Question to Jay Sugarman: What is  the financial health of the team? What kind of resources will the coaching staff have to build a roster to compete against deep-pocketed teams?

I’ll say a couple of things on that topic. Certainly there are going to be teams with greater resources than we have. That’s not a surprise; I think that’s true in all leagues. But there’s no question that we can win in this league. From ownership’s perspective, we invested over a hundred million dollars of private capital, and continue to invest — never taking a dollar out of this team — and I don’t see that changing. So, this is about investing, it’s about building a great franchise. We have been in adding local investors who we think can continue to bring new ideas and and local connections to the team. But the team is in very strong hands — I’m not going anywhere, you’re kind of stuck with me. I will keep committing resources on plans I really believe in. And that’s part of this exercise, to look back and figure out what we can do better, commit the resources there, and not be in a position where simply having other teams that can spend more will win. This is an interesting league: If you can out-coach, outsmart, out-draft, out-source players, the difference is very small. I think Jim said it best last week, it’s just a few inches, it’s just few games, it’s just a few points that are the difference. So, I don’t think we need to spend our way to a different plan, what we really need to do is be really clear, and really direct, on how we’re going to compete. I think right now we’re in a good place but we can be better.

Question to Rene Meulensteen: What can you tell us about how you came to the Union? What’s your knowledge level of MLS and the challenges facing the club?

First of all, I’d like to thank the Philadelphia Union, and Jay, and Nick, and Richie Graham to have the sort of faith and trust in bringing me on as a consultant. I’ve 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 its a growing league, it’s an emerging league — it goes from strength to strength, year in, year out. To be given an opportunity to join a franchise like the Philadelphia Union on a consultancy basis is a very exciting one. Most importantly is the philosophy that these people carry. Jay said it very clearly, we’re not going to spend our way to the top, we want to build our way to the top. And I can honestly say from what I’ve seen so far of the MLS, of team, the first team, to get to a MLS Open Cup final is a big, big achievement. Do not underestimate that, that’s a fantastic achievement. But what I’ve seen from the academy level over there, it is very good. The foundations are firmly in place, and it can grow very, very quickly.

Open question: What’s the first order of business with so much happening within the club with players, and outside the club with the CBA and the drafts? Jay Sugarman answers:

I think if we look back over not only the last year but also the last five years, its to really build a team that we’re going to go forward with, I think the coaching decision was critical. Jim had an extended trial period, but we were pretty sure that the qualities he brings to this are what we need to succeed in the league. But 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 rally asked to do many, many, many jobs.  So, when we look at the best in practice teams out there, the ability to scout, 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 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 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’s got the time, attention, and patience to really focus on that part of the soccer operations. Tommy has been doing a great job. Jim will do a great job. Nick 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.

I think having Jim in place, having somebody with Rene’s experience and knowledge about the entire operation, both from youth all the way up to first team, is going to be a tremendous help. We have to adapt as the league adapts, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you, “This is it, this is the only way were — “. But, I’m telling you right now we feel pretty confident in the path forward, and we’re really looking forward to an offseason where Jim has full-time effort on how to make the team better; where Nick can really focus on the business issues that will make us better; where Tommy can really focus on “How am I going to build a top academy”; and have the resources available to us from a Rene and, ultimately, from a permanent sporting director.

I think those are key decisions. The individual player decisions I’ll leave to Jim to talk about, but I think you start with a process that you believe in, you give it the resources to grow — and there is some patience involved; I’m not expecting this to turn everything around, and everything be perfect. But having a first team that plays to its potential, having a youth academy that looks like it is something really special and can develop a pipeline for this team down the road — if we get those right, I feel really good about where we are headed.

Nick Sakiewicz reponds

I alluded to this last week when we announced Jim that developing the very best world-class structure for our technical staff –meaning first team and academy — is a top priority, and this is another step toward that. Getting a proper sporting director structure in place, and laser-focusing on  the first team and what all needs to be done in the next two, three months with the drafts and dispersal, and all that stuff, to ensure that the first team continues its success that Jim started back in the middle of the summer; and that Tommy really continues to build upon what’s been built at the academy; and we keep — I alluded to MLS, I think we’re at 3.0 now over twenty years — we need to build a structure that’s going to compete in 3.0.

Jay Sugarman responds to a question about the time frame for adding a sporting director

Right person for the position. When we find it, we’ll know it, and we’ll bring it aboard. We’ve committed significant resource to that search and to the position, so when we find the right person, as soon as its available, we’re going to fill the role.

Will Meulensteen remain when the sporting director position is filled? Jay Sugarman responds:

I think Rene, given his other obligations, is giving us a period of time where we can have the majority of his insight and wisdom. I can’t imagine something happening sooner than that. But we need to get through this offseason, really be in a position where Jim knows what he’s got to work with, and move forward with it. We’re on the search and we certainly have a strong viewpoint on what we need: player development, player evaluation, player performance at first team and youth level, and an ability to bring us into a broader global market for talent.

