Press Conference

Sakiewicz and Curtin speak to media about season opener, PPL prep

Photo: Earl Gardner

On Thursday afternoon, Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz and head coach Jim Curtin spoke to the media. Topics included weather related issues in the lead up to Saturday’s season opener against Colorado, thoughts on the new collective bargaining agreement, and the team’s preparedness for the 2015 campaign.

Questions in the transcript below have been paraphrased.

Nick Sakiewicz: Hi everybody, I hope everybody is safe and sound and warm in this craziness. First of all, I’d just like to congratulate the players and the league for coming to a great resolution quickly and professionally. I’m really happy for the players, happy for the fans, and for an ex-player that used to make next to nothing playing in front of small crowds in the late eighties, congratulations to the players for taking their work situation and their contracts to a new level. It’s great to see the continued growth of the league and the players continuing to grow their situations. Really happy for the fans.

I can assure everybody that PPL Park will be ready. Ever since we got the league announcement that our home opener will be on March 7, we’ve been tracking weather patterns and developing contingency plans to make sure we’re able to open the stadium, provide a safe environment for the fans, and be able to play a good match on the pitch. The conditions over the next 60 hours will be very challenging for us, but despite those conditions, we’re very confident we’ll open safely on Saturday, play the match with the forecasted weather right now, it’s sunny and 45 degrees, so we expect it to be a good day. Snow will be out of the way, and we will play the game.

As it is right now, in real time, our plan is in full swing with a crew of 70 shoveling today in two shifts as snow accumulates, and back tomorrow for whatever residual snow is left from the storm. We have heavy equipment moving large amounts of snow offsite, off the parking lots, and snow chutes for the seating areas on hand. I want to thank our friends over at the Eagles who are experts at moving snow during games, and they provided a lot of equipment and things that we needed to effectively clean up the stadium and be ready to play. So we’re very confident it’s going to be a great day, a great day for an opener and hopefully another great moment at PPL Park.

Jim Curtin: I’d also like to congratulate the league and the players for coming to an agreement. I think it’s one that is good for both sides and for the players there was a little buzz in practice today, maybe a little sense of relief. The focus has always been, since the preseason started, March 7 versus Colorado, since that schedule came out.

So we are back on task now and looking to get three points for our fans on opening day. I thought preseason was excellent in Clearwater. The focus, attention to detail, all the things we talked about. Closing games out, being a team that’s difficult to play against for 90 minutes, specifically closing out the last fifteen minutes. Situational stuff: They’ve been very good with. I’m happy with where things are at. Despite the weather and the craziness, we’ve had a good week of preparation indoors in the bubble down at University of Penn.

Q: As Fernando makes his way back to Philadelphia, with the time that you’ve had with him, and what you’ve seen from him, do you think he’s ready right now to step in there and lead the attack?

Curtin: For those that don’t know, he’s stuck in Miami. He’s in transit now back on a train from New York, so he’ll be here in the next hour or so. The good thing is that we went through the exercises we ran in the preseason in Clearwater. We threw him out there that evening with the group. He’s a guy that has a strong mentality for a young kid, good head on his shoulders, he can handle coming into a new group just because of the way he plays. His style of play is work ethic, doing the dirty running for his teammates, anything to win, anything for the Union badge.

So from that standpoint, I’m not worried about him. He showed that he can seamlessly go in. Will there be a little rust that he can get through tomorrow in training? For sure. And then we’ll get that off and then we’ll make the assessment and make a decision on the starting lineup going into March 7. As a player, he’s a guy that can handle coming into a new team and still thrive.

Q: John Hackworth was always hesitant to talk about expectations for the team. You seem to embrace the idea that people expect this team to make the playoffs and make a run? How does that level of confidence help the team?

Curtin: I would agree with that. It’s a mentality and it’s one that I’ve tried to instill in all my players. The message that I’ve been preaching is “Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs” the entire preseason to the point where they’re sick of it. And the mindset from all of them has to be that there is no individual bigger than the Philadelphia Union. The crest that we wear on our jersey is 2.5 inches and no player is bigger than it. That’s the mentality they have and that’s the mentality they’ve embraced, and that carries over to confidence when we step on the field to know that we’re going to make the playoffs.