Followup question on the timeline: Will it be months or years? Jay Sugarman responds:

Certainly not years, and it’s not weeks. So, I narrowed it down for you. (Laughter.)

Question to Tommy Wilson about how Meulensteen will work with youth development at the academy

It’s interesting when I worked in a previous role at the Scottish FA that Rene was one of the guests that we brought in to share his knowledge and expertise. And, here we meet again in the USA.

So, I’m just looking forward to — he’s been 12 years at Manchester United, I’ve been six or seven years at Rangers — just to share the knowledge that we have, the knowledge of best practice, how do you develop players for the top level — that’s what we’re both interested in. So, anything that Rene can bring to the table — and he’s already done that in the few days that I’ve had to meet with him — can only benefit what we’re trying to do here.

Question for Jim Curtin on his thoughts

My first time I sat up here, I think I made a bit of a joke: If Alex Ferguson is sent in to take my place, I can handle that. We got his right hand man.

It’s a resource that I have now; it’s a tremendous one. Selfishly, I can think of the ways that I can utilize it on the field at the training sessions, and his knowledge of working with the first team. In his short time here, Day One, he met with my technical staff and implemented his idea of a way of targeting and judging players, a clean cut, clear way of whether that player is an academy player or a first team player, and it’s used now. In one day, he hit the ground running. He’s seen our academy on the second day, and had positive feedback from that. So, again, a resource that we have now that is connected internationally, knows players, knows the network, is learning our league quickly — we threw a ton of information at him. And it can be overwhelming, learning what the Chivas dispersal draft means to someone who’s coming in — we find out that order today.

So, a lot of moving parts, a lot of positives, but, again, a resource that I will use everyday, and very good one.

Question to Rene Meulensteen about his thoughts on some of the MLS mechanisms the club is going to face in the coming weeks

The only draft I’m used to in England is a different one, of course. (Laughter.)

It’s challenging. To me it gives me great insight in the complexity of how the MLS is run with all the rules and regulations on setting up the rosters, and the different drafts. Like I said, I got a ton of information. I’ve read up on it, obviously, I’ve tried to really dig in and try to make sense of it all, and it’s challenging. It’s not easy, it’s not straight forward. You have to be very clever in which players you protect, and gamble maybe at times that you hope that other players of other teams have not shown an interest. But that’s part of it.

I think the expertise is here in the room. My main sort of assistance there is that, when they look at the new targets — you know, of players that maybe they want to bring in — for me to evaluate and weigh them up, basically, and say, “Listen, yeah, that’s a good player to go for, I think he really can strengthen us.” Or, “You know, I wouldn’t do that.”

But, we learn as we get along, I knew that right from the start. But, let me say like I said in the beginning, the MLS is a growing, emerging market, and I see it for many years to come. For me, this is a great opportunity to learn so much more about, obviously, the Philadelphia Union, and to help them make the next steps, and see where we go from here.

Question to Jay Sugarman about if the move toward finding a sporting director was motivated as much by beefing up the technical staff and defining responsibilities as by past experience of members of the technical staff having to many responsibilities

It’s a little bit of both, I think. We’re learning as we’re going. We’re seeing what works, we’re taking from the best things we do and we’re trying to get better at the things that we see still issues with.

We think we have a tremendous technical staff in place, but we can be better. I think this international component — we’ve got tremendous domestic and MLS knowledge in our staff between Chris and Jim and Mike. But there’s also an evolving market out there that we want to be able to tap into, and we always want to compare how we’re doing things against the very best. Certainly, Rene’s time at Manchester United has given him real insight into “Where’s the top? How can you really do things great?”. I think their youth academy has generated the first or second most players who are playing in the top five leagues in Europe. So, they were doing something right. We want to learn from that and benefit from that. Adding additional resources will make us better; I don’t think it takes away anything from the skills and talents of the people we already have in place, but it is meant to make us even better at what we’re doing.

Press conference ends. Jay Sugarman makes one last comment with a smile:

See you in five years.

6 Comments

  1. Whoa – no audio blips?

    • old soccer coach says:

      Lends credence to the theory that some of the blips have been “convenient!”

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        I had blips!! Must’ve been my connection. Man, I was about to unload until I saw your comments about it not being a total auditory disaster for once. Haha!

      • I was just going by the transcript. I was at work at the time, and YouTube is blocked there.

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      There is a 30 second audio cutoff in the YouTube footage right in the middle of a response from Jay Sugarman. Minutes after I posted my transcript, I was able to fill the gap with quotes kindly provided by the Union’s communication staff.

  2. 80% of “$100 million” investment would be franchise cost of about $80 million, right? And it could be borrowed.

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