Confidence is everything with players. If I don’t have the confidence or belief in them as a coach to throw out my best lineup right away, then there’s doubt from them. And when you have some doubt you have total doubt. So again, that’s not even something I let creep into their minds. We’ll play the best team that we can, we’ll play the best players we can based on our entire preseason, not just: “Who’s been good for two days?” It’s the entire preseason, the total package. And we’re excited for March 7. For Saturday.

Q: I think the general idea from the owners is that free agency would hurt the league. I’m looking at these guys like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey who can basically choose where they want to play anyway and the league has sent this message that if you’re good enough, you’re not subject to the same rules as everybody else. The Philadelphia Union had to trade up in allocation to acquire Maurice Edu when other guys were exempt from that same process. So aren’t we already operating with making up rules on the fly and some sort of pseudo-free agency where if you’re good enough you can just skirt the rules and do what you want to do anyway?

Sakiewicz: I think this agreement that the league and the players union — the owners and the player’s union came to — addresses some of that. And the player movement criteria now begins to stairstep an opportunity for players in the future. Now in this five year period and in the future.

I think what many people lose sight of is that Major League Soccer is 20 years old. And it’s being compared against other leagues in this country that are 100-plus years old. And certainly other soccer leagues that are 100-plus years old. And that’s really not a fair comparison. I’ve been in this league since day one. I was part of the small group of executives, including Mark Abbott and Todd Durbin that started this league. And we’ve come a long way in 20 years, but we still have a long way to go. This league is evolving, this league is developing, it’s made a lot of progress. I can tell you it’s light years away from the leagues I played in in the 80s, and it’s going in that direction. And I think everyone needs to step back sometimes and take a look at what’s been accomplished in the last 20-30 years with soccer in this country and understand that it’s a evolution and it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and you make progress each step of the way.

I think Brian — I jumped on the call [with Brian Carroll and Danny Cruz] at the end there, and I think he nailed it on the head: Maybe some players in this period won’t take advantage of these rules, but maybe in the next iteration and down the line, other players will. I can tell you I was a player and I’m not taking advantage of these [players], but I think it’s an evolution and that’s what everyone needs to be focused on.

Q: Is there a point at which the allocation rules and rights of first refusal, all those rules, is there a point where it becomes in the owners’ interest to get rid of some of them? 

Sakiewicz: Of course. And they have. I can tell you when we started this league, the rules were so Draconian and archaic, but they had to be in place for us to start this league and to survive with 10 original teams and the kind of economic situation that is very different today, 20 years later. And to the league’s credit, and to the Board of Governors’ credit, we evaluate those rules both within committees that we are all on, individually, and then when we meet as a group, when we meet collectively as a board. And it’s almost like this league is being built as we go. Because it takes a long, long time, as you see in other leagues that have been going for 100 years.

I use the word ‘evolution’ and ‘process,’ and we’re always re-evaluating where we are economically, where we are financially, what we’re going to look like 5, 10, 20 years. What Major League Soccer has been very good at over the last 20 years is careful, thoughtful, sustainable growth. And that’s why we’re all on this conference call. Right now.

Q: You made a lot of moves in the preseason. Is there still a bit of an unknown, or do you know what you’re going to get from these guys?

Curtin: I think any time you start a year, there’s 20 teams right now that think they have what it takes for MLS Cup. Right off the bat I think you can dismiss 10 of them that don’t. And I think we’re in the 10 that have a shot. We did have some changes. Our changes were up the spine of our team, up the middle. I wouldn’t say that they’re wholesale changes, where we blew up the whole thing and we have eight new starters this weekend, but we’ve added pieces in very important parts of the field. Namely up the middle.

Rais is still a new goalkeeper, this’ll be his first full season. Steven Vitoria, securing Maurice Edu, Vincent Nogueira back for his second year, Fernando up the middle, CJ Sapong up the middle. Guys that are fits for MLS, I call them MLS-effective type guys. Because their work ethic is so hard, I don’t have that many worries about what it’s going to look like on Saturday. Sure, opening day is going to be crazy, but the teams that are organized defensively first at the beginning of the year can steal a lot of points early while other teams are trying to piece through what foreign signings fit, which don’t, which finesse players, maybe they don’t fit MLS.

So, again, I like where we’re at, it’s a 34 game grind though. I do like our players though, and I’d call our group a very MLS-effective group. Guys that have size, skill, and can run, and have bought into this team, which is a great starting point when you’re starting a season.

Q: How anxious are you to see how this all plays out on the field? 

Curtin: You’re excited. You think you’ve put some good, quality players in with the good ones we already had. I thought the guys gained some good experience last year in games where we came up a little bit short. But it’s a year removed now, we have an offseason to learn from it, and try to improve.

But from all the mechanisms of this crazy offseason, from the Chivas draft to the expansion draft, to the SuperDraft, I like the pieces that we’ve been able to add in all those mechanisms, then the three acquisitions that we’ve added through the — too early to say free agent market, because that’s not true — but, the foreign players that we’ve brought over I think will have an impact and fit in nicely.

Q: In past seasons, every game has gotten into that must-win mentality, so the same guys get run out there, and we’ve seen players get worn out — specifically veterans — at the end of most seasons. Do you strategize, already, about how to rotate this squad and how to strategically dole out minutes from the first game to make a plan for that? 

Curtin: Yeah, for sure. Going into week one, you’re always going to play your most in-form guys. Your most fit and most in-form guys. We’re pretty much dialed in to who that’s going to be. Barring injury in the next day, we have that down. The difference though, like you said, we do have a bit more depth. There’s going to be a couple very, very talented players on the bench. And you hope you keep them going and you keep them motivated. It creates a lot more of a competitive environment in the week in practice. Not just to make the eleven, but to make the eighteen.

We have battles going on every day. I’m happy going with, going four to five deep right now. There’s some tough decisions that’ve been made. And those are good problems for a coach to have. You want competition. But going into week one, of course we’ve talked a lot in the offseason about playing at home versus playing on the road. The formation might be different as we start the season at home versus on the road. The way we press will certainly be different at home in front of our fans. We thrive off of their energy and we’ll be aggressive and take risks at home On the road, we’ll be a little more conservative. But at the same time, we’ll still want to get points on the road. That’s something we’ve been OK at in the past.

Home field has to become a place where teams don’t get points from us. They don’t score goals and we don’t drop points. That mentality is one that’s been stressed in the preseason, but squad rotation will be different than it ever has, simply because of the amount of depth we now have.

Q: How would you describe play in MLS compared to other leagues? And does your playing experience help you with foreign players adjusting to the MLS style of play?

Curtin: I guess if you call the EPL [English Premier League] the fastest league, one of the most athletic leagues in the world, Spain is probably the most technical, if you’re doing those kinds of comparisons. I would call MLS in relation to those two kind of organized chaos.

There are moments of brilliance, there are moments of great football, there’s moments of exceptional plays, but there are moments when it is chaotic and it is frantic, and the ends of games are wild. There are late penalty kicks and there are red cards, and we want to kind of be a team that is kind of rising above that craziness, and trying to be a team that is calm and composed in the big spots, and closing out games in particular.

To put a label on it, there’s still great players in our league and the foreign players that come here, the first thing they say is: “Wow, it is fast.” I don’t know, necessarily, how else to describe it. It’s chaotic at times for them. But once they get ahold of it, they have a great respect for the league and the talent of the players here. We’re getting better at our tactical awareness, it’s growing in the league, it’s getting better, but as the league evolves and grows that’s something that will continue to improve.

Q: Any current injuries besides Andre Blake? 

Curtin: No, knock on wood, we’ve been fairly healthy through the preseason. Andre Blake had a minor knee scope. He had some stuff cleaned out. He was actually at training today, walking around fine, in good spirits. So nothing serious to report on the injury front. There’s soreness and bumps and bruises, normal stuff that goes through after a good hard preseason of work. We’ve tapered off now, Thursday and Friday are lighter days, so the guys are flying come Saturday against Colorado to get three points.


  1. Good questions. Well worth my time to read.

  2. Old Soccer Coach says:

    These Friends speak my mind. Thank you Adam.

